Indigenous Prisoners at Risk during the COVID-19 Pandemic

“Indigenous peoples are commonly overrepresented in prison and other places of detention, placing them at greater risk where States do not fulfil their responsibilities to maintain physical distancing or other control measures” is a key finding of the newly released report of leading United Nations Indigenous rights expert, Francisco Cali-Tzay.

In a virtual presentation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 24-25 September 2020 the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples made repeated reference to the leading-edge report, whose title reflects a major concern of our current troubling times: Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Session of the UN Human Rights Council – United Nations Photo (2011).

If Indigenous Peoples in Canada and elsewhere frequently find themselves in the most difficult of straits at the best of times, then it is no wonder that their struggle is even greater in these wearying in the extreme COVID-19 conditions, including Indigenous prisoners in closed institutions.

The UN Special Rapporteur’s report, which will be formally presented to the UN General Assembly in October 2020, underscores this reality in multiple dimensions of life, not least in relation to Indigenous prisoners:

“Indigenous peoples are commonly overrepresented in prison and other places of detention, placing them at greater risk where States do not fulfil their responsibilities to maintain physical distancing or other control measures. Transparent protocols and culturally adapted protection measures are required, and take on particular importance in places where indigenous peoples comprise a majority or significant portion of inmates. Indigenous peoples also make up a large proportion of migrants and reports indicate that, in some receiving countries, indigenous peoples have been disproportionately exposed to the virus while in administrative detention.” (§30)

45th Session of the Human Rights Council – UN Geneva/Marc Ferré (2020).

“In all situations of deprivation of liberty, States should consider release and alternatives to detention to mitigate the risk of harm within places of detention, including for persons who have committed minor, petty and non-violent offences, those with imminent release dates, those in immigration detention, those detained because of their migration status, people with underlying health conditions and those in pretrial or administrative detention.” (§31)

In Canada this same debate has simmered throughout the COVID-19 pandemic vis-à-vis both Indigenous prisoners and non-Indigenous prisoners alike. Recent papers by Royal Society of Canada experts Rosemary Ricciardelli and Sandra Bucerius as well as Heather Lawson of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives have advanced these concerns better than anyone.

What is more, regulars to the Canada OPCAT Project website will recall that earlier this year Canada’s Correctional Investigator referred to the ‘Indigenization’ of Canada’s federal prison population as a ‘national travesty’. To this very point, Indigenous women now make up 42% of the federal prison population, while comprising just 4% of the national population, an extremely shocking truth.

This past week’s UN Human Rights Council Interactive Dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur, Francisco Cali-Tzay, shone a torch on the very negative impact of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic across an array of facets of everyday life, including healthcare provision, food security, employment and education.

The UN Special Rapporteur’s new report is due to be formally presented to the UN General Assembly on 12 October 2020. For the time-poor reader, its accompanying bumf describes its overall thrust as follows:

“The Special Rapporteur is concerned that COVID-19 has both highlighted and exacerbated current and ongoing human rights situations faced by many indigenous peoples. This report brings  critical concerns to the attention of the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council for their consideration and action. Indigenous peoples are over-represented among the poor and suffer higher rates of malnutrition, combined with impacts of environmental contamination and in many cases, lack of access to adequate health care services as a consequence, many have reduced immune systems, respiratory conditions and other health conditions, rendering then particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease.

Curfews, lockdowns, quarantine and other imposed isolation measures imposed as a response to the pandemic may cause additional hardships for access to basic economic, cultural and social rights. Increased State security measures imposed during emergency situations as this may also directly impact indigenous communities.

Exceptional times should not exacerbate or justify impunity for violations of indigenous peoples’ rights. Human cultural diversity is a source of innovation for surviving crises such as pandemics; national and international responses to COVID-19 can benefit from indigenous traditional knowledge and practices.

The report presents examples of good practices, of indigenous participation and consultation in implementing solutions and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic that promotes the vision and approaches of indigenous peoples.”

Readers may wish to directly consult the statement or watch the Interactive Dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur from 24 and 25 September by clicking on the respective links. A list of the very significant number of organizations which contributed to the report’s call for submissions, including several notable Canadian actors, is also available (please scroll down the page).

As the COVID-19 pandemic is showing few signs of quietly abating, and is writ spectacularly large in North America in particular, it can only be hoped that states in the region dive deep into the Special Rapporteur’s new report and draw on its many examples of good practice, including – more to the point – in relation to closed detention settings. After all, this may not be the worst of it.


Read the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ Report on the impact of COVID-19 on the rights of indigenous peoples and related background information.

Consult the Statement of Francisco Cali-Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the Human Rights Council’s 45th Session.

Find out more about the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur in English and French.

Read what Canada’s Correctional Investigator had to say about the ‘Indigenization’ of Canada’s federal prison population as well as Andreea Lachsz’s research report’s illuminating insights into the ‘Indigenization’ of detention in her native Australia.

Posted by mp in COVID-19, Human Rights Council, Indigenous people, UN Special Rapporteur

Human Rights In Context Canadian OPCAT Focus

The Canada OPCAT Project is delighted to make its first podcast appearance ever this week in the the latest edition of Human Rights in Context, an exciting new human rights podcast series. You can listen to Torture Prevention and the OPCAT in Canada podcast here.

