COVID-19 – A Crucial Resource for Crucial Times

Far ahead of the curve as usual, international NGO Penal Reform International has published a much-needed resource at a time of increasing public health emergency. The publication, Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison, issued on 16 March 2020, is targeted at various criminal justice actors, especially country prison services as well as prison administrators, Canada no exception.

Its application, however, potentially goes well beyond prisons as places of deprivation of liberty with relevance to many other detention settings, as foreseen under OPCAT Article 4.

PRI’s COVID-19 prison Briefing.

Multiple concerns about the high risk of potential transmission of the COVID-19 virus among federally and provincially incarcerated prisoners have been highlighted recently by different actors in the Canadian news media. A Globe & Mail opinion piece on 17 March 2020 called for the release of non-violent offenders.

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies expressed some alarm earlier this week about the Correctional Service of Canada’s preparedness to manage the COVID-19 outbreak and reduce the harm to prisoners, as highlighted in a public statement.

The opening paragraph of PRI’s Briefing sets out the current state of general concern about the COVID-19 virus in relation to prison settings:

“At the time of publishing there were more than 164,000 confirmed cases of COVID19, the novel form of Coronavirus, affecting 110 countries with more than 6,470 deaths. In this briefing we assess the current situation of COVID-19 outbreaks and prevention measures in prisons and wider impacts of responses to governments on people in criminal justice systems. This briefing note argues for action to be taken now and immediately, given the risk people in prison are exposed to, including prison staff.”

According to PRI’s accompanying press release, the focus of the new COVID-19 resource is as follows:

Where widespread community transmission of COVID-19 is occurring, there are legitimate concerns of this spreading to prisons. The outbreak of any communicable disease presents particular risks for prisons due to the vulnerability of the prison population and not least because of the difficulties in containing a large outbreak in such a setting. People detained are vulnerable for several reasons, but especially due to the proximity of living (or working) so closely to others – in many cases in overcrowded, cramped conditions with little fresh air.

People in detention also have common demographic characteristics with generally poorer health than the rest of the population, often with underlying health conditions. Hygiene standards are often below that found in the community and sometimes security or infrastructural factors reduce opportunities to wash hands or access to hand sanitizer.

Any coronavirus outbreak in prisons should – in principle – not take prison management by surprise, as contingency plans for the management of outbreaks of communicable diseases should be in place. This is an essential part of the obligation of the state to ensure the health care of people in prison required by international human rights law.”

Prison, Oslo – Erik (2017).

The Briefing is replete with practical guidance as well as with country examples which have emerged to date (including from Canada) of the restrictions placed on prison regimes in the light of the global pandemic. In doing so, the resource is structured around the following themes:

  • Civil rights, right to health and preventing COVID-19 in prisons with a focus on (1) the right to health and hygiene, (2) contact with the world outside, (3) quarantine, isolation or limitation on movements within detention facilities, (4) fair trials and the right to legal counsel, (5) detention monitoring, and (6) the health of prison staff;
  • Emergency measures to reduce prison populations;
  • Prison sentences for Coronavirus-related offences.

It is highly relevant that one section of the new resource focuses on the important role of independent detention monitors during the current global public health crisis. Under the section on page 9 titled ‘Detention monitoring and right to prohibition of torture and ill-treatment’ the following is observed:

“States should guarantee access to prison for monitoring bodies. While some protective measures are legitimate, there is no evidence indicating that during the COVID-19 pandemic places of detention should not be accessed by monitoring bodies.

States should follow the principles laid out in Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, as their legal obligation for those who have ratified it, and as a guidance for those who have not yet ratified the instrument.

Access of monitoring bodies is a key safeguard against torture and other ill-treatment. It can prevent human rights violations from taking place, but also provides opportunities for reporting ill-treatment and for taking action.”

While not an OPCAT State Party, it is axiomatic that Canada should also adhere to the guidance and principles set out in PRI’s Briefing and permit continued access to prison facilities located throughout the country by independent oversight bodies. The recent Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator spelled out in no uncertain terms why independent monitoring of such facilities is so crucial in the country.

