Before the end of apartheid in South Africa, before he won the Nobel Peace Prize, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. Living in a cramped cell, working in a rock quarry, he endured periods of ill health and long-term vision loss.

Prisoners now may experience more humane incarceration, thanks to the U.N.’s new Mandela Rules, formerly known as the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Nobody wants a future in prison, for ourselves, our brothers or our friends. Still, it’s worthwhile to know what global standards, thanks to these new U.N. rules, now say: All prisoners should be treated with respect, protected from torture, and be able to live in a clean and decent environment.

After prison, Nelson Mandela went on to become president of South Africa and an international leader for human rights and justice. (© Getty Images)

Here are some important aspects of the Mandela Rules:

  • Adequate air, space, lighting, heating, ventilation and cleanliness are required for each prisoner.
  • Bathing and sanitary facilities should be adequate, clean and decent.
  • Meals should be regular, nutritional and well-prepared.
  • Medical care, including psychiatric and dental care, must be available.
  • Cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments violate the standards.
  • Prisoners deserve regular communication with friends and families.

Is every prison everywhere going to meet these U.N. standards? Probably not. But these standards were endorsed unanimously by countries at the recent meeting of the U.N. Crime Commission and are expected to be adopted by the U.N. General Assembly later this year. The Mandela Rules are rooted in human rights and individual dignity. They also reflect scientific advances in the field of criminal justice.

Here’s what Mandela wrote: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”