Launched in July 2020 by Matt Sands, Human Rights in Context is a new podcast series looking at international human rights in countries around the world. Although a relatively new podcast, it has been many months in planning.

The podcast series explores the relevance of international human rights in everyday life. It explores how human rights treaties and standards, or activity at the UN, actually has an impact on how people enjoy basic freedoms. The series examines some of the most important human rights issues with experts from around the world who will provide inspiration and confidence for people who are (or hope to be) working in this area. You can watch a trailer to the series here.

Past episodes of the podcast have looked at a diversity of modern-day human rights issues through the ideas of long-time activists. As readers can see below, whether it has been supporting Human Rights Defenders, a focus on COVID-19 and the precarious situation of older people, modern slavery in Haiti, the prevention of wide-scale torture in Brazil or the egregious treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees in Italy, Human Rights in Context has offered a very welcome and much-needed platform for an array of human rights voices.

The Canada OPCAT Project is very grateful to Matt Sands for his kind invitation to be part of the podcast series and to have the opportunity to illuminate a pressing, real-life human rights issue in the context of Canada.


Listen to Torture Prevention and the OPCAT in Canada podcast here.

Visit the HRIC website.

Listen to past episodes.

Find out more about its host and founder, Matt Sands.

Follow Human Rights in Context on Twitter.

Posted by mp in Canada, OPCAT

‘Canada drags its feet on international convention against torture’

In a rare Canadian in-depth news article on the OPCAT, journalist Lital Khaikin throws a critical spotlight on Canada’s continued failure to ratify the instrument. Launched in Canadian Dimension on 18 September 2020 as the first in a three-part OPCAT article series, Lital Khaikin questions why Canada has singularly failed to move ahead with the OPCAT torture-prevention instrument, despite repeated global pledges and statements to do so.

This failure is all the more worrying at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has hit down hard on multiple closed institutional settings in the country, especially long-term care homes for the elderly.

The overall investigative thrust of three-part series is described by the author in the following terms:

This is the first article in a three-part series on Canada’s historical reluctance to ratify the United Nations’ Optional Protocol with the Convention against Torture (OPCAT). Despite being one of the early champions of this international law that exists to prevent torture in civilian and military detention centres, Canada has still not officially adopted the agreement. The first article examines the lack of transparency and bureaucratic reticence toward OPCAT. The second part examines the circumstances in Canadian detention centres—and other care and medical environments—that urgently call for this greater accountability. The third part examines precedents in Canadian military use of torture alongside Canada’s spotty human rights track record.

The Canadian Dimension series’ broader focus on detention and the need for greater transparency arrives at a crucial time, regrettably more so as the OPCAT project seems to have hit the buffers in Canada. Otherwise put, the repeated international calls for Canada to move ahead with the ratification of the instrument have seemingly fallen on deaf ears.

Solitary -DieselDemon (2010).

In this first article for Canadian Dimension Lital Khaikin interviews leading Canadian human rights advocates, including the current Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, who has long urged Canada to sign and ratify the instrument. Ezat Mossallanejad, Settlement Counsellor and Policy Analyst at the Toronto-based Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, also weighs into this long overdue discussion, offering several unique and invaluable historical insights.

The Canada OPCAT Project even raises its ugly head at the end of the article with a deliberately pointed comment about the lack of overall transparency, openness and inclusiveness of the national discussion process on OPCAT ratification.

Paradoxically, while Canada’s fourth estate frequently advances scathing commentaries on the on-going elderly care home scandal, under-age migrants held in detention, the shoddy material condition of parts of Canada’s prison estate, the widespread overuse of solitary confinement in detention, and the shocking ‘Indigenization’ of the overall prison population, to name just a few contemporary media concerns, very rarely do Canadian journalists ever join the dots up and make the linkage with the country’s overall weak national patchwork of independent oversight of detention. Journalist Lital Khaikin attempts to do just that in this new series of articles.

In a nutshell, for regulars, and even irregulars to the Canada OPCAT Project website, this article is a must read.


Read ‘Canada drags its feet on international convention against torture’ by Lital Khaikin, published in Canadian Dimension on 18 September 2020.

Read Lital Khaikin’s numerous previous Canadian Dimension articles.

Find out more about Canadian Dimension and consider making a donation to the news forum.

Posted by mp in Canada, COVID-19, OPCAT

OPCAT Hits The Canadian Buffers?

With not even an admission of regret, let alone an apology, did Global Affairs Canada’s response to the Canada OPCAT Project’s Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) Request drop onto the doormat – some six months late. What is more, the information contained therein strongly suggests that Canada’s repeatedly stated intention to move ahead with the OPCAT may have finally hit the buffers.

Alternatively, and arguably worse still, might the Canadian authorities be quietly moving forward without consulting with Canadian civil society? To think, as recently as 2016, Canada’s then Foreign Minister stated that the OPCAT would no longer be optional for Canada.

Camera Surveillance Prison – Jobs For Felons Hub (2016).