In summary, Penal Reform International has once again succeeded in providing criminal justice and human rights actors with a timely resource at a particularly trying global moment, adding to their 30 years of many accomplishments. Very well done PRI.


Read Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison.

See the related press release.

Explore PRI’s other key publications under Other Resources, including the recent publications, Women in prison: mental health and well-being – a guide for prison staff and Guidance Document on the UN Nelson Mandela Rules.

Read OHCHR’s 16 March 2020 statement on COVID-19 and human rights.

Posted by mp in COVID-19, Independent detention monitors, NPMs, OPCAT, Oversight bodies

A Silence Not Golden – ATIP Request Update

Silence may not always be golden, as the outstanding response to the Canada OPCAT Project’s recent Access to Information & Privacy Request (ATIP) has most positively proven. Global Affairs Canada has regrettably failed to respond to the website within the permitted 75-day deadline.

As a result of the ongoing silence, the Canada OPCAT Project has filed a complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada. Established in 1983, this mechanism carries out confidential investigations into complaints about federal institutions’ handling of Access to Information Requests, including in cases of non-response.

To briefly recap, an ATIP Request was submitted to Global Affairs Canada 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.

Silence, please – Shawn Rossi (2008)

More frequent visitors to the Canada OPCAT Project website will recall that in its Concluding observations the UN Committee against Torture had recommended in December 2018 that Canada should undertake the following steps:

“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.” [§21d]

In the December 2019 ATIP Request to Global Affairs Canada (the lead Federal Department on OPCAT ratification), the Canada OPCAT Project asked for the following information.

“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.

Silence is golden – Lorie Shaull (2015)

Frustratingly, Global Affairs Canada’s continued silence can only be construed as a failure to respond to the initial petition, despite having more than 80 days to process the said request.

Regrettably, today’s complaint was not the first instance when the Canada OPCAT Project has been forced to resort to the Office of the Information Commissioner in order to elicit a response from a Federal Government Department. In 2018 Justice Canada failed to respond to an ATIP Request about the on-going OPCAT consultation process within a similarly extended time period, resulting in the lodging of a complaint with the institution.

The eventual response of Justice Canada to the information request arrived in a highly redacted form, casting a dark shadow over the Canadian authorities’ genuine commitment to an open and transparent OPCAT consultation process. The paucity of information since shared by any federal agency on this important human rights issue, including by Global Affairs Canada, has only reinforced this highly disappointing impression.

We can only hope that the final response from Global Affairs Canada will be worth the long wait.


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

See Justice Canada’s highly redacted response to the website’s 2018 ATIP Request and read what we found out about the OPCAT consultation process.

Posted by mp in Civil society, Consultation, Indigenous people, OPCAT

COPCAT Shorts – One-Year Follow-Up Report Under UNCAT

Although largely going unnoticed, Canada has recently placed into the public domain its one-year follow-up report to the UN Committee against Torture. Upon being examined by the UN Committee in November 2018, Canada had a year to provide the treaty body with information concerning four areas of specific concern. The nine-page one-year follow-up document (available below) comprises Canada’s formal response to the UN Committee against Torture.

As requested in the 2018 Concluding observations, Canada has responded to the UN Committee on the following four areas of concern:

  • Diplomatic assurances;
  • Adequate redress for the torture and ill-treatment of Canadians detained abroad;
  • Security certificates;
  • The forced or coerced sterilization of Indigenous women.

The latter concern was widely reported by Canada’s news media at the time of Canada’s examination by the UN Committee against Torture in November 2018. Furthermore, domestic human rights groups and Indigenous organizations continue to closely monitor Canada’s concrete follow-up to the scandal. Canada’s one-year follow-up report thus provides more detailed information about its response to the unlawful practice, described by the UN Committee as a form of torture.

Prison by Duncan Drew (2010)

As for the issue closest to this website’s heart, regrettably no information was demanded by the UN Committee about the OPCAT as part of the one-year follow-up procedure. No matter, frequent visitors to the Canada OPCAT Project website may recall that in its Concluding observations the UN Committee against Torture recommended that Canada should undertake the following steps:

“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.” [§21d]

On 23 December 2019 the Canada OPCAT Project submitted an Access to Information Request to Global Affairs Canada to determine to what extent Canada had acted on this international recommendation. 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, is now due no later than today – 7 March 2020.

Whether Global Affairs Canada respects this looming, legally stipulated deadline remains to be seen. As yet, nothing has arrived in today’s post.

More generally, Canada’s one-year follow-up response ultimately paves the way for the submission and examination of Canada’s 8th period report, which is due on 7 December 2022, as well as civil society’s invaluable parallel views on the implementation of the UN Convention against Torture in practice. As most readers will appreciate, the two are not necessarily the same.


Read Canada’s one-year follow-up report below:

Read the UN Committee’s views on Canada’s ratification of the OPCAT.

Find out more about the UN Committee’s different concerns about immigration detention in Canada.

See what the UN Committee had to say about psychiatric detention.

Read the full Concluding observations relating to Canada’s November 2018 review.

Posted by mp

COPCAT Shorts – Psychological Torture Discussed at Human Rights Council

The high-level Interactive Dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on torture took place at the Human Rights Council in Geneva just a few days ago. During the two-segment exchange on 28 February 2020 Professor Nils Melzer presented, among other important matters, his new thematic report on psychological torture under international law.

Nils Melzer by Prachatai (July 2019)

On the prevalence of psychological torture, the UN Special Rapporteur stated the following in his new thematic report:

Psychological torture occurs in a wide variety of contexts, including ordinary criminal investigations; police detention; “stop-and-search” operations; intelligence gathering; medical, psychiatric and social care; immigration, administrative and coercive detention; as well as in social contexts such as domestic violence, mobbing, cyberbullying and political or discriminatory persecution.” [§78]

The new report presents a raft of related recommendations in relation to the application of the practice.

As a case in point, the UN Special Rapporteur has recommended with regard to the notion of psychological torture that states adopt, incorporate, and implement the definitions, interpretations and understandings, as advanced in the said report, throughout their national normative, institutional and policy frameworks. These components should be included in the training and instruction of medical, judicial, administrative, military and law enforcement personnel.

Thomas Hawk (2005)

In the report Professor Melzer offers a working definition of psychological torture, comprising various constitutive elements. These aspects include mental severity, suffering, powerlessness, intentionality, purposefulness, as well as resort to lawful sanctions. The UN expert also highlights other closely related issues such as the predominant methods of the practice, torturous environments, and the challenges presented by new technologies. In this latter regard Professor Melzer has observed:

“More generally, in order to ensure the adequate implementation of the prohibition of torture and related legal obligations in present and future circumstances, its interpretation should evolve in line with new challenges and capabilities arising in relation to emerging technologies not only in cyber-space, but also in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nano- and neurotechnology, or pharmaceutical and biomedical sciences including so-called “human enhancement”. [§76]

The report undeniably brings to the table some cutting-edge reflection by the UN anti-torture expert.

Readers may wish to directly consult the report for more detailed information and/or watch the Interactive Dialogue which took place before the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 28 February 2020.


Watch the Interactive Dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on torture – part 1 and part 2.

Read the UN Special Rapporteur on torture’s new thematic report on psychological torture under international law.

Read Professor Melzer’s 2019 thematic report on domestic violence titled Relevance of the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment to the context of domestic violence.

Learn more about the UN Special Rapporteur on torture’s fears on the risk of backsliding on torture.

Posted by mp in Human Rights Council, Psychological torture, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture

The Argument for External Oversight of Federal Prisons – The New OCI Annual Report

The recently published Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) reinforces the argument for independent, external oversight of federal prisons in Canada. Issued in mid-February 2020 in both English and French, the OCI Annual Report throws a critical spotlight on an array of problems currently afflicting the federal prison estate.

Even though not an official OPCAT-inspired NPM entity, the Office of the Correctional Investigator is the closest Canada has to such a body. A 2019 report highlighted the many strengths of the mechanism from an OPCAT perspective.

