Independent detention monitors

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

COVID-19: Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?

This troublesome question of whether to stay or to go is one not just to afflict a famous English punk rock band some four decades ago. Rather, it is one today to rack the human rights hearts and minds of detention oversight mechanisms from all over – in this new, but far less brave COVID-19 world of ours.

Boiled down, the burdensome decision to be reached is whether inspection bodies, OPCAT mechanisms or not, should continue to exercise their core detention visiting function in the wake of the current, seemingly quickly deteriorating global health pandemic? At first blush, the general answer to this quandary, while certainly far from clear, appears to be a somewhat reluctant not – at least not physically.

Wash Your Hands (COVID-19 Self-Protection Advice – William Murphy (2020).

Less than a week ago, the Canadian Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, marked out the monitoring position of his institution in the following statement issued in English and French:

The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has implemented exceptional COVID-19 measures that will affect routines and conditions of confinement in Canada’s federal penitentiaries, including suspension of all visits until further notice.  At this time, though regular and scheduled institutional visits from OCI staff members have also been temporarily suspended and most staff are working remotely from home, as an external independent oversight body the Office of the Correctional Investigator will maintain an essential level of services and operations, including regular situational monitoring… As the situation evolves, the Office will consider making emergency institutional visits on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration directions from health authorities.”

This position appears to strike a crucial balance between doing no harm, keeping a close eye on the current, fast-moving situation, and reserving the ultimate right to knock hard on any institutional door, if needs must. The emerging global practice suggests that the Canadian Correctional Investigator may not be alone in adopting such a stance.

Elsewhere in Canada the situation is less clear. While on one hand, the Ombudsman Ontario is working remotely and liaising with the detaining authorities from afar, the approach of the country’s other provincial and territorial ombuds-type bodies is ambiguous.

Flower Stream – Rennett Stowe (2020).

For the most part, the country’s patchwork system of ombudsperson institutions have issued statements, informing the public that they have closed their doors with a view to limiting face-to-face contact with the masses and/or are working remotely. Unlike, the Office of the Correctional Investigator, however, no detailed information is generally provided about the modalities of any interaction with the detaining authorities over which they have an oversight function.

Ideally, one would hope that a similar approach to the Correctional Investigator has been adopted, but in the absence of specific information this assumption is far from certain. The Office of the Human Rights Commissioner of British Columbia, for example, has simply stated that its employees are working remotely until 30 April 2020.

Similar missives have been posted on the websites of the Le Protecteur du Citoyen Quebec, Alberta Ombudsman, Ombudsman Saskatchewan, Manitoba Ombudsman, Ombud New-Brunswick, Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman, and the Office of the Northwest Territories Ombud. Somewhat surprisingly, a small minority of ombuds-institutions currently have no COVID-19 operational-related information on their websites.

Prison Tower – Jobs For Felons Hub (2016).

International practice

Despite putting on hold its own programme of international visits, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) has encouraged National Preventive Mechanisms under the OPCAT to continue to exercise their preventive visits function. In key guidance issued this past week, the SPT stated the following:

“Numerous NPMs have asked the SPT for further advice regarding their response to this situation. Naturally, as autonomous bodies, NPMs are free to determine how best to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic within their respective jurisdictions.” [6]

Even so, the SPT underscored the fundamental importance of conducting visits to all places of deprivation of liberty as broadly defined by the OPCAT:

“The SPT would emphasise that whilst the manner in which preventive visiting is conducted will almost certainly be affected by necessary measures taken in the interests of public health, this does not mean that preventive visiting should cease. On the contrary, the potential exposure to the risk of ill-treatment faced by those in places of detention may be heightened as a consequence of such public health measures taken. The SPT considers that NPMs should continue to undertake visits of a preventive nature, respecting necessary limitations on the manner in which their visits are undertaken. It is particularly important at this time that NPMs ensure that effective measures are taken to reduce the possibility of detainees suffering forms of inhuman and degrading treatment as a result of the very real pressures which detention systems and those responsible for them now face.” [7]

This position has been echoed by other authoritative international bodies, including just last week by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. The World Health Organization also chimed this same key point in a recent publication, as discussed on this website.

Prison Riot Squad – Jobs For Felons Hub (2016).

National-level developments

At the national level, detention monitoring practice in the light of the spiraling global COVID-19 crisis appears to be more of a mixed picture.

Fairly early on into the crisis, on 16 March 2020, the French NPM, the Le Contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté announced its suspension of visits. Similarly, across la Manche, the next day Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales Peter Clarke stated that the mechanism had postponed future visits for nearly two-and-a-half months. The published statement read:

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, has announced that all scheduled inspection work involving visits to prisons or other places of State detention in England and Wales has been suspended up to the end of May 2020. This will affect around 15 full inspections, independent reviews of progress and visits as part of thematic inspection work. This decision will be kept constantly under review in the light of COVID-19-related developments.”

Not too long afterwards, on 25 March, the Swiss NPM, the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture followed suite in a letter addressed to the prison and health authorities, ostensibly so as not to overburden the prison authorities.

In Scotland, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, also announced a suspension of all such visits. However, in a statement issued on 31 March the Chief Inspector reaffirmed that the institution was committed “… where possible, to undertake a liaison visit to any prison establishment where we believe the urgency to visit outweighs our precautions related to COVID-19.”

The above position was not entirely dissimilar to the stance adopted by the Canadian Correctional Investigator.

COVID-19 notice – Iain Cameron (2020).

These bodies (all of which are part of the UK NPM) are not alone. Dame Anne Owers, the National Chair of the Independent Monitoring Boards, the lay-visitor prison and immigration detention monitoring scheme in England and Wales, issued a statement on 30 March, marking out a similar position:

“Boards will be able to carry out some limited on-site work where it is safe and feasible to do so. However, we have also developed remote methods of providing some independent assurance at a time of heightened concern for prisoners and detainees.”

Staying in Albion for a moment longer, the overall UK NPM Chair, John Wadham, wrote to Secretary of State Robert Buckland the same day stating the following:

Firstly, NPM members are developing risk criteria that allow them to respond to allegations or concerns about potential ill treatment that warrant some kind of visit to be conducted. In most situations, these visits would be carried out by one or two people and follow a much more targeted methodology than normal inspections/monitoring visits. Secondly, NPM members are developing new approaches to remote forms of monitoring. Given the rapidly changing picture across different detention settings and the severity of the measures that are being imposed (restriction of family visits, long periods of isolation, limitations on exercise and association), NPM members are looking into how they can monitor the situation using data from a range of sources, including from detention authorities themselves, via phone lines and correspondence, and from wider stakeholders.”

Just to add further colour to the palette, Katie Kempen, the Chief Executive of the Independent Custody Visiting Association, the organizational entity supporting the lay-person police visiting scheme in the UK (which is also part of the country’s 21-body NPM), stated on 25 March that such visits could continue. Volunteer independent custody visitors deemed high-risk (due to their age or health) would be exempt from such activities. However, she stressed that remote monitoring possibilities were also being considered.

In sum, a range of options seem to be on the table in the United Kingdom.

It bears noting that the Canadian Correctional Investigator and the UK NPM’s use of a range of options (some remote, some not) to monitor closed settings mirror-image the key advice advanced by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture in last week’s guidance document (please see paragraphs 12 and 13).

Quarantine-related powers

As an interesting aside (at least we think so), at least two NPMs have issued statements, stressing that, despite any public emergency measures, they retain the power to access any compulsorily quarantined individuals and/or related detention facilities.

The Public Defender of Georgia issued a statement on 17 March, noting that her office would consider monitoring facilities or persons who had been quarantined, provided that certain conditions were met, such as the safety of the monitoring team and non-interference with healthcare provision were ensured.

