Ethos Education

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: What basic human rights do convicted criminals retain despite being sentenced to prison?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Understanding of the concept of human rights.
  • Consideration of the treatment of convicted prisoners.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon circumstances that might affect an individual’s legitimate rights.
  • Reflect upon the treatment of a convicted criminal in a clip from the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
  • Analyse the content of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Evaluate how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights conforms to Christian principles about the human condition.
  • Analyse different theories of justice and punishment.
  • Evaluate those theories from a Christian perspective.
  • Synthesise learning by devising a prison regime based on relevant Christian principles.


Put the students into small groups and give each group a set of Rights Cards (you will need to photocopy enough of these and cut them out in advance of the lesson). Ask the students to go through the cards and decide in each case whether the right described on the card is something that people should have the right to do (or to not do).

Once they have sorted the complete set of cards ask them to feed back to the whole class the rights that they felt everybody should be entitled to enjoy. Discuss any interesting differences of opinion, then ask the students under what circumstances it might be right that somebody should forfeit some or all of those rights. For example, if they felt that people had the right not to be shouted at, are there any circumstances where someone should be shouted at – such as to warn them of imminent danger; if people should have the right not to be hit, are there any circumstances where violence against them would be legitimate?

Here is the list of rights on the Rights Cards:

  • The right not to be shouted at.
  • The right to wear whatever clothes I want.
  • The right to eat chocolate every day.
  • The right to have my football team win a trophy every season.
  • The right to say what I think.
  • The right not to be hit by other people.
  • The right to choose my own friends.
  • The right to decide what I believe for myself.
  • The right to keep an untidy bedroom if I want to.
  • The right to kiss anyone who I want to kiss.

Explain that in today’s lesson you are going to be thinking about the concept of Human Rights, and how the status of convicted criminals impacts on those rights.


Introduce the clip from the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Pathe, 2013 certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online. Explain that Nelson Mandela and fellow leaders of the banned African National Congress have been sentenced to life imprisonment. In this scene they are arriving for the first time at their new home on Robben Island. Ask the students to pay particular attention to the conditions and the attitude that the prison authorities have towards the prisoners.

  • Start time:       0.53.29 (beginning of chapter 10 of the DVD)
  • End time:         0.57.32
  • Clip length:      4 minutes and 3 seconds

The clip starts with the plane carrying Nelson Mandela and his fellow ANC members coming in to land and touching down at Robben Island. The clip ends with the camera panning back to reveal the remoteness of the prison.

Please note that the clip includes some swearing. If you think this is inappropriate for your students, you could start the clip at 0.54.41, after the commandant has finished addressing the new prisoners and before they are given their prison uniforms.

Ask the students to put aside any question of whether Nelson Mandela and his comrades deserved to be in prison, and to focus on the attitude of the commandant, and the ethos of the prison. Is this a good way to treat people who society has decided should be locked up? What is right or wrong about the ethos at Robben Island? What rights do convicted criminals forfeit when they are found guilty, and what rights do they retain? You could also ask what impact the prospect of never leaving the prison would be likely to have on the prisoners: should life imprisonment always mean life imprisonment, or is it appropriate to leave open the possibility of a prisoner being released on parole after serving a proportion of their sentence?

Encourage the students to list some of the things they believe to be fundamental human rights. Brainstorm a few ideas, and then give out copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which you can find at Each copy will take five A4 pages to print out.

Explain that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is designed to outline human rights for all people in all places at all times – including people who have been convicted of criminal offences. Give the students time to read through the document and ask if there is anything in the document that they were surprised to see, or if there is anything that they disagree with.

Now ask students how they think a Christian might answer the question ‘what are human rights?‘ Read Genesis 1:27-28. Ask the students what they think this Bible passage asserts about human beings? Draw out three key thoughts: that humans are made in the image of God, that they were made as male and female, and that their purpose was to rule over the earth.

Get the students to take each of the three statements and think about the rights these confer on us.

  • Made in the image of God: Possible rights: freedom of independent thought; freedom of belief and worship.
  • Male and female: Possible rights: the right to marry and produce children; the right to fair and equal treatment regardless of gender.
  • Rule over the earth: Possible rights: the right to work and to rest; the right to a fair share of the earth’s resources.

Do the students agree that these are our human rights? How do they compare with the list you made earlier and with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Do the students think there are others, which don’t fall into any of the three categories above? Do these rights apply to everyone in the world?

What do the students think is the purpose of punishing convicted criminals. Ask the students to think of some different objectives that a legal system might prioritise. Here are some possibilities if the students need some help:

  • Deterrent – preventing crimes from being committed.
  • Protection – keeping innocent people safe from lawbreakers.
  • Punishment – making lawbreakers suffer for the things they have done wrong.
  • Rehabilitation – helping lawbreakers not to re-offend in the future.
  • Restorative justice – making amends and seeking to put things right.

Write the different theories on the board as they are suggested. Make sure that the students have grasped the difference between the theories. Ask the students to identify the focus of each theory (deterrent focuses on potential criminal acts; protection focuses on potential victims of crime; punishment and rehabilitation both focus on the lawbreaker; restorative justice focuses on both lawbreaker and victim).

Discuss with the students the strengths and weaknesses of each theory. When you talk about rehabilitation, remind the students of the statements earlier about whether or not people can change, and ask how their conclusions might affect the way they think about this particular theory. You could ask them what attitude a Christian might have to the question of whether people can change the way they are. A possible response to this is that Christians believe that people can change, with God’s help. The Bible provides numerous examples, most notably the apostle Paul. Until Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul was notorious for stirring the Jews up against Christians, and having Christians put to death. After his conversion, Paul was a leading figure in the early church, and devoted his life to travelling across the known world telling people about Jesus.

Ask the students which of the theories they would expect a Christian to be most in favour of. Explain that justice is an important concept for Christians – the Bible describes God as a just ruler, one who acts to ensure that all wrongs are righted and that justice prevails (see Psalm 103:6, to take just one example). Similarly God’s followers are told to concern themselves with justice (see Micah 6:8) and to do what they can to ensure that people receive justice. However, Christians also believe that God will one day judge the world (see Revelation 20:11-15) and restore perfect justice. Christians are told that because of this, they should leave the matter of revenge to God (Deuteronomy 32:34-35, which Paul comments on in Romans 12:17-21).

Other Bible passages that may be helpful to introduce as the discussion unfolds include the following: Exodus 20:13; Leviticus 24:17-22; Psalm 9: 7-9 and 13-18; Amos 5:7-15; Matthew 5:38-42.


Ask the students to devise a prison regime drawing on the principles found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Bible passages. As well as describing what the regime is like – how the prisoners spend their days, their living conditions, etc – students should also explain and justify the level of rights enjoyed by the prisoners and any rights or freedoms that those prisoners will have taken from them.


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