In view of the OCI Annual Report’s less-than-flattering findings, it remains baffling that Canada has yet to put pen to paper to ratify the OPCAT, more so in view of the fact that a former Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that the OPCAT was no longer optional for Canada nearly four years ago.

It should also be noted that Correctional Investigator himself, Dr. Ivan Zinger, has repeatedly urged ratification of the instrument, including in a recent OCI Annual Report.

The OCI Annual Report 2018-2019 groups its findings and related concerns into six chapters as follows:

  • Healthcare in federal facilities;
  • Deaths in custody;
  • Conditions of confinement;
  • Indigenous corrections;
  • Safe and timely reintegration;
  • And federally sentenced women.

For the time-poor reader Dr. Zinger’s introduction to the OCI Annual Report, his so-called Correctional Investigator’s Message, offers an excellent overview of the report and his main concerns and recommendations. For ease of reference, a summary of his recommendations is also compiled in Annex 1 of the report.

Even so, the following paragraphs penned by the Correctional Investigator, highlighting contemporary causes of concern, merit our closer attention:

“Since assuming my duties, I have taken a special interest in identifying conditions of confinement and treatment of prisoners that fail to meet standards of human dignity, violate human rights or otherwise serve no lawful purpose. The issues investigated and highlighted in my report raise fundamental questions of correctional purpose challenging anew the assumptions, measures and standards of human decency and dignity in Canadian prisons:

  • Introduction of a standardized “random” strip-searching routine and protocol (1:3 ratio) at women offender institutions.
  • Staff culture of impunity and mistreatment at Edmonton Institution.
  • Elevated rate of use of force incidents at the Regional Treatment Centres (designated psychiatric hospitals for mentally ill patient inmates).
  • Lack of in-cell toilets on one living unit at Pacific Institution.
  • Provision of the first medically assisted death in a federal penitentiary.
  • Prison food that is substandard and inadequate to meet nutritional needs.
  • Operational challenges in meeting the needs of transgender persons in prison.
  • Housing maximum-security inmates with behavioural or mental health needs on “therapeutic” ranges that serve segregation diversion ends.” (p. 3)

Readers may recall that the Correctional Investigator dominated Canadian news headlines in January 2020 by dint of his multiple concerns about the so-called ‘Indigenization’ of Canada’s federal prison population. Dr. Zinger referred to this bleak reality as Canada’s ‘national travesty’, a concern which resonated widely and deeply among human rights actors and penal reformers in the country. It is therefore not coincidental that many of these same concerns are highlighted in the OCI Annual Report 2018-2019.

The above list of penal-related woes underscores the absolute need for independent oversight of prisons in Canada, whether federal or provincial, to which the Office of the Correctional Investigator makes an invaluable contribution. Simply put, left to its own devices Canada’s federal prison service is unlikely to quickly reform and correct practices which violate fundamental human rights without external prompting.

Furthermore, in the light of Canada’s long-overdue ratification of the OPCAT, the need for the Office of the Correctional Investigator and other analogue oversight mechanisms in the country is arguably even greater.

In the recent past other key reports of the Office of the Correctional Investigator have been highlighted on this website and come as recommended reading. The February 2019 report, Aging & Dying in Prison, which was co-published with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, is an illustrative case in point.

Prison by Matthias Mueller (2007)

The Correctional Investigator himself has captured the absolute importance of and need for the oversight function as exercised by his office in the following terms:

“I fully understand and accept that the business of prison oversight, standing up for the rights of sentenced persons and advocating for fair and humane treatment of prisoners are not activities that are widely recognized or praised. Yet, to turn a phrase made famous by a young Winston Churchill, if prisons are places where the principles of human dignity, compassion and decency are stretched to their limits, then how we treat those deprived of their liberty is still one of the most enduring tests of a free and democratic society. Independent monitoring is needed to ensure the inmate experience does not demean or degrade the inherent worth and dignity of the human person.” (p.2.)

The Canada OPCAT Project could not put it better and echos these sentiments entirely. It is high time for Canada to take the next logical step and to ratify the OPCAT.


The 2018-2019 Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada can be downloaded in English and French.

Read the related news release in English and French.

Check out the OCI backgrounder in English and French.

A related presentation deck has also been published in English and French.

Posted by mp in Independent detention monitors, Indigenous people, OPCAT, Oversight bodies, Prisons

Women in Prison – New Publication

A newly published tool, Women in prison: mental health and well-being – a guide for prison staff, landed on our shelves this past week courtesy of Penal Reform International and the Prison Reform Trust.

According to the accompanying press release, the purpose of the publication is as follows:

“People in prison have a disproportionately high rate of poor mental health, and research shows these rates are even higher for women in prison. While primary care remains the responsibility of healthcare professionals, frontline prison staff play an important role in protecting and addressing mental health needs of women in prison.

Penal Reform International (PRI), in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), has published a guide for prison and probation staff to help them understand how prison life can affect a person’s mental health, with a focus on women. The guide aims to break down the stigma and discrimination attached to poor mental health, especially for women in prison.”

If one considers the pervasiveness of mental health issues in Canadian prisons, both among men and women, the utility of the new publication is immediately apparent. Only this past month, the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada expressed distinct concerns about the provision of overall health care services in the country’s federal prisons in his 2018-2019 Annual Report, including from an all-important right to health perspective.

Helpfully, the new guide also includes a checklist based on international human rights standards aimed to help with the implementation of key aspects of prison reform and advocacy initiatives, which can be found in the appendix of the said publication. The checklist covers issues such as alternatives to detention, healthcare provision, treatment inside prison, individualized treatment, contact with the outside world, prison discipline, children in prison, staffing and research.

It bears noting that the new publication aptly complements the various other tools co-issued by Penal Reform International on the treatment of women in detention in recent times, several of which have been highlighted on this website. Publications have included the Guidance Document on the UN Nelson Mandela Rules, its Toolbox on the Bangkok Rules and Mental health in prison: A short guide for prison staff.

In summary, Penal Reform International and the Prison Reform Trust have made another highly practical contribution to actors engaged and interested in penal-related human rights matters.


Download Women in prison: mental health and well-being – a guide for prison staff.

Penal Reform International’s other useful tools can be found on this website under ‘Other Resources’.

Readers may also be interested in the following publications, Places of Deprivation of Liberty and Gender and Preventing & Addressing Sexual & Gender-Based Violence in Places of Deprivation of Liberty.

The 2018-2019 Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada can be downloaded in English and French.

Posted by mp in Prisons, Tools, Women prisoners

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.

Posted by mp in Australia, Indigenous people, NPMs, OPCAT

Australian Civil Society Leads The Way

Amazing. Unbelievable. Superb. Terrific. Remarkable. Awesome. Lovely. Incredible. Ace. Outstanding. Peerless. Cracking. Astounding. Top-notch. Number 1. Excellent. Tip-top. Wizard. Out-of-sight. Regal. Knock-out … What does it spell? The Australia OPCAT Network of course.

Why does the Canada OPCAT Project think so highly of the work of this fabulous collective of individuals and institutions? Look no further than below, readers.

In preparation of visits to Australia by the UN Subcommittee Committee on Prevention of Torture and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in the coming months, Australian civil society has painted a detailed picture of how the OPCAT is being implemented in the country, warts and all.

The Australia OPCAT Network, a grouping of a score or two of some of the country’s top human rights activists, academics and detention monitors, has done so through the publication on 31 January 2020 of the document, The Implementation of OPCAT in Australia. The document will no doubt prove to be a highly useful tool for the UN bodies on the cusp of visiting Australia. Readers are invited to download the document at the bottom of this page.

In short, the Australia OPCAT Network unquestionably represents a leading, best practice model of how civil society is industriously and strategically working together to ensure the effective institution of an NPM in the country. Canadian and other human rights actors could do much worse than take a leaf or two from out of the ‘NPM Strategy Manual’ of this highly impressive third-sector collective.

It is certainly not by accident that Australia has featured in these Canada OPCAT Project pages multiple times over the past year as a leading example of a country where civil society is striving to implement the OPCAT effectively. Please see the following posts for example: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Australia – Marko Mikkonen (2013).