Across the border in Armenia, likewise the Human Rights Defender of Armenia reaffirmed in no uncertain terms in a FAQ document published on 27 March that it cannot be prevented from exercising its monitoring activities during the present state of emergency in the country, remarking:

“Restrictions enforced in the declared state of emergency cannot hinder the activity of the Human Rights Defender. The right to apply to Human Rights Defender is of absolute character and is not subject to restriction in state of emergency.”

Whether the two NPMs in question will actively opt to exercise their stated rights to visit quarantined individuals in places of deprivation of liberty remains to be seen – as the situation unfolds.

Prison Fence Barbed Wire – Jobs For Felons Hub (2016).

In conclusion: staying or going?

As for other detention monitoring entities, concrete information about whether such bodies – to quote our favourite English punk rock band – have decided to stay or to go is somewhat scant.

A random scan of the websites of a range of different inspection mechanisms revealed little concrete information in this connection, including those of the Commissioner for Human Rights in Ukraine, Commissioner for Human Rights in Kazakhstan and the Office of the Inspector of Prisons in Ireland, which remains altogether silent on the issue of COVID-19.

At the time of writing, no information about the curtailment of visits had been posted on the respective websites of the Austrian and German NPMs, the Austrian Ombudsman Board and the National Agency for the Prevention of Torture.

In Moldova, the People’s Advocate (comprising an important element of the country’s NPM) has created a section on its website for the purpose of monitoring human rights violations during the present health crisis. A press release issued on 30 March strongly suggested that the mechanism would be handling any such complaints remotely and would be liaising from a distance with the relevant government agencies. While no direct mention was made of the suspension of visits, one might conclude from the above that this has been in fact the case.

With 71 designated NPMs in the world and numerous other detention oversight mechanisms, the reader will appreciate why this – wholly unintended – mini-research project on the part of the Canada OPCAT Project very quickly ran out of steam. And to think, we barely left Europe!

Thankfully help has come to the rescue in the shape of a recent research initiative by the Expert Network on External Prison Oversight and Human Rights. The latter has arrived at a very timely moment.

The Network, which is hosted by the Independent Corrections and Prisons Association and chaired by the Canadian Correctional Investigator, is aiming to compile information about the impact of COVID-19 on the work of detention monitoring bodies, including the measures taken to respond to this crisis as well as any related lessons learned. The findings of the research, to be shared in future newsletters, will be very revealing of how NPMs and other bodies are adapting to the quickly changing COVID-19 circumstances.

The research will thus no doubt shine a brighter light on the pressing question of how such bodies are continuing to exercise their all-important preventive visiting function in the light of the present-day conditions. Better still, there might even be a PhD in all of this for someone one day…

Thanks for your time, dear readers.


Read the latest newsletter of the Expert Network on External Prison Oversight and Human Rights and learn how to contribute to its COVID-19 monitoring-related research.

See the document, Advice of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture to States Parties and National Preventive Mechanisms relating to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Read the CPT’s Statement of Principles relating to the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty in the context of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in EnglishFrench or Russian.

Consult Penal Reform International’s publication, Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison.

Read the WHO publication, Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention.

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

WHO COVID-19 Key Guidance Document

On 23 March 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) – Europe published interim guidance on how to deal with the coronavirus disease in prisons and other places of detention, titled Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention.

The WHO publication is presently only available in English and can be downloaded here. However, a broad overview of the 30-odd-page guidance document is available in French, German and Russian.

The accompanying press release succinctly explains the overall focus of the document, as follows:

“The guidance provides useful information to staff and health care providers working in prisons, and to prison authorities. It explains how to prevent and address a potential disease outbreak and stresses important human rights elements that must be respected in the response to COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention. Access to information and adequate health care provision, including for mental disorders, are essential aspects in preserving human rights in such places.”

Cover of new WHO publication.

It is stressed in the WHO document that the guidance has application to various places of detention, including:

  • prisons (both public and privately managed);
  • immigration detention settings;
  • detention settings for children and young people.

The intended target audience of the WHO publication is primarily health-care and custodial staff working in prisons and other places of detention. However, it is emphasized that the information given will also be useful for the wider prison authorities, public health authorities and policymakers, prison governors and managers, people in detention, and the social relations of persons deprived of their liberty.

The guidance document is structured across 15 chapters and includes sections with detailed operational information, including: about the COVID-19 virus; preparedness, contingency planning and level of risk; training and education; risk communication; a list of important definitions; and crucial prevention measures. Other chapters relate to the assessment of suspected COVID-19 cases as well as their case management.

Prison 4040 – Sylvia Westenbroek (2006)

For the lay-reader, however, the earlier introductory chapters through 1 to 6 may prove the more interesting and accessible. These sections set out the rationale, scope and objectives and target audience of the WHO publication as well as key planning principles and human rights considerations.

In this latter connection, key points include:

  • The provision of health care for people in prisons and other places of detention is a State responsibility.
  • People in prisons and other places of detention should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the outside community, without discrimination on the grounds of their legal status.
  • Adequate measures should be in place to ensure a gender-responsive approach in addressing the COVID-19 emergency in prisons and other places of detention.
  • Prisons and other detention authorities need to ensure that the human rights of those in their custody are respected, that people are not cut off from the outside world, and – most importantly – that they have access to information and adequate healthcare provision.
  • The COVID-19 outbreak must not be used as a justification for undermining adherence to all fundamental safeguards incorporated in the Nelson Mandela Rules.

It is relevant to note that in the latter section, the following key points concerning the access of independent monitors to closed settings during the current global public health emergency are underpinned, namely:

The COVID-19 outbreak must not be used as a justification for objecting to external inspection of prisons and other places of detention by independent international or national bodies whose mandate is to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; such bodies include national preventive mechanisms under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.”

Even in the circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak, bodies of inspection in the above sense should have access to all people deprived of their liberty in prisons and other places of detention, including to persons in isolation, in accordance with the provisions of the respective body’s mandate.” (p.5).

In this sense the WHO publication reinforces the core guidance advanced in recent weeks by other international authorities, including the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, European Committee on the Prevention of Torture and Penal Reform International.

Canadian prison administrators and human rights actors can download the publication and access other key COVID-19-related materials below.


Read the WHO publication, Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention.

See the WHO accompanying press release in English and French.

Read Professor Juan Mendez’ recent article on a healthy prison environment.

For other materials please visit the COVID-19: Deprivation of Liberty Information Corner.

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

COPCAT Shorts – CPT Statement of Principles on COVID-19

The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture issued on 20 March 2020 a Statement of Principles relating to the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty in the context of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The CPT’s Statement of Principles – copyright Council of Europe.

Even though Canada is only an Observer State before the Council of Europe, the CPT’s Statement of Principles has huge resonance in the Canadian context, more so at a time when so many persons deprived of their liberty in different settings are at potential risk of infection in the country.

The CPT press release accompanying the publication of the document stated the following:

“The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has created extraordinary challenges for the authorities of all member States of the Council of Europe”, says Mykola Gnatovskyy, President of the CPT. “There are specific and intense challenges for staff working in various places of deprivation of liberty, including police detention facilities, penitentiary institutions, immigration detention centres, psychiatric hospitals and social care homes, as well as in various newly-established facilities/zones where persons are placed in quarantine. Whilst acknowledging the clear imperative to take firm action to combat COVID-19, the CPT must remind all actors of the absolute nature of the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. Protective measures must never result in inhuman or degrading treatment of persons deprived of their liberty.”

In the CPT’s view, the Statement of Principles should be applied by all relevant authorities responsible for persons deprived of their liberty within the Council of Europe area. The Canada OPCAT Project would argue that the principles have potential application well beyond the 47-state European region, such is their important take on the widespread phenomenon of deprivation of liberty in the context of the developing global COVID-19 emergency.

Prison Tour – Steve Mays (2013).

The Statement of Principles comprise 10 key points which are currently available in English, French and Russian.