To quickly recap, an ATIP Request was submitted to Global Affairs Canada (the lead federal agency on OPCAT ratification) on 23 December 2019 to determine to what extent Canada had acted on a key international recommendation to ensure greater consultation with civil society and Indigenous organizations on the ratification of the OPCAT.

More precisely, in the December 2019 ATIP Request to Global Affairs Canada, the Canada OPCAT Project asked for the following information.

“In its Concluding Observations in relation to Canada’s 7th periodic report under the UN Convention against Torture, the UN Committee against Torture recommended that Canada should:

(d) Complete the process towards accession to the Optional Protocol to the Convention, while introducing mechanisms to ensure the participation of civil society, indigenous groups and other stakeholders in the entire process.

Please see paragraph 21(d) of the Concluding observations on the seventh periodic report of Canada (UN Doc. CAT/C/CAN/CO/7), dated 21 December 2018.

In view of this key United Nations recommendation, please provide copies of any written communications such as letters and emails with Canadian civil society organizations and National Indigenous Organizations on the question of accession by Canada to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture since 1 December 2018 to the 21 December 2019″

Please also provide copies of any backgrounders, briefing notes, presentations or other relevant documents for discussion with Canadian civil society organizations and National Indigenous Organizations on the question of Canada acceding to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture.

In late January 2020 Global Affairs Canada responded, stating that it required an additional 45-days to process the request, which, according to the relevant legislation, was due no later than 7 March 2020. In a word, the agency had 75 days to process the request and a deadline which fell before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Tall Prison Fence – Simon Brass (2007).

In a letter dated 24 August 2020 the Canada OPCAT Project finally received a response to its original ATIP Request, nearly six months overdue. Was the long wait worth it? Sadly not so.

In the period 1 December 2018 to 21 December 2019 the extent to which Canada acted on the UN Committee’s recommendation to ensure the participation of civil society, Indigenous groups and other stakeholders in the entire OPCAT accession process comprised just two meetings with civil society.

And you may wonder why we wonder whether the OPCAT has finally hit the OPCAT buffers in Canada? In view of the apparent lack of progress, it is highly possible that the OPCAT train never left the platform, let alone hit those proverbial buffers.

Two sets of email communications are enclosed in the nine-page ATIP response, six pages of which relate to Canada OPCAT Project exchanges with Global Affairs Canada. The remaining three pages relate to an exchange with Amnesty International Canada. The totality of the disclosed civil society OPCAT consultation process from 1 December 2018 to 21 December 2019 comprised the following:

  • A meeting between representatives of Global Affairs Canada and the Canada OPCAT Project on 13 December 2018;
  • Acknowledgement of receipt of a Canada OPCAT Project discussion paper on possible OPCAT implementation on 12 February 2019;
  • A meeting between representatives of Global Affairs Canada/Justice Canada and Amnesty International Canada on 10 July 2019.

That, dear readers, was the sum total of Canada’s OPCAT consultation process with civil society during the period in question.

Yet arguably worse still, what if discussions on the implementation of the OPCAT are moving ahead within government, but without the participation of Canadian civil society and Indigenous organizations? Buffers or no OPCAT buffers, it may be high time for another ATIP Request to determine if this is the case.

All of which time and effort could be entirely avoided, of course, if Global Affairs Canada, or another agency, willingly placed information into the public domain concerning Canada’s repeatedly declared intention to consider ratifying the OPCAT. Other countries routinely do so, why not here?


Read more about the Canada OPCAT Project’s ATIP Request from December 2019 and the initial response from Global Affairs Canada from January 2020.

Read A Silence Not Golden – the ATIP Request Update from 16 March 2020.

Posted by mp in Canada, OPCAT

Filling In The Canadian OPCAT Blanks

“It will never work”, they said. “There are just too many of them. Never in a million years.

More than just a few detractors muttered: “Eighteen different detention monitoring bodies spread throughout four country jurisdictions. What on earth were they thinking of?!”

Surely, someone in the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice was having a proverbial ‘laugh’, it was suggested, when it issued its written ministerial statement to Parliament in early 2009, announcing the formal launch and composition of the then UK’s 18-body NPM? Come on – really?!

As someone who attended the official launch event of the UK NPM at the Ministry of Justice in the heart of Westminster, London in 2009, a certain question mark certainly hovered over the feasibility of the complicated structure of the multi-body mechanism.

Recklessness then further abounded. Several years later, in 2013, the UK National Preventive Mechanism was expanded to a colossal 21 individual bodies. The sheer madness of it?

Or perhaps not.

More than 10-years into its existence, the UK’s multi hydra-structured NPM seems to be functioning reasonably well, if not better, despite its many heads. Moreover, several of its constituent bodies are very often referenced as mechanisms of best detention monitoring/OPCAT practice.

Interested readers can find detailed information about each of the 21 statutory bodies that make up the UK NPM on its website

Moreover, as a whole the entity remains more than self-aware that operational improvements are still there to be made. These include the pressing need to ensure the formal anchoring of the mechanism in law and to secure adequate financing of its Secretariat.