Yet the process of implementing the OPCAT in Australia, while with many merits, is not entirely unproblematic, as the new Australia OPCAT Network publication correctly highlights. Chapter 1 of the document identifies some of the current challenges, presenting a raft of some ten highly detailed recommendations (see page 32).

Overall, the report focuses on vitally important matters such as the even implementation of an NPM across multiple federal and state jurisdictions, the effectiveness of existing oversight bodies, the full coverage of Australia’s OPCAT commitments as defined by OPCAT Article 4, and the need for the government’s full and open engagement and cooperation with civil society.

The other chapters in the publication focus on different deprivation of liberty settings, including: Australia’s highly controversial immigration detention estate; detention of persons with disability; prisons, youth justice and police custody; and aged care settings. As the Executive Summary of the report observes:

At the same time, traditional places of detention continue to raise significant challenges. Prisons and other justice facilities experience overcrowding, inadequate services and conditions, and overuse of seclusion, together with the pressure of increasingly complex inmate populations.

Uniquely, the document (in chapter 6) also focuses on the perspective of Indigenous persons in different detention settings in Australia. As reported by Canada’s Office of the Correctional Investigator just last month, Australia also suffers from scandalously high levels of ‘Indigenization’ of its prison population as well as in other institutions.

This chapter superbly also complements the excellent recent in-depth research of Churchill Fellow Andreea Lachsz into this reality and the need for effective oversight, a work soon to be featured in these pages.

In sum, the Australia OPCAT Network deserves every one of the effusive adjectives packed into the opening paragraph of this article for this outstanding as well as unquestionably extremely useful contribution. For those of us hoping for a similarly positive OPCAT outcome in Canada, the Network offers much-needed and welcome inspiration.


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

Explore other related articles in the Australian Journal of Human Rights OPCAT Special edition.

Posted by mp in Australia, Indigenous people, NPMs, OPCAT

75 Is Not A Lucky Number – Global Affairs Canada’s ATIP Response

Earlier this week the Canada OPCAT Project received an initial response from Global Affairs Canada concerning its latest Access to Information request. A response of sorts perhaps!

To quickly recap, the Canada OPCAT Project filed an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request on 23 December 2019 requesting information from Global Affairs Canada about the scope of its supposedly ongoing OPCAT ratification consultation process with Canadian civil society and Indigenous groups throughout 2019. You can find out more here.

During its examination by the UN Committee against Torture in Geneva in November 2018 Canada stated publicly that it would endeavor to consult with Canadian civil society on the important human rights topic of OPCAT ratification.

Alan Levine, Open or Closed (2012).

In an official response dated 13 January 2020 the Canada OPCAT Project was informed the following:

“In accordance with paragraph 9(1)(a) of the Act [Access to Information Act], an extension of up to 45 days beyond the original statutory limit is required since meeting the original time limit would unreasonably interfere with the operations of the Department.”

In a nutshell, Global Affairs Canada has given itself up to 75 days (the initial 30 + 45 additional days) to respond to the above request about Canada’s OPCAT consultation process. Let us be clear – 75 days is a more than a fifth of a year!

How might one interpret this seemingly 75-day hesitancy?

  • Global Affairs Canada is exceedingly busy;
  • The department is under-staffed;
  • Global Affairs Canada has an abundance of OPCAT consultation-related information to sift through and possibly redact in order to fully respond to the information request;
  • ATIP requests are generally low on the department’s list of priorities, but it will comply with the law by requesting a 75-day response time;
  • Or possibly a mixture of all of the above.

Readers can make their own minds up, but we would tend to shift towards the lower end of the list.

Alan Levine, Sorry We Are Not Open (2012)

If an uncomfortable truth be told, if Global Affairs Canada as the lead agency on the OPCAT just occasionally provided updates about Canada’s OPCAT ratification process, recourse to Access to Information legislation would not be necessary.

After over 18-months of operation and after publishing 120-odd different articles, the Canada OPCAT Project has not been in a position to publish a single news item about the ratification of the OPCAT in Canada based on information unilaterally and voluntarily placed into the public domain by a department of the Canadian Government, such has been the absolute paucity of publicly available information.