It is noteworthy that CPT Principle 10 states the following:

“Monitoring by independent bodies, including National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) and the CPT, remains an essential safeguard against ill-treatment. States should continue to guarantee access for monitoring bodies to all places of detention, including places where persons are kept in quarantine. All monitoring bodies should however take every precaution to observe the ‘do no harm’ principle, in particular when dealing with older persons and persons with pre-existing medical conditions.”

In this connection, the new CPT document echoes key guidance contained in a Briefing published earlier this week by the international NGO, Penal Reform International, as well as the key advice issued by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture to the UK NPM in February 2020.

The other nine principles in the CPT Statement equally merit close scrutiny. At just one page in length the 10 principles as a whole are readily and quickly digestible. Canadian readers are therefore kindly encouraged to consult the CPT’s Statement of Principles.

They may also wish to consult the recently added COPCAT’s COVID-19: Deprivation of Liberty Information Corner in order to access other resources and news materials on the current, quickly changing COVID-19-related conditions.


Read the Statement of Principles relating to the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty in the context of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in English, French or Russian.

Read the accompanying CPT press release in English or French.

Explore other CPT publications and tools under Other Resources.

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

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

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

COPCAT Shorts – Why the ICRC works in prisons?

The Canadian Red Cross monitors places of immigration detention in Canada, including federally-run detention centres and provincial prisons. The organization does so for some of the same reasons as depicted in the above video.

Published by the Canadian Border Services Agency on 14 February 2019, a first report highlighted the findings of Canadian Red Cross monitoring of immigration detention in Canada in the period September 2017 to March 2018. A French version of this key report is also available on the same website.   

According to the Canadian Red Cross, it endeavours to visit detention centres to which it has access four times per year with a view to making an assessment based on Canadian and international standards. During visits to detention centres it focuses on the following aspects:

  • the treatment of detainees (by staff and other detainees);
  • conditions of detention;
  • ability for detainees to contact and maintain contact with family members;
  • and legal safeguards.
Special Issue
Detained abstracts 1 by Greenmonster (2010).

More detailed information about the above approach can be found in a previously published article on this website about the first Canadian Red Cross annual report. Its main components are also highlighted in the featured video clip.

The number of migrants deprived of their liberty in Canada is not at all insignificant. According to the Canada Border Services Agency, in the fiscal year 2017-2018 some 8,355 persons were detained for a total of nearly 120,000 detention days in Canada. Of this number, 6,609 persons were held in one of the country’s three Immigration Holding Centres, while the remainder were detained in provincial and other facilities.

Over the past year the Canada OPCAT Project has published various articles on the detention of migrants in Canada, including on the December 2018 recommendation of the UN Committee against Torture that a permanent oversight structure be instituted in the country. If ever ratified by Canada, any future NPM under the OPCAT would inevitably require unfettered access to all facilities where migrants are deprived of their liberty throughout the country.

Yet with seemingly little progress on the OPCAT ratification front, such an NPM might be long in the coming. Thus, for the here and now the Canadian Red Cross’ monitoring of immigration detention remains a key part of the Canadian detention oversight framework, for some of the reasons very well explained in the above ICRC video.


Read Juan Mendez’s article on the Right to a Healthy Prison Environment.

Learn More about the recently published Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty.

Find out more about the Joint UN Statement on Child Immigration Detention.

Read an OPCAT Focus on Immigration Detention.

Posted by mp in Children deprived of liberty, ICRC, Immigration detention, Independent detention monitors, OPCAT, Oversight bodies

Plugging The Gap in Nova Scotia & Elsewhere

Canada has unquestionably no shortage of ombudsperson-type institutions. While not NPMs in the truest sense of the word, their annual reports can offer some important insights into the scope of deprivation of liberty in the country and the challenges often encountered in such contexts.

As highlighted on this website just a few short weeks ago, conditions of detention in Québec’s provincial prisons once again formed a core focus of the Québec Ombudsperson’s Annual Report 2018-2019, launched in late September 2019.

The Annual Reports of the Office of the Correctional Investigator always make for highly interesting reading, offering multiple deep insights into the treatment of prisoners in the federal prison estate.

The Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman is another very recent case in point. Tabled before the province’s House of Assembly in October 2019, its 2018-2019 Annual Report outlines the various roles and oversight mandates of the office, based on some 2,800 complaints, inquiries, and youth contacts in the 2018-2019 fiscal year. It also includes an illuminating focus on different forms of deprivation of liberty in the province.

Almost all provinces (bar Prince Edward Island) and one of the three territories, namely Yukon, have broad mandate ombudsperson-type institutions. The primary functions of these bodies are to receive and process grievances against public maladministration and to initiate investigations into wider systematic concerns. Consequently, all have some form of oversight of places of detention by dint of such functions.

The recently published Annual Report of the Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman is an illuminating example of an entity which is striving to exercise this oversight function over several detention domains. These include adult and youth correctional detention facilities as well as youth and senior care facilities.

On the basis of numbers alone, in 2018-2019 some 238 new complaints were handled by the Ombudsman from the province’s four main adult prison facilities, notwithstanding the additional 38 complaints which were filed concerning healthcare provision. It was noted that the four facilities were visited on at least a quarterly basis with other visits undertaken as required.

The Nova Scotia institution also exercises an oversight function over youth detention facilities, a responsibility which arose out of a key recommendation from the 1995 Stratton Report into alleged abuse in youth facilities in the province.

The most recent Annual Report goes into some detail concerning both its handling of complaints and outreach activities in relation to youth detention, noting the numbers of complaints handled by the mechanism (201 in the current reporting period) and the frequency of such visits to the different types of youth custodial facilities, some on a monthly basis, resulting in visit reports being prepared irrespective of whether a complaint is filed.

It is also notable that, in addition to youth detention, the institution also exercises a key oversight function over the provision of senior services in Nova Scotia, undertaking on-site visits to different social care facilities for older members of society. In the Annual Report the following crucial point is highlighted:

While youth and seniors may be at the opposite ends of the age spectrum, they share some things in common. For instance, youth and seniors, including those in care and custody, are some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

While Ombudsman Representatives encourage those in care and custody to address basic concerns with staff first and to take advantage of internal complaint resolution processes, Representatives do not hesitate to investigate allegations of mistreatment or abuse.” (36)

The above emphasis on elderly persons in care is even more resonant in the light of the latest report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, which was presented to the UN General Assembly Third Committee in late October 2019. In her report the UN Special Rapporteur states:

Older persons with disabilities face significant risks of violence, abuse and neglect. Several studies have shown that physical, cognitive and mental impairments are a strong risk factor for elder abuse … These abuses occur both in the community and in institutionalized settings, including hospitals, nursing homes and other residential settings, and include physical, psychological and sexual abuse, caregiver neglect and financial exploitation.” (§36)

In the report the UN Special Rapporteur recommends that NPMs, NHRIs and other mechanisms should be expressly mandated to carry out regular monitoring of facilities, as undertaken by the Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman.

stuck record
Catalina Aguilar Devandas, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities – UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré.

If the reader harbours any doubts whether care homes for the elderly would fall within the scope of OPCAT Article 4 then this question was robustly addressed in a recent academic article by Australian academic Laura Grenfell titled Aged care, detention and OPCAT, which was published in the Australian Journal of Human Rights earlier this summer. The author advances compelling reasons why such an all-encompassing approach to the notion of deprivation of liberty is required by NPMs.

Even though the Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman remains in essence a complaints-handling body (as opposed to an NPM), its broader approach to the concept of deprivation of liberty can only be welcomed. In view of the reality that OPCAT ratification appears a long way off in Canada, institutions like the Nova Scotia mechanism and its Quebec counter-part continue to fill an important gap in ensuring that at least some degree of independent oversight of places of detention is exercised at the provincial level.


Read the 2018-2019 Annual Report of the Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman in English and French.

Explore more about the activities of the institution in English and French.

See the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities on the rights of older persons with disabilities or read the related press release.

See the UN Special Rapporteur’s 2019 report on the right to security and liberty of person.