With good reason, the UK NPM has every right to be more than quietly pleased with its first decade of operation, despite some initial naysaying. The report of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, following its September 2019 visit to the UK, once published, will no doubt also be closely scrutinized by the mechanism as a potential benchmark for improvement.


From a Canadian perspective, the following, excellent UK NPM infographics are especially interesting. The first depicts which elements of the overall UK NPM have responsibility for monitoring the different types of places of detention in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. While the Canadian reader might not necessarily be familiar with the listed acronyms, they will still be able to determine that a diversity of monitoring entities are in operation in relation to the different detention settings in the four countries.

If one were to devise a similar infographic for Canada, how would it look? How would we fill in the blanks under the different detention settings? Keeping in mind that a complaints-handling ombuds-type body is not the same thing as a proactive, preventive monitoring mechanism and that any entities would need to fully comply with the minimum standards envisaged for an NPM in the OPCAT text, which existing oversight bodies would populate the said Canadian infographic?

If you can, fill in those blanks for yourself. This writer believes that at present there would be more than just a few blanks or gaps in any such analogue Canadian infographic.

The second infographic helpfully breaks down the NPM’s overall composition by country jurisdiction. Mercifully, those troublesome acronyms have been lanced. If we were to do the same for Canada’s 14 jurisdictions, using the OPCAT text criteria for NPMs, how would it appear? Once again, please fill in those blanks.

Would there be jurisdictions without any corresponding OPCAT compliant mechanism at all? Most probably.

In a paper published on this website in 2019, originally submitted as an LL.M dissertation, we tried to do just that. The conclusion reached in the paper was that, if the myriad of existing federal, provincial and territorial ombudsperson offices and human rights commissions were to be designated as the country’s future NPM, many would need to be significantly re-purposed in terms of their mandates, structures, composition and operation. Even then, there would still exist certain types of places of detention in Canada without any NPM coverage, unless new bodies were created.

You may not agree with this conclusion, but a quick scan of the paper would help you determine whether the aforementioned infographic blanks can be easily filled in or not, given the current institutional human rights landscape of Canada.


Even though at present the commitment of the current Canadian administration to ratify the OPCAT appears to have been quietly and conveniently forgotten, if in 10 years’ time we can boast our own eye-catching NPM infographics, then there will be cause for human rights celebration.

Until genuine political interest is reignited in the OPCAT project, Canadian human rights actors will have to look to NPMs in other countries, like the United Kingdom, for further OPCAT inspiration. And to think that commentators once questioned the brazen unorthodoxy of the UK approach to OPCAT implementation?

Originality, it would seem, is not to be underestimated at all.


Find out more about the UK NPM.

Read Ten Years of the UK National Preventive Mechanism: Working together to prevent torture and ill-treatment in detention (2020).

Read the Canada OPCAT Project paper, Instituting an NPM in Canada: Lessons from Global OPCAT Implementation (2019).

Posted by mp in Canada, NPMs, OPCAT, United Kingdom

Webinar ‘COVID-19 and North American Corrections: Lessons for Australia’

If you missed this now past webinar, you can watch it on demand here.

The related PowerPoint presentations can also be accessed here.

***

Depending upon exactly where you are in the world, set to take place on either 7th or 8th September, this is a webinar you will not want to miss out on! Incurable Australian OPCAT enthusiast Steven Caruana has pulled together yet another first-class panel of speakers, this time to reflect on the critical question of whether there are any key lessons for Australia from how the USA and Canada have responded to the current COVID-19 pandemic in prisons.

The spotlight will first fall on Canada, whose prisons – so far at least – have appeared to have escaped the very worst ravages of the current pandemic. This timely discussion will be led by the current Canadian Correctional Investigator, Ivan Zinger, followed by Ontario Independent Advisor on Corrections, Howard Sapers, and leading Public Health and Preventive Medicine Physician, Fiona Kouyoumdjian.

In stark contrast, as has been widely documented, many prison institutions south of the 49th parallel find themselves in truly dire straits. The current state of affairs in the USA will be explored by leading medical experts, Homer Venters and Brie Williams, and penal reform activist Adnan Khan. Please click on the biographies of the different speakers to find out more about the webinar presenters.

As the webinar host, Thalia Anthony, a penal reform activist and law professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, will pull the discussion tightly together and coax out the most relevant COVID-19-related lessons for prison institutions in Australia.

During these different presentations webinar viewers will learn at first hand about the respective COVID-19 prison situations in Australia, Canada and USA, whether restrictive locked-down regimes have succeeded in protecting prisoners and staff alike, and whether prison decarceration has been an effective solution in countering the worsening pandemic.

You can watch the webinar on Zoom by requesting an invitation from Steven Caruana: steven_caruana1@hotmail.com. Please send requests early, as participation is limited to 400 persons and the seats are sure to fill up quickly!

Viewers in Ottawa/New York can watch the webinar at 7 pm on Monday 7th September 2020.

Viewers in Australia should tune into the webinar at 9 am on Tuesday 8th September (Australian Eastern Standard Time).