If the Canadian Government is willing to place on public record that the ‘Optional Protocol is no longer optional for Canada‘, then it should not be surprised that actors remain committed to holding it to its word.

Please return in mid-March 2020, dear readers, for Global Affairs Canada’s full ATIP response.


Read how the OPCAT might be instituted in Canada.

Find out more about the December 2019 ATIP request.

Posted by mp in Civil society, Consultation, Indigenous people, OPCAT

Canada’s National Travesty – Prison Indigenization

The Indigenization of Canada’s prison population has been described as being “nothing short of a national travesty.”

This highly damning indictment was advanced by Canada’s Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, the country’s federal prison ombudsperson, in a news release issued on 21 January 2020.

Down Under
Light in the Darkness by Drew Douglas (2007).

The Correctional Investigator stated:

“Four years ago, my Office reported that persons of Indigenous ancestry had reached 25% of the total inmate population. At that time, my Office indicated that efforts to curb over-representation were not working.  Today, sadly, I am reporting that the proportion of Indigenous people behind bars has now surpassed 30%.”

In the news release Dr. Zinger suggests that surpassing the 30% mark indicates a deepening Indigenization of Canada’s correctional system. 

In the absence of any domestic OPCAT monitoring body in Canada, the Correctional Investigator plays a vital role in monitoring the treatment and conditions of federal prisoners in the country. Dr. Zinger has repeatedly called on Canada to sign and ratify the OPCAT.

Shockingly, the Correctional Investigator stressed that the numbers are even more troubling for Indigenous women, who now account for 42% of the women prisoner population in Canada, despite just forming a small percentage of the overall population. He added that the federal prison service seems impervious to change and unresponsive to the needs, histories and social realities behind high rates of Indigenous offending.

What is more, the experiences of many Indigenous persons in federal facilities are mostly far from positive, rehabilitative episodes.

It was observed that year after year, the Office of the Correctional Investigator has documented that Indigenous prisoners are disproportionately classified and placed in maximum security institutions, over-represented in use of force and self-injurious incidents, and historically, were more likely to be placed and held longer in segregation units.

Moreover, compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts, Indigenous offenders serve a higher proportion of their sentence behind bars before being granted parole, the press article stated.

Another key Canadian human rights actor, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, threw its full weight behind the federal ombudsperson’s highly critical findings. Marie-Claude Landry, the Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, underlined the following in a press statement issued the same day:

“The Commission is deeply disturbed by the recent findings of the Office of the Correctional Investigator that the proportion of Indigenous people in federal prisons has now surpassed a staggering 30% of the total inmate population.”

“This is a national disgrace. We strongly agree with the Correctional Investigator that bold and urgent action is required to address this persistent and pressing human rights issue.”

The leading National Indigenous Organization for women, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, was equally as scathing in its condemnation. In its own response NWAC President Lorraine Whitman commented:

“It is time that Canada recognizes the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in correctional systems. These findings are a symptom of historical and current systems of colonialism, racism and sexism against First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women.”

“All levels of government need to take real action now to reduce the number of incarcerated Indigenous peoples.”

The organization also threw a spotlight on both the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ 231 Calls for Justice from 2019 and the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action from 2015. Both reports demand transformative change within Canada’s criminal justice system. 

Whether the federal Canadian authorities will muster the political will to act on these recommendations remains to be seen. Even so, the Correctional Investigator’s findings underpin the absolute importance of the need to exercise independent oversight of the country’s closed institutions, more so in the absence of an OPCAT-based National Preventive Mechanism. It can only be hoped that the federal prison estate can be pulled back from its current disastrous Indigenization trajectory.


Read the Correctional Investigator’s statement in English and French.

Learn more about Dr. Zinger’s views in support of the OPCAT.

See the statement of the Canadian Human Rights Commission in English and French.

Read the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s press release.

Explore the joint 2019 report of the Office of the Canadian Investigator and the Canadian Human Rights Commission, Aging and Dying in Prison.

Posted by mp in Indigenous people, Oversight bodies, Prisons, Women prisoners