Download Laura Grenfell’s excellent journal article, Aged care, detention and OPCAT, in 25(2) Australian Journal of Human Rights (2019).

Posted by mp in Independent detention monitors, OPCAT, Oversight bodies, Places of detention, Young offenders

UN Committee on Migrant Workers – Draft General Comment No. 5 on Migrants’ Right to Liberty and Freedom from Arbitrary Detention

Migrant workers and members of their families often suffer severe human rights abuses with respect to immigration control measures, in particular those who are undocumented, including mandatory detention, being detained under punitive conditions, separating families, detaining children, barriers in accessing legal remedies, inhumane conditions, and lack of access to necessary services, in particular for vulnerable categories of migrants.

The main goal of General Comment No. 5 is to provide authoritative guidance to States in implementing their obligations under the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families regarding the right to liberty and freedom from arbitrary detention of all migrant workers and members of their families.  This general comment will also assist States in implementing relevant commitments contained in the Global Compact on Migration, as well as assist other stakeholders with advocacy initiatives in this context. The general comment will focus, inter alia, on the following:

…   
If detention is exceptionally resorted to consistent with the above standards, independent and regular monitoring of the detention conditions should be ensured in practice.

(Please see the original Concept Note for the full list of issues).

Excerpt from CMW Draft General Comment No.5 Concept Note and Call for Inputs, available here.

Even though Canada is neither a State Party to the Migrants Convention nor the OPCAT, Canadian human rights actors can still submit their comments on this important issue.

Stakeholders are invited to provide inputs to this initiative through a questionnaire by 1 April 2019, which can be found in English here. Submissions can be made in English, French or Spanish.

CMW
No title by David Johnson (2009).

Learn more about the Global Compact for Migration, adopted on 10 December 2018 at the intergovernmental conference held in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Read the UN Committee against Torture’s recommendations on immigration detention in Canada from 7 December 2018.

Explore the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Law Border Criminologies paper on monitoring immigration detention.

Find other detention monitoring tools and guides under Other Resources.

Posted by mp

COPCAT en bref: Pacte mondial pour des migrations

Objectif 13 : Ne recourir au placement en rétention administrative des migrants qu’en dernier ressort et chercher des solutions de rechange

29. Nous nous engageons à ce que le placement en rétention administrative dans le contexte des migrations internationales fasse suite à une procédure régulière, ne soit pas arbitraire, soit fondé sur le droit, dans le respect des principes de nécessité et de proportionnalité, et sur les conclusions d’évaluations individuelles, et soit opéré par des fonctionnaires autorisés et pour la période la plus courte possible, qu ’il intervienne lors de l’entrée sur le territoire, lors du transit ou dans le cadre d’une procédure de retour, et quel que soit le type de centre de rétention administrative utilisé. Nous nous engageons en outre à donner la priorité aux solutions non privatives de liberté qui sont conformes au droit international et à adopter une approche fondée sur les droits de l’homme en ce qui concerne la rétention administrative des migrants, en ne recourant à cette dernière qu’en dernier recours.

Afin de tenir ces engagements, nous puiserons dans les actions suivantes:

a) Utiliser les mécanismes de défense des droits de l’homme existants pour assurer un meilleur suivi indépendant de la rétention administrative des migrants, en veillant à ce que celle-ci ne soit utilisée qu’en dernier recours, qu’elle ne donne lieu à aucune violation des droits de l’homme et que les États encouragent, appliquent et cherchent d’autres solutions, en privilégiant les mesures non privatives de liberté et la prise en charge communautaire, en particulier pour les familles et les enfants;

Global Compact
UN Photo – Detail from Conference on Global Compact on Migration, 11 December 2018.

Lire le Pacte mondial pour des migrations en français, adopté le 10 décembre à Marrakech au Maroc.

Lire les recommandations du Comité des Nations unies contre la torture sur la détention d’immigration au Canada, publiées le 7 décembre 2018.

Posted by mp in Immigration detention, Independent detention monitors