In the meantime, why not spend the next week exploring several of the other exciting seminars in the current series? Take a look below:

  • Human Rights and Detention in the time of COVID-19watch here;
  • The Relationship Between Civil Society and the National Preventive Mechanismwatch here;
  • Culturally Appropriate Oversight of Detained Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander People in the Northern Territorywatch here;
  • Implementing OPCAT in Australiawatch here.

Many thanks to Steven Caruana for all of the above information and links.

Posted by mp in COVID-19, Prisons

Reeling In The Years – The Revised European Prison Rules

You distinctly know you are getting on in years when you look around you and notice that the European Prison Rules have been revised – once again.

Working for a Geneva-based NGO at the time, this writer was involved in the drafting of a short submission during the last revision process of the European Prison Rules circa 2005. A quick blink of an eye later and we find ourselves a whole decade-and-half further down the train tracks of life.

All of which is a very convoluted way of saying that this timely and thorough update of the European Prison Rules is unquestionably a very welcome development.

After all, it took the UN over 60 years to revise (from 2010 – 2015) what are now known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, towards the end of which the 1955 Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners were clearly showing their age. Thus, the many positives of our regional human rights systems resonate again, more so in Europe perhaps.

Guard Tower – Thomas (2017).

The updated European Prison Rules were announced to the world on 1 July 2020 in a press release titled Revised European Prison Rules: new guidance to prison services on humane treatment of inmates, which stated:

“The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has adopted a Recommendation which updates the 2006 European Prison Rules. The rules, which contain the key legal standards and principles related to prison management, staff and treatment of detainees and are a global reference in this field, guide the 47 Council of Europe member states in their legislation, policies and practices.

The revision concerns the rules on the record keeping of information about inmates and the management of their files, the treatment of women prisoners, foreign nationals, as well as the use of special high security or safety measures such as the separation of prisoners from other inmates, solitary confinement, instruments of restraint, the need to ensure adequate levels in prison staff, inspection and independent monitoring.”

As noted above, for instance, the updated version of the Rules now regulate in considerably greater detail the use of solitary confinement. Canada, please take note.

By dint of this revision, on the issue of solitary confinement the 2006 European Prison Rules have been elaborated from one lonely line, as follows:

60.5 Solitary confinement shall be imposed as a punishment only in exceptional cases and for a specified period of time, which shall be as short as possible.

Solitary – DieselDemon (2010).

… to a veritable parable in the 2020 version of the Rules, as follows:

60.6. a Solitary confinement, that is the confinement of a prisoner for more than 22 hours a day without meaningful human contact, shall never be imposed on children, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers or parents with infants in prison.

60.6. b The decision on solitary confinement shall take into account the current state of health of the prisoner concerned. Solitary confinement shall not be imposed on prisoners with mental or physical disabilities when their condition would be exacerbated by it. Where solitary confinement has been imposed, its execution shall be terminated or suspended if the prisoner’s mental or physical condition has deteriorated. 

60.6. c Solitary confinement shall not be imposed as a disciplinary punishment, other than in exceptional cases and then for a specified period, which shall be as short as possible and shall never amount to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

60.6. d The maximum period for which solitary confinement may be imposed shall be set in national law. 

60.6. e Where a punishment of solitary confinement is imposed for a new disciplinary offence on a prisoner who has already spent the maximum period in solitary confinement, such a punishment shall not be implemented without first allowing the prisoner to recover from the adverse effects of the previous period of solitary confinement.

60.6. f Prisoners who are in solitary confinement shall be visited daily, including by the director of the prison or by a member of staff acting on behalf of the director of the prison.

Similarly, on the question of independent oversight of places of detention the 2006 European Prison Rules have been transformed from the following two, somewhat pedestrian lines:

93.1 The conditions of detention and the treatment of prisoners shall be monitored by an independent body or bodies whose findings shall be made public.

93.2 Such independent monitoring body or bodies shall be encouraged to cooperate with those international agencies that are legally entitled to visit prisons.

Night Lighthouse – Mark Vegas (2007).

… to the following distinctly more descriptive and regulated version in the 2020 revised Rules:

93.1 To ensure that the conditions of detention and the treatment of prisoners meet the requirements of national and international law and the provisions of these rules, and that the rights and dignity of prisoners are upheld at all times, prisons shall be monitored by a designated independent body or bodies, whose findings shall be made public.

93.2 Such independent monitoring bodies shall be guaranteed:

a. access to all prisons and parts of prisons, and to prison records, including those relating to requests and complaints, and information on conditions of detention and prisoner treatment, that they require to carry out their monitoring activities;

b. the choice of which prisons to visit, including by making unannounced visits at their own initiative, and which prisoners to interview; and

c. the freedom to conduct private and fully confidential interviews with prisoners and prison staff.

93.3 No prisoner, member of the prison staff or any other person, shall be subject to any sanction for providing information to an independent monitoring body.

93.4 Independent monitoring bodies shall be encouraged to co-operate with those international agencies that are legally entitled to visit prisons.

93.5 Independent monitoring bodies shall have the authority to make recommendations to the prison administration and other competent bodies.

93.6 The national authorities or prison administration shall inform these bodies, within a reasonable time, on the action being taken in respect of such recommendations.

