OPCAT

Reeling In The Years – The Revised European Prison Rules

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

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

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

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

Guard Tower – Thomas (2017).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solitary – DieselDemon (2010).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night Lighthouse – Mark Vegas (2007).

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

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

93.2 Such independent monitoring bodies shall be guaranteed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Ontario Prisons: Something To Complain About?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Read the accompanying press release in English and French.

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

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

Posted by mp in OPCAT, Prisons, Senior care homes

Public Health Emergencies & Arbitrary Detention

Shudder to think that Canada might ever be plagued by anything worse than the current Covid-19 public health emergency. Yet the reality is that more than just a few unlucky countries are often beset by outbreaks of disease, sometimes both frequently and severely.

Whether the outbreaks are global, regional or national in scope, Cholera, Influenza, Plague, Smallpox, Ebola, Rift Valley Fever, Meningitis, Yellow Fever, Zika, SARS, Monkeypox and numerous other frighteningly sounding maladies typically afflict the inhabitants of such far less fortunate countries.

As someone who lived in West Africa during the 2014-2015 Ebola crisis, Covid-19 is one of just a number of dreadful blights out there, believe you me.

Yet even when such epidemics do visit upon a society, it is clear that those entities wielding power must not deprive persons of their liberty in an arbitrary manner, whether they be persons perceived to be suffering from a given health condition or otherwise.

Recently the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) issued an excellent new thematic position paper (known as a ‘Deliberation’) on ‘the prevention of arbitrary deprivation of liberty in the context of public health emergencies‘. From the title of the document, it is axiomatic that the principles contained therein would apply to an array of public health emergencies, and not just the present Covid-19 crisis.

In the accompanying press release, the UN Working Group recalled that:

…the prohibition of arbitrary detention is absolute even during times of public emergencies and urged governments worldwide to prevent arbitrary deprivation of liberty in the context of the measures currently adopted for controlling the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The statement continued:

In its newly adopted Deliberation No. 11, the expert group establishes a set of guidelines to prevent arbitrary deprivation of liberty during public health emergencies, stressing that any control measures “must be publicly declared, be strictly proportionate to the threat, be the least intrusive means to protect public health and imposed only while the emergency lasts”.

The Storm Breaks – Tim Sackton (2012)

What has any of the above to do with Canada, you might reasonably ask? In a word, the risk of arbitrary detention exists anywhere, more so during times of national crisis when emergency powers are resorted to or are legislated in quick measure.

What is more, a closer glance at the UN Working Group position paper reveals a wealth of advice and guidance of direct relevance to the Canadian context. In particular, paragraphs 12 to 16 literally jump off the page. For instance:

The Working Group … calls upon all States to pay particular attention to the requirements of necessity and proportionality of deprivation of liberty in the context of public health emergencies, such as the newly emerging emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic. (12)

In particular, States should urgently review existing cases of deprivation of liberty in all detention settings to determine whether the detention is still justified as necessary and proportionate in the prevailing context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, States should consider all alternative measures to custody. (13)

In view of the hotly-debated point of discussion whether the federal, provincial and territorial authorities have taken sufficiently swift steps to address existing levels of incarceration during the current public health emergency, the above excerpts are highly relevant. One need only peruse the multiple daily news articles on this topic, as featured on this website, to see why.

Arbitrary Limitations – Marcin Wichary (2008).

Similarly, paragraph 15 of the Working Group’s Deliberation echoes current calls to ensure that certain categories of detainees are released from detention in Canada, as follows:

The Working Group is aware that COVID-19 mostly affects persons older than 60 years of age, pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding, persons with underlying health conditions, and persons with disabilities. It therefore recommends that States treat all such individuals as vulnerable. States should also refrain from holding such individuals in places of deprivation of liberty where the risk to their physical and mental integrity and life is heightened.

And not forgetting Deliberation paragraph 16, which states the following:

Lastly, noting that overcrowding and poor hygiene pose a particular risk of spreading COVID-19, States should seek to reduce prison populations and other detention populations wherever possible by implementing schemes of early, provisional or temporary release for those detainees for whom it is safe to do so … Noting the obligation arising from the Convention on the Rights of the Child of not detaining children, particular consideration should be given to releasing children and women with children, and also those serving sentences for non-violent crimes.

Readers can make their own minds up whether the guidance in the above paragraphs has been followed across-the-board in Canada in the light of current day conditions. Clearly, certain provinces have acted more quickly than others, while federal prison decarceration has to date been limited.

