Invaluable Indigenous OPCAT Insights

With widespread concern about the ‘Indigenization’ of Canada’s prison population hitting the news headlines of late, the publication of an invaluable new report by Andreea Lachsz comes at a very timely moment.

As part of her 2018 Churchill Fellowship to Investigate Overseas Practices of Monitoring Places of Detention the author presents numerous illuminating insights into the ‘Indigenization’ of detention in her native Australia. As a lawyer and human rights activist located in Australia’s Northern Territory (NT), Andreea Lachsz has based this excellent report on her first-hand experience engaging with the criminal justice system in this vast geographic region (roughly the size of Quebec).

As in Canada, the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People represents an unacceptable face of Australia’s criminal justice system. Penal Reform International’s flagship publication, Global Prison Trends 2019, portrayed this grim reality in full detail just months ago.

Andreea Lachsz’s comprehensive report tackles her chosen subject matter from several angles, as the full sub-title of her report indicates: Culturally appropriate oversight of conditions of detention and treatment of detained Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Northern Territory’s criminal justice system – in compliance with the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (please also see below).

In summary, the author examines how the OPCAT obligation to designate an NPM could be met in the Northern Territory, specifically in relation to prisons, youth detention facilities, police custody and court custody. In order to do so, Andreea undertook visits to foreign jurisdictions that had ratified OPCAT and/or had criminal justice systems similarly experiencing the over-incarceration of Indigenous people, including in New Zealand, Canada, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Switzerland.

In Canada, for example, the author examined at first-hand the commendable work of the Office of the Correctional Investigator. She also took time out of a busy schedule to discuss Canada’s potential ratification of the OPCAT and other detention monitoring matters with the Canada OPCAT Project.

In the research report Andreea Lachsz offers the following summary:

The model and recommendations proposed in this report are tailored to the unique NT context. Nonetheless, given that all jurisdictions in Australia suffer from the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in their criminal justice systems, many of the recommendations contained in this report will be of relevance to, and all of the best practice examples can provide guidance on, effective OPCAT implementation across Australia. (iv)

In this connection, Canadian readers may be interested to scrutinize the following essential point on the question of consultation with Indigenous and other civil society groups, namely that:

A consistent finding throughout this report is that consulting with the NT Aboriginal community and Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) is essential. Given that NPMs should be designated through an ‘open, transparent and inclusive process’, it is well-established that consultation is essential in NPM designation or establishment. Consultation should be ongoing, in relation to all aspects of the NPM’s mandate, including its inspection framework, the expectations/standards that it uses in its inspections and evaluation of its efficacy and cultural competency … If the NT NPM is to be effective, it must achieve legitimacy among the Aboriginal community (which extends to those who are detained, with whom the NPM will need to engage). (iv)

The above is a key lesson for the Canadian context, arguably even more so in the light of the closed and opaque nature of the OPCAT ratification ‘consultation’ process undertaken so far in the country. In short, good OPCAT practice behooves the authorities – whether Australian or Canadian – to consult with Indigenous organizations (as well as wider civil society) during any OPCAT consultation process.

Chain-link Prison Fence – Jobs for Felons Hub (2016)

As for concrete OPCAT-related action in Australia, Andreea Lachsz concludes that the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in places of detention in the Northern Territory’s criminal justice system highlights the pressing need to take a tailored and targeted approach to the prevention of torture and ill-treatment of Aboriginal people. In so doing, she recommends the establishment of a so-called Aboriginal Inspectorate as the NPM, acknowledging the reality that “… the vast majority of the detainees who will fall within the mandate of an NPM operating in the criminal justice space will be Aboriginal.” The advantages of such a bespoke NPM-related strategy are several, including:

  • it adopts a targeted approach to the protection needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people detained in the NT;
  • the NPM will have the requisite multidisciplinary expertise, specifically in relation to the needs and situation of Aboriginal detainees;
  • it will result in an NPM whose foundation and structures support organisational cultural competency.

It is the advocacy for this customized NPM approach which makes Andreea Lachsz’s report both unique and fascinating. In multiple chapters of her report the author fills in with considerable detail what an Aboriginal Inspectorate might look like in Australia’s Northern Territory and how it could operate in practice, including in relation to visits to places of detention. Given its highly original focus, to date, the Canada OPCAT Project knows of no other study to offer this level of detailed NPM analysis from an Indigenous perspective, rendering it a highly distinctive and much-needed piece of scholarship.

While it remains to be seen if Australia will adopt a custom-made NPM for the Northern Territory in this proposed format, it is unquestionable that Andreea Lachsz has made a first-rate and timely contribution to Australia’s ongoing discussion on the implementation of the OPCAT in the country.

Furthermore, for countries, like Canada, which continue to imprison a disproportionately large numbers of their Indigenous citizens, the author offers human rights actors and policy-makers alike numerous invaluable insights and ideas. All told, Andreea Lachsz’s new report puts a unique slant on how the OPCAT might be implemented in a country where the ‘Indigenization’ of detention remains an incontestable reality and one desperately in need of change.


Read Andreea Lachsz’s 2018 Churchill Fellowship to Investigate Overseas Practices of Monitoring Places of Detention.

Find out more about the Winston Churchill Trust.

See why the Office of the Correctional Investigator considers the ‘Indigenization’ of Canada’s federal prison population a national travesty.

Learn more about the OPCAT implementation process in Australia.