93.7 Monitoring reports and the responses thereto shall be made public.

Strasbourg’s finest legal draftsmen and draftswomen have clearly been doing their homework: OPCAT Articles 19 to 23 anyone?

Which is a timely reminder that Global Affairs Canada have yet to respond to the Canada OPCAT Project’s Access to Information & Privacy Request from December 2019 on OPCAT consultation with civil society, despite the passing of more than six months.

If some Canadian readers may be scratching their collective heads wondering what on earth a Council of Europe soft-law instrument has to do with Canada then the Canada OPCAT Project brings this breaking development to you as yet another international best practice example of how deprivation of liberty might be better managed – whether it be solitary confinement, independent monitoring or any number of other important issues – in Canada, or anywhere for that matter.

International human rights standards are set in order to bring us all up, not down, even though they do not necessarily make you feel any younger.


Read the 2020 updated European Prison Rules in English and French.

Read the press release Revised European Prison Rules: new guidance to prison services on humane treatment of inmates or Règles pénitentiaires européennes révisées : nouvelles orientations destinées aux services pénitentiaires sur la prise en charge humaine des détenus.

Find out more about the Nelson Mandela Rules and see UNODC’s information placards.

Posted by mp in Independent detention monitors, OPCAT, Oversight bodies, Prisons, Solitary confinement

Ontario Prisons: Something To Complain About?

Plenty it would seem, if you believe the province’s principal complaints-handling body, Ontario Ombudsman.

According to the Ontario Ombudsman’s 2019-2020 Annual Report, issued on 30 June 2020, a very sizeable 6000 complaints were lodged by prisoners about the province’s correctional facilities. This figure represented an increase on the year previous, when 5711 complaints were filed about Ontario corrections.

Of this most recent figure, some 82 complaints were lodged by groups of prisoners in the same unit or facility, usually as a means to vent a common grievance such as sub-standard living conditions.

As the illustration below succinctly depicts, significantly more complaints were made in relation to correctional facilities in the province than any other criminal justice-related matter.

A breakdown of the top five reasons for lodging a grievance is illustrated below. Prisoner complaints about inadequate healthcare provision far exceeded all other grounds for grumble, although there was a very significant groundswell of displeasure in relation to lock-downs (often due to staff shortages), representing an increase of nearly 200 complaints as compared with 2018-2019. The report discusses these and other prisoner-held concerns in greater depth in its Law and Order section.

On page 79 of the report the top 10 institutions as sources for complaints are additionally listed. Three prisons generated more than a whopping 700 plus grievances each.

The institution’s team also continued to visit prison facilities throughout the year. In doing so, staff encountered some grim realities:

At some facilities, including the Thunder Bay and Kenora jails, our team observed disturbing, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Some facilities had three or even four inmates bunked in cells designed for two. We also saw inmates housed in areas not designated for living purposes, where they had no direct access to toilets and were subjected to frequent, prolonged lockdowns, limiting their access to programs, fresh air, and even running water. Correctional staff told the Ombudsman and our team that these conditions harm the morale of inmates and staff alike.

Equally worryingly, the Ontario Ombudsman received 118 complaints alleging physical abuse by prison staff, of which two such examples are highlighted in the report:

“An inmate told us he was punched in the head and face several times by correctional officers, leaving him in hospital with a broken nose and concussion. We confirmed with the facility that after a local investigation, the matter was referred to the CSOI and the correctional staff involved were suspended.”

“We reviewed a facility’s handling of a case where an inmate was hospitalized after being pepper-sprayed by a correctional officer. The local investigation report confirmed that excessive force had been used, but we identified several issues with the investigation process, including lengthy delays and revisions made to the original report, resulting in conflicting information. We raised these issues with senior officials at the facility, as well as the Ministry, which is updating its policy for local investigation reports.”

During the year under review, the office handled a massive 26,423 complaints and inquiries about broader public sector services. As discussed in the report under 12 different topic headings, the Ontario Ombudsman handles complaints as diverse as law and order, social services, French language services, children and youth, education, health, transport and employment – to cite just a few.

In the accompanying press release to the Annual Report, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé reflected on the stunning and ongoing challenges faced by the province’s public sector arising from the current coronavirus pandemic, stating:

“The profound shock to our public infrastructure and systems will provide countless lessons, as well as opportunities to strengthen them in future … We stand ready, as always, to help.”

Very positively, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé proactively responded to the current pandemic by releasing on 26 March 2020 a statement regarding the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the province’s correctional facilities. The statement outlined the institution’s methodological approach to ensuring its human rights monitoring function during the public health emergency.

Moreover, in response to the numerous deaths in supposed care facilities for seniors, on 1 June 2020 the institution launched an investigation into the oversight of long-term care homes by the province’s Ministry of Long-Term Care and Ministry of Health during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The argument has previously been advanced in these pages that the ratification of the OPCAT could be one active measure the Canadian government might take to address the slipshod oversight – internal or otherwise – of such facilities for Canada’s elderly.