Finally, as regards Canada’s severe, on-going case of OPCAT stupor, Deliberation No. 11 offers a much-needed tonic:

The Working Group encourages States to ratify the Optional Protocol to the
Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and States that are a party thereto to adhere to the advice of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture to States parties and national preventive mechanisms relating to the coronavirus pandemic.
(30)

The Working Group has also underscored a key point previously advanced by other influential actors:

The Working Group acknowledges the particular challenges that the prevailing public health emergency poses to such independent oversight as those involved in human rights monitoring seek to uphold the principle of “do no harm”. However, the prevailing public health emergency cannot be used as a blanket justification to prevent all such independent oversight. The Working Group calls upon all States to allow visits of independent oversight mechanisms to all places of deprivation of liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health emergencies. Due consideration should be given to such practical measures as staggering the visits of oversight bodies, allowing for extra telephone and internet contact and establishing hotlines and the use of personal protection equipment. (29)

In this respect the Working Group echoes other United Nations and Council of Europe advice, a conundrum recently discussed in-depth on this website.

In addition to the overall goldmine of human rights guidance and instruction contained in the paper, Deliberation No. 11 also lays down how any returning refusenik Snowbirds, or anyone else reluctant to self-quarantine for that matter, should be dealt with by the authorities. But readers will have to turn to paragraphs 8 and 19 of this first-class contribution to find out more.


Read UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Deliberation No. 11 on prevention of arbitrary deprivation of liberty in the context of public health emergencies. Read the accompanying press release.

Find out more about the work of the WGAD.

Explore the WGAD’s other Deliberations.

Will the WGAD ever undertake a fact-finding visit to Canada? Read more.

Posted by mp in Arbitrary detention, COVID-19, OPCAT, Oversight bodies, Places of detention

The Canadian Seniors Care Home Scandal – A Catalyst for Change?

Four years’ ago this week, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, declared to the world that the Optional Protocol would no longer be optional for Canada in the future, a full decade after Canada had originally hinted it would ratify the instrument in 2006.

Put it down to forgetfulness, institutional amnesia or even just debilitating procrastination, Canada has yet to make good on its stated commitment to finally put pen to paper at UN headquarters in New York and ratifying the instrument.

In so not doing, Canada may well have succeeded in setting a new world record for the longest OPCAT ratification process in the instrument’s history – at least for an advanced democracy – trailed in close second by the Republic of Ireland (which has, if nothing else, signed the instrument).

No other contenders for the record come to mind. On the other hand, quite a few other countries who lag significantly behind Canada in overall human rights terms have done so – long ago even. Argentina, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Serbia and Tunisia spring immediately to mind.

Guinness World Records 2020 – Debbie Harris (2019).

Over the years there has been no lack of international encouragement for Canada to make good on its commitment to ratify the OPCAT, not least by the UN Human Rights Council and UN Committee against Torture in 2018.

After undertaking fact-finding missions to these Canadian shores, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities both urged Ottawa to ratify the instrument in their 2019 reports.

So what goes on in Ottawa? Frankly, probably very little it would seem. The Canada OPCAT Project’s repeated attempts to elicit even a single atom of information about the not-on-going OPCAT ratification and consultation process through Access to Information & Privacy (ATIP) requests have proven largely ineffective.

A December 2019 ATIP request seeking clarity about whether Global Affairs Canada (supposedly the lead OPCAT ratification agency in Canada) had liaised with civil society groups on the ratification of the instrument since Canada’s examination by the UN Committee against Torture in Geneva in November 2018 has, to date, gone entirely unheeded.

The current Covid-19 emergency will undoubtedly squelch any remaining hope, no matter how dim, of ever receiving a reply to this eminently reasonable request.


Yet just look 360 degrees about you. If there were ever a time when effective, robust oversight of Canada’s closed institutions were needed, then that moment is right now.

The current Covid-19-related crisis in Canada’s long-term care homes for seniors is a sadly illustrative case in point. So far, fingers tightly crossed, the coronavirus health crisis has not severely afflicted the Canadian prison system in terms of fatalities. In stark contrast, however, private and state-run care homes for seniors have been utterly ravaged by the virus.

Unfathomably, seniors have been dying in scores in the very facilities designed to care for them. The sheer daily number of news entries listed in the COVID-19 Deprivation of Liberty Corner, reporting the appalling deaths and infection rates of society’s seniors, is a reflection of the current, depressingly critical situation.

Watch For Senior Citizens – Ethan Prater (2008).

Yet where are the rugged, independent mechanisms pointing the finger at and holding these facilities to account?

Is it entirely accidental that these most lightly regulated of institutions have fared so poorly in dealing with the existing pandemic? If the current death rates had plagued Canada’s prison estate, there would have been a unshakable national scandal by now, and rightly so.

Yet where is the seething anger regarding how Canada’s seniors are being treated?

Robust, independent oversight is not a panacea to society’s closed institutional ills, even more so at moments of public emergency like the present. Yet it is a pretty decent start.

It can ensure that the human rights and dignity of persons found therein, whether they be senior citizens, migrants or prisoners, are observed during both the best and worst of times.

If there is nothing like a raging public row to clear the air, then that moment is arguably the present. Increasingly thunderous calls for change in how senior care is operated in Canada should result in a complete overhaul of the private and public long-term care system for the elderly, resulting in sweeping change which incorporates robust, independent oversight thereof at all jurisdictional levels.

The OPCAT human rights instrument could be a key component of this much-needed change-process.

Sidewalk Reassurance – Travis Wise (2020).

From an OPCAT perspective, the question of whether senior care homes fall within the scope of OPCAT Article 4’s definition of deprivation of liberty has long been settled. Furthermore, the highly respected European Committee for the Prevention of Torture has been visiting care homes of different types for many years as part of its core detention monitoring mandate.

In August 2019 leading Australian academic Laura Grenfell made some excellent arguments why seniors’ homes fall squarely within the scope of OPCAT Article 4 in a journal article titled Aged care, detention and OPCAT, featured in the Australian Journal of Human Rights. The latter journal has devoted invaluable space in recent months to the important issue of OPCAT implementation in Australia, several articles from which have been highlighted in the OPCAT Academics section of this website.

In the said article Professor Grenfell underpinned the crucial importance of independent oversight of senior care facilities, as follows:

Current federal and state schemes for the monitoring and oversight of closed aged care facilities are inadequate. This is largely due to the hodgepodge of standards and existing inspection bodies’ lack of expertise. It is critical for civil society to encourage government to adhere to and resource best-practice OPCAT monitoring for aged care facilities where people are detained in closed units. Monitoring by NPM teams using rigorous and nationally consistent human-rights-based standards will allow the risks facing a vulnerable group of people – who, in SA ICAC’s words, ‘lack any voice themselves’ and are ‘entirely dependent upon others for their care and their safety’ (South Australian Independent Commissioner Against Corruption 2018, 190) – to be assessed. People who are deprived of their liberty in closed aged care units are in a vulnerable position and are at a disproportionately high risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Closed units in aged care facilities should not be allowed to fall under the OPCAT radar.

What has come to pass in Canada’s long-term care facilities for seniors can never be allowed to happen again. The need for robust regulation and effective, hard-wearing arms-length oversight of such institutions should be the catalyst for a long overdue, re-energized national discussion on the ratification and implementation of the OPCAT in Canada.

As opposed to further OPCAT procrastination, Canada should strive to be a world record-breaker in how it treats its senior members of society as a barometer of its commitment to everyone’s human rights – the young and the old. After all, we are all headed in the same direction. The effective implementation of the OPCAT could make a decisive contribution to this overarching process.

Yet with the ratification of the OPCAT being entirely a figment of someone else’s imagination in Canadian government circles these days – or seemingly so – something fundamentally needs to change in Ottawa’s corridors of power.

Four further years of OPCAT procrastination, after the country’s then Minister of Foreign Affairs very publicly committed to OPCAT ratification, is nothing to be proud of. In view of the current seniors care homes scandal, sitting on one’s hands no longer remains an acceptable national policy option.


Read Laura Grenfell’s article, Aged care, detention and OPCAT in the Australian Journal of Human Rights.

Explore other academic articles in OPCAT Academics.

Learn more about the OPCAT ratification process in Canada.

Find other materials on Covid-19 and detention.

Posted by mp in Australia, Civil society, Consultation, OPCAT, Oversight bodies, Senior care homes

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

A Silence Not Golden – ATIP Request Update

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

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

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

Silence, please – Shawn Rossi (2008)

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

“Complete the process towards accession to the Optional Protocol to the Convention, while introducing mechanisms to ensure the participation of civil society, indigenous groups and other stakeholders in the entire process.” [§21d]

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

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

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

In late January 2020 Global Affairs Canada responded, stating that it required an additional 45-days to process the request, which, according to the relevant legislation, was due no later than 7 March 2020.

Silence is golden – Lorie Shaull (2015)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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