Oversight bodies

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

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

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

COVID-19 – A Crucial Resource for Crucial Times

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

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

PRI’s COVID-19 prison Briefing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prison, Oslo – Erik (2017).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

See the related press release.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prison by Matthias Mueller (2007)

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

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

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


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

Read the related news release in English and French.

Check out the OCI backgrounder in English and French.

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

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

Canada’s National Travesty – Prison Indigenization

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

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

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

The Correctional Investigator stated:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

COPCAT Shorts – Why the ICRC works in prisons?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Read an OPCAT Focus on Immigration Detention.

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

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

Plugging The Gap in Nova Scotia & Elsewhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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