While not an NPM-type preventive entity, the Ontario Ombudsman’s Annual Report and its focus on prison-related matters reveal a hard-working complaints-handling institution sensitive to the human rights of the province’s incarcerated population.

Readers may also be interested to read the thematic and annual reports of other provincial ombuds-type bodies including institutions in Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Quebec.

In a nutshell, there is much reading to be getting on with this fine Canada Day.


Read the Ontario Ombudsman’s Annual Report 2019-2020 in English and French.

Read the accompanying press release in English and French.

See the statement by the Ontario Ombudsman on COVID-19 and Ontario’s Correctional Facilities in English and French.

Learn more about the Ontario Ombudsman’s investigation into the oversight of long-term care homes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in English and French.

Posted by mp in OPCAT, Prisons, Senior care homes

Reduce Prison Overcrowding, Reduce The Spread of COVID-19

Desperate times require bold thinking and even bolder measures, it has sometimes been argued, and the Copenhagen-based NGO Dignity have being doing just that in recent weeks.

In the run up to the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture the NGO, Dignity – Danish Institute Against Torture, has issued yet another top-rate, highly practical publication which tackles head-on the urgent need to reduce prison populations during the on-going pandemic.

This stunningly good new publication, titled Guidance Document on Reducing Overcrowding in Pre-Trial Detention and Prison in the Context of COVID-19 – Increasing the Use of Non-Custodial Measures, has been penned by Dignity’s long-time Legal Director Therese Maria Rytter and Legal Advisor Kalliopi Kambanella, and it arrives at a time when more and more of us are allowing ourselves to believe that perhaps this troublesome COVID-19 will soon be licked? However, are we jumping to a much-wished-for conclusion too soon?

Just this week, leading Canadian academics Rosemary Ricciardelli and Sandra Bucerius published a highly thoughtful, superbly argued article as part of the Royal Society of Canada’s COVID-19 Series, which, among its numerous excellent points, questioned whether the Canadian prison estate might be in for a second COVID-19 wave?

In the opinion piece, titled ‘Canadian prisons in the time of COVID-19: Recommendations for the pandemic and beyond’, which was also featured in the Globe and Mail on 23 June 2020, the authors wrote:

While the spread of COVID-19 has mostly been kept at bay in Canadian prisons (with some institutions having had concerning outbreaks, such as Mission Institution in British Columbia and the Multi-level Federal Training Centre in Quebec), we are not suggesting that fear of contagion has dissipated for staff, prisoners, and those who care for said persons. As Canada prepares for a potential second wave of COVID-19, CSC and the provincial/territorial governments must continue to undertake structured and informed decarceration efforts (i.e. efforts directed at reducing the number of people housed in Canadian prisons). While undoubtable not a simple undertaking, such actions would be in line with recommendations made by the UN and by a working group of the Council for Penological Co-operation (PC-CP) of the Council of Europe (who released a “COVID-19 related statement” in April 2020).

Simply put, for those Canadians who think they may have made it through the worst of it – prison administrators included – then please think again. Fortuitously, in this very same connection, Dignity’s newly launched Guidance Document gives us much to reflect on.

Reduce, reduce, reduce…

The accompanying press-release outlines the publication’s overall purpose:

The world is facing an unprecedented public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic comes at a time when the global prison population is record high with 11 million prisoners worldwide and with over 124 states reporting prison overcrowding. Globally, the pandemic has exposed and accelerated the detrimental consequences of chronic overcrowding in places of detention.

The pandemic warrants resolute action by states to reduce the prison population as an imperative for preventing an outbreak within the prison and, in turn, within society. Without compromising public safety, states must limit new admissions to prison and accelerate the release of certain categories of prisoners. To this end, states should consider increased use of non-custodial alternatives to detention and imprisonment.

Juvenile Detention Centre – Stuart McAlpine (2011).

Dignity’s two authors explain in 25 or so pages of useful, practical detail how such a reduction in a country’s prison population might be achieved in reality. The publication examines non-custodial measures at three main stages of the criminal justice process, namely (1) the pre-trial stage, (2) trial and sentencing stage, and (3) post-trial stage. In doing so, the authors draw on positive penal practice from across the globe in the context of the current global health emergency.

At the pre-trial stage, for example, non-custodial measures might include home arrest, reporting obligations, restrictions on leaving or entering a specific space without authorization, retention of travel documents, bail or bond, supervision by specific agency, and electronic monitoring. Country examples from India, Jordan and The Netherlands are cited.

At the trial and sentencing stage non-custodial measures might comprise fines, suspended or deferred sentences, probation or judicial supervision, community service, diversion to treatment, restrictions on movement, and electronic monitoring, with brief country examples offered from Thailand, Malaysia, USA and Norway.

Finally, at the post-trial stage non-custodial measures envelop an array of country examples in relation to non-custodial measures. These include parole or early conditional release, temporary release, compassionate release, pardon or amnesty, and electronic monitoring. In this section of the publication there are too many country examples to enumerate in these short pages – so just see for yourself.

Regrettably, Canada is not cited as an example in any of these three stages, despite there having emerged certain positive examples of non-custodial measures being employed at the provincial level, Ontario in particular. Even so, Dignity’s excellent publication warrants a much closer inspection.

