NPMs

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

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

UN Disability Expert Urges OPCAT Ratification

In a recently published report the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities has called on Canada to ratify the OPCAT. In doing so, she joins an array of other UN experts and mechanisms to have urged Canada to ratify the instrument in recent years.

Following her April 2019 fact-finding mission to Canada, the UN’s top disability expert urged “… the Government of Canada to ratify the Optional Protocol on the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and to establish a national preventive mechanism.” (please see §79) This key recommendation was made in the report of the visit published on 19 December 2019.

In her report Catalina Devandas-Aguilar expressed concern about the deprivation of liberty and involuntary treatment of persons with disabilities in Canada, a wider issue of concern which was previously verbalized in a 2019 report. The UN disability expert stated:

The Special Rapporteur was informed that the number of involuntary hospitalizations was increasing. Furthermore, a significant number of persons with psychosocial disabilities cannot leave hospital due to the lack of community-based alternatives. The extensive use of seclusion and restraints, including chemical restraints, is also a concern, especially since there is no independent monitoring of mental health facilities. [see §79]

The UN Special Rapporteur further recommended that the government establish independent monitoring mechanisms at the provincial and territorial level for centres for deprivation of liberty, including hospitals and institutions [see §101e].

disability expert
Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, United Nations, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities during A Day For All Event, 3 December 2015 – Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

In Canada’s 14-page response to the UN Special Rapporteur’s report of the mission to Canada dated 24 December 2019, the Canadian Government did not offer any comment or provide additional information on the recommendation that Canada ratify the OPCAT.

In issuing the OPCAT recommendation, the UN disability expert joins the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women who issued this same recommendation after a country visit to Canada in 2018.


Read the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities of her April 2019 mission to Canada.

Read the response of Canada to the report.

Learn more about the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities in English and French.

Visit the UN Special Rapporteur’s Embracing Diversity website, including its section on Canada.

Posted by mp in NPMs, OPCAT, UN Special Rapporteur

More Essential Christmas Reading – The UNCAT & its Optional Protocol

Christmas really did come early this year – very early.

Who would have thought that the second edition of the key publication, The United Nations Convention against Torture and its Optional Protocol: A Commentary would ever be made available free-of-charge as an open source document? The book currently retails at over 400 CDN, but you can access an electronic version for free (by clicking on the Open Access icon on the top right of the screen at the following link). Its editors Manfred Nowak, Moritz Birk and Guiliana Monina as well as the publishers have our immense thanks!

Flabbergasted? Entirely.

Originally published by Oxford University Press in 2008, this key reference work on the UN Convention against Torture and its Optional Protocol now has updated sections, including on the implementation of the OPCAT and the operation of NPMs in practice. The publication is a veritable goldmine for countries like Canada which have yet to ratify the OPCAT and might require an authoritative account of the instrument’s main articles.

For the record, while Professor Nowak et al edited and wrote much of this volume, the majority of the 300-odd pages in the section of the book focusing on the OPCAT were penned by Kerstin Buchinger and Stephanie Krisper. Both writers have been engaged in the activities of the Austrian NPM, the Austrian Ombudsman Board, so have experienced NPM work at first hand.

Over a decade ago this Canada OPCAT Project writer was only ever able to read the first edition of this fantastic tome, as Professor Nowak had very kindly presented a copy as a gift to the Association for the Prevention of Torture, where this author was employed at the time – such was its hefty cost. In a nutshell, the Canada OPCAT Project is therefore only too pleased to bring to your attention this excellent resource, which readers might wish to put right on top of their Christmas reading list.


Discover more essential Christmas reading on the OPCAT here.

Access Nowak et al The UN Convention against Torture and its Optional Protocol: A Commentary.

Explore the OPCAT Academics section of this website.

Posted by mp in NPMs, OPCAT, Publication, Tools

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture at 30

The eminent regional torture prevention body, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), recently hit a hugely important milestone in its lifetime, celebrating its 30th anniversary. It would be no exaggeration to state that this distinguished Council of Europe detention monitoring body has lead the way torture prevention-wise and has set a very high global standard for the operation of other UN and regional mechanisms.

Image taken from the CPT web document, Preventing torture in Europe: The CPT at thirty, available here.

Moreover, the many torture prevention tools it has developed are unique and are potentially a superbly useful resource for Canadian human rights actors, despite Canada not belonging to the Council of Europe as an entity. The recent launch of an online torture prevention course is an illuminating case in point, as are the CPT’s many other resources, which are also highlighted on this website.

The 30th anniversary of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture was celebrated at the Palais de l’Europe in Strasbourg, France on 4 November 2019, and was marked by a high-level opening ceremony and conference titled ‘Implementing Safeguards in the First Hours of Police Custody’. Canadian readers can watch both events on demand in English and French at the links below. The keynote speech delivered by the CPT’s former long-term President, Silvia Casale, in particular merits closer attention.

In a nutshell, the Canada OPCAT Project wishes the CPT a very happy 30th anniversary and congratulates it on three decades of unparalleled work in preventing torture and other ill-treatment in the Council of Europe region as well as, equally as importantly, for empowering other actors to do so.

Even though the Council of Europe’s overall legal framework may not directly apply to Canada, the standards and tools developed by the CPT over the course of three decades are still highly relevant, not least as they advance and draw on best practice.

Moreover, a standard practice on the part of the CPT is to recommend to states to put in place independent oversight bodies with responsibility for monitoring different places of detention and to ratify the OPCAT and institute effective NPMs, as highlighted in the organization’s 22nd General Report from 2012. The CPT’s many resources are there to be explored, especially for Canadian readers who may be less familiar with the organization.

In short, may the CPT’s excellent work continue for many more decades to come. Happy Birthday!


Read the CPT retrospective, Preventing torture in Europe: The CPT at thirty in English and French.

Visit the CPT’s 30th anniversary web-page in English and French.

Watch the opening 30th anniversary ceremony in English and French.

Watch the 30th anniversary conference in English and French.

Read the CPT’s 22nd General Report with a focus on NPMs in English and French.

Posted by mp

Paving the Way for OPCAT in Australia: A Model for Canada?

Children and young people in Victorian prisons and youth justice systems are being damaged rather than rehabilitated through excessive use of isolation and separation, the Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass has concluded in a new report.

During the institution’s inspections of three Victorian facilities for young offenders earlier in 2019, the Victorian Ombudsman found practices that were incompatible with domestic and international human rights law. Her critical findings on the use of solitary confinement in the three facilities are presented in the following video presentation.

The thematic focus of the Victorian Ombudsman report is highly relevant to the Canadian context at a time when domestic oversight bodies have expressed increasing concern about similar isolationary practices relating to young offenders in several provinces. Just this past week the Child and Youth Advocate Alberta issued a critical report on such questionable practices in the province.

This important thematic focus aside, it was also highly significant for Canadian actors that the Victorian Ombudsman conducted her inspection against the rigorous standards of the OPCAT and thus with the requirements of the OPCAT clearly in mind.

Hot off the presses – the new Victorian Ombudsman OPCAT inspired report.

What is more, the aforementioned investigation and related report are the second occasion on which the institution has assumed an OPCAT approach to a detention monitoring inquiry without being formally designated as an NPM. Could Canadian detention monitors adopt a similar model? There is no reason why not.

Regular visitors to these pages will recall that Australia ratified the OPCAT in December 2017, albeit postponing the domestic implementation of the instrument for three-years, as permitted under OPCAT Article 24. Currently discussions are on-going as regards to the composition of the country’s future NPM, as explored in multiple past academic articles highlighted on the Canada OPCAT Project website.

Nonetheless, the Victorian Ombudsman has proactively grasped the challenge of conducting monitoring visits in light of new OPCAT conditions. Regrettably, certain Ombudsperson-like institutions designated as NPMs have adopted a ‘business as usual’ approach to their preventive work, treating their existing organizational structure and complaints-handling focus as being virtually synonymous with their OPCAT focused responsibilities and activities. This unfortunate reality was highlighted in a Canada OPCAT Project paper from earlier this year.

In stark contrast, the Victorian Ombudsman has seemingly reflected long and hard on what is required to be an effective NPM. The 50-or-so-page first part of this impressive report is devoted to this singular challenge, suitably titled ‘Implementing OPCAT in Victoria’. In doing so, it examines the key NPM principles as well as the different centralized (single entity NPMs) and de-centralized (multi-entity NPMs) structures which could feasibly be adopted in the state of Victoria.

In this analysis the report draws on NPM country examples from elsewhere, including Norway, Georgia, Denmark, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, highlighting the national processes leading to NPM designation, the legislative footings of the respective mechanisms as well as, crucially, their resourcing. Canadian readers perhaps less familiar with other national NPM designation processes may find this section of the Victorian Ombudsman report especially illuminating.

The same section of the report also examines in greater detail which NPM arrangement might be implemented in the state of Victoria, employing a ‘pro and con’ tick-box analysis of each model, as depicted below.

The report then explores how a centralized and de-centralized NPM model might look in practice, particularly in view of the six existing monitoring bodies in the state of Victoria. Various recommendations are made in this connection, including that:

Under a ‘unified’ model, and to avoid unnecessary duplication, a single independent body should be designated NPM for Victoria, to operate with a legislatively mandated Advisory Group as described in the following paragraphs. The NPM mandate should be distinct from existing functions, fully comply with the principles and requirements of OPCAT, and be enshrined in legislation.” [§269]

The shape and structure of the legislatively mandated Advisory Group is outlined in the report. Taking into account the length, frequency and number of potential inspections of the future mechanism the study presents a consideration of the size and cost of the Ombudsman’s vision of an NPM for Victoria. Impressively, highly detailed charts are presented of the costs associated with visiting different categories of detention facilities in the state, including prisons, police station, mental health centres, and child and youth facilities. In this regard the report concludes as follows:

An NPM conducting regular inspection of all primary places of detention in Victoria should comprise approximately 12 Full Time Equivalent staff and have an operating budget of approximately $2.5 million.

There are further efficiencies in designating a single NPM, as the inspection function can be subject to a single budget bid taking into account the full range of work required, and the NPM can provide resources to other agencies as necessary within the overall allocation.” [§304-305]

The remainder of the report titled Inspection Report consists of several sections, including a discussion on the rationale for looking at the topic of solitary detention of young persons and the methodology employed by the mechanism. It is notable that in the outset of part 2 of the report the Victorian Ombudsman emphasizes the key, sometimes forgotten point (in bold below):

Following her 2017 report about OPCAT, the Ombudsman decided to conduct a second own motion investigation, in light of her investigative human rights function and to further contribute to discussions about OPCAT’s implementation in Victoria.

In deciding to conduct this investigation, the Ombudsman noted the ratification of OPCAT is an important symbol of Australia’s commitment to human rights and community safety, and its implementation in Victoria is equally important in ensuring that commitment is not merely symbolic.” [§307-308]

In terms of the OPCAT-inspired monitoring methodology of the thematic investigation into solitary confinement, a so-called OPCAT Advisory Group was established, comprising 14 representatives of various Victorian oversight bodies and civil society organizations. In advance of the visits to the three youth detention facilities pre-inspection training was given and various inspection tools were developed. In some detail the report outlines the methodology of the visits to the different facilities.

The remaining chapters of the report detail the inspections of the detention facilities under scrutiny, namely Port Phillip Prison, Malmsbury Youth Justice Precinct and the Secure Welfare Services at Ascot Vale and Maribyrnong, concluding with some 27 related recommendations. Readers wishing to learn more about the detailed findings of the report should consult it directly or watch the video presentation of the report above.

As for Canada, there is no reason why a similar OPCAT-inspired approach could not be emulated by domestic detention monitoring bodies. This year already, several government arms-length oversight bodies have published thematic reports, highlighting various concerns about different places of detention. Despite the fact that OPCAT ratification by Canada appears a long way off and next to no consultation has to date taken place with Canadian civil society on possible implementation of the instrument, the same highly welcome OPCAT-inspired tack of the Victorian Ombudsman could be followed in the country.

Once again, we see that Australia has potentially much to offer Canada in terms of its overall approach to preparing the way for the implementation of the OPCAT in the country. Thus, a loud, resonating round of applause must be extended to the Victorian Ombudsman in pushing along the OPCAT process with this highly thoughtful, if not striking report.

Canadians – get ready (for OPCAT), set, go?


Read the Victorian Ombudsman report, OPCAT in Victoria: A thematic investigation of practices related to solitary confinement of children and young people.

Read the related press release.

Examine the Victorian Ombudsman’s first OPCAT inspired report on women in prison, Implementing OPCAT in Victoria: report and inspection of the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre.

Learn more about how the OPCAT is being implemented in Australia and the related challenges.

Interested in OPCAT visuals? Watch other imaginative ways in which different oversight mechanisms are highlighting their work.

Posted by mp in Australia, NPMs, OPCAT, Oversight bodies, Solitary confinement, Young offenders