Course description Prison doctors

In 2001, the Norwegian Medical Association, in conjunction with the World Medical Association, set out to develop a web-based course in human rights and ethics for prison doctors. Various associations and organizations have contributed to the course.

Large numbers of prisoners do not receive adequate health care. In many countries health services for prisoners lack even the most basic resources. The prison population is seriously neglected. The prevalence of mental illness, the concentration of drug misuse and the general low level of health amongst the prison population indicate the clear need for good- quality health care. The negative health effects of both incarceration, and the prison environment itself, are widely recognised. Prisoners, however, have exactly the same rights to health services as the general population.

Doctors working in prisons face unique problems. Prison doctors must be able to provide high-quality health care in a demanding environment without breaching international human rights and ethical standards.

In many countries the education of prison doctors is also of poor quality. Many doctors do not have access to either international human rights law or to recognised international standards of ethics in health care for prisoners. Many witness human rights violations, but do not know how to respond to them appropriately. This educational programme introduces doctors to ethical and human rights issues in health care for prisoners.

Learning objectives:

The objectives of the course are to present relevant international statements regulating medical treatment of prisoners, and to raise the prison doctors’ awareness on their role in various areas of conflicting interests between the prisoner (patient) and the prison administration, for example during hunger strikes, the patient's right to confidentiality, certifying prisoners for special punishment etc.

The first three chapters deal with the duties and rights of doctors and prisoners under international human rights law. They also examine both general medical ethics and specific rules regulating the health care service for prisoners. The following chapters look at patient groups with special needs, and at the management of particularly difficult or demanding situations. These include: What is the doctor’s role during a hunger strike? What constitutes good health care for women, vulnerable groups and minorities? How should the health needs of prisoners with mental health problems be met? What kinds of violence occur in prison? How does one identify prisoners who have been tortured? There are also chapters on the ethics of research involving prison inmates and the involvement of doctors in capital punishment.

We believe this course is a significant educational resource for prison doctors. It offers detailed practical advice for any prison doctors seeking to improve their understanding of the human rights and ethical dimensions of their practice.


The Norwegian Medical Association has accredited the course with 12 hours/points in post-graduate and continuing education.


When you have finished all the chapters, completed the tests and the evaluations, you may request a certificate.

Course fee:

No course fee will be charged from those who want to complete the course.


Bjørn Oscar Hoftvedt The Norwegian Medical Association
Hernan Reyes, International Committee of Red Cross

Editorial committee:

Sverre Varvin, National Knowledge Centre for Trauma and Violence University of Oslo, Dusica Lecic-Tosevski, Institute of Mental Health, Belgrade, Vivienne Nathanson (Ann Sommerville) The British Medical Association, Delon Human, The World Medical Association, Metin Bakkalci, The Turkish Medical Association and Hanne Møllerup, The Danish Medical Association


We are extremely grateful to Dr. Peter Pritchard in Oxford for helping us with the manuscripts and for language polishing.

Financial support:

The course is sponsored by The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The authors and editors have contributed without receiving any fees.

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