And if those home-schooled children and maddeningly annoying bosses of yours have – once again – worn you down to the bone and you are even more time-poor than usual, you can always read the publication’s Executive Summary or overview of non-custodial measures. Busy parents of the world rejoice!

Finally, on a personal note, as we approach yet another International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June, the Canada OPCAT Project salutes and thanks you for your unflagging commitment to the cause. As our motley collection of posters remind us, a better torture-free world is one day possible.


Read Reducing Overcrowding in Pre-Trial Detention and Prison in the Context of COVID19 (23 June 2020) and the related press release.

Explore Dignity’s Legal Fact-sheets.

Read Rosemary Ricciardelli and Sandra Bucerius’ Royal Society of Canada COVID-19 Series article, ‘Canadian prisons in the time of COVID-19: Recommendations for the pandemic and beyond’.

Explore UNODC’s and the Thailand Institute of Justice’s highly rated Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures.

Posted by mp in COVID-19, Places of detention, Prisons

COPCAT Shorts – Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures Toolkit

Occasionally something really good just slips right by, leaving you wondering how you ever missed it in the first place? One would think that, battened down in the nation’s capital while waiting for life to jump-start, there would be precious little else to do than to keep up with current developments in the wonderful world of human rights law and criminal justice.

Alas, on this occasion it was the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ) to somehow fly so swiftly and stealthily low so as to successfully avoid the radar reflectors of Ontario.

Not to worry, published just a few short weeks ago via a high-profile webinar launch, UNODC and TIJ unleashed on the coronavirus-locked-down world a highly rated Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures. While not the most flashily or zippily titled resource, it most certainly does what it says on the tin.

A deeper dive into this new publication reveals an abundance of useful advice and guidance on alternatives to prison at all trial stages. Its introduction offers a depressingly succinct summary of the toolkit’s overall purpose:

Women are the fastest growing prison population across the world. As further outlined in this toolkit, poverty, discrimination, violence and a punitive legal responses are some of the key underlying causes behind the increase in female imprisonment. The harmful and negative impact of imprisonment on women, their families and communities has been widely documented.

More hopefully, it continues:

Since the adoption of the United Nations Rules on the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules), which complements the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules on Non-custodial Measures (the Tokyo Rules) and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), there has been increased attention on gender-responsive treatment of women in prison. This toolkit seeks to provide support and guidance on taking steps to ensure that women in contact with the law are not detained or imprisoned unnecessarily and that detention is used as a measure of last resort. The starting point for this toolkit is to take the least interventionist approach possible, acknowledging that in certain situations contact with the criminal justice system can be harmful to women. (1)

The 90-page publication is accordingly divided into the following three primary sections:

  • Identifying the needs of women in contact with the law;
  • Ensuring gender equality in the use and application of non-custodial measures;
  • Special categories of women.

The second section is the most comprehensive part of the toolkit, focusing on the different trial and sentencing stages in any given criminal justice process, accentuating the availability of non-custodial measures at all such phases. In so doing, it closely examines an array of alternatives to detention such as bail, arrest and supervised release in the pre-trial stage, combined with non-custodial sentences such as fines, suspended sentences, deferred sentences, home detention, community treatment orders, and community service orders during the later sentencing instances.

More impressively still, UNODC and TIJ are currently hosting a series of webinars under the title ‘Gender-Responsive Criminal Justice and Prison Reform‘, which run until 24 June 2020. Please click on the link above or see the flyer below for more detailed information:

As the flyer itself states:

Criminal justice and prison systems face unprecedented challenges that are amplified by the COVID-19 global pandemic. In a system primarily designed for men, gender-responsive approaches are crucial to ensure no one is left behind. Sustained action is needed to address the disproportionate increase in the imprisonment of women, and the lack of gender-specific health care and social reintegration programmes in prisons.

Readers could do much worse than idle away a few well-spent hours in the company of these virtual and non-virtual resources.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime are certainly no strangers to these pages, despite the organization’s somewhat deceptive moniker. The website has previously thrown a spotlight on its other first-class materials, including on the Nelson Mandela Rules and the importance of internal inspection of places of detention. In a word, UNODC continues to place into the public domain many excellent criminal justice-related materials with an invaluable human rights bent.

The Thailand Institute of Justice has similarly authored multiple first-class publications, not least the widely known and highly respected Global Prison Trends series, which it co-publishes with Penal Reform International.

If you were at a loss with what to do with yourself today, dear quarantined readers, then this short summary may have given you at least a couple of useful ideas. Apart from the endless house-work, full-time employment, and home-schooling your multiple children that is to say…

No matter, thank you for your visit. It will get better.

School Closed – Travis Wise (2020).

Download the publication, Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures.

Find out more about TIJ and UNODC’s global webinar series on ‘Gender-Responsive Criminal Justice and Prison Reform‘.

Read the Executive Summary of Global Prison Trends 2020 and the full report.

View other recently published prison-related materials with a focus on women and deprivation of liberty.

Posted by mp in Prisons, Tools, Violence Against Women, Women prisoners