Prisons

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

Reduce Prison Overcrowding, Reduce The Spread of COVID-19

Desperate times require bold thinking and even bolder measures, it has sometimes been argued, and the Copenhagen-based NGO Dignity have being doing just that in recent weeks.

In the run up to the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture the NGO, Dignity – Danish Institute Against Torture, has issued yet another top-rate, highly practical publication which tackles head-on the urgent need to reduce prison populations during the on-going pandemic.

This stunningly good new publication, titled Guidance Document on Reducing Overcrowding in Pre-Trial Detention and Prison in the Context of COVID-19 – Increasing the Use of Non-Custodial Measures, has been penned by Dignity’s long-time Legal Director Therese Maria Rytter and Legal Advisor Kalliopi Kambanella, and it arrives at a time when more and more of us are allowing ourselves to believe that perhaps this troublesome COVID-19 will soon be licked? However, are we jumping to a much-wished-for conclusion too soon?

Just this week, leading Canadian academics Rosemary Ricciardelli and Sandra Bucerius published a highly thoughtful, superbly argued article as part of the Royal Society of Canada’s COVID-19 Series, which, among its numerous excellent points, questioned whether the Canadian prison estate might be in for a second COVID-19 wave?

In the opinion piece, titled ‘Canadian prisons in the time of COVID-19: Recommendations for the pandemic and beyond’, which was also featured in the Globe and Mail on 23 June 2020, the authors wrote:

While the spread of COVID-19 has mostly been kept at bay in Canadian prisons (with some institutions having had concerning outbreaks, such as Mission Institution in British Columbia and the Multi-level Federal Training Centre in Quebec), we are not suggesting that fear of contagion has dissipated for staff, prisoners, and those who care for said persons. As Canada prepares for a potential second wave of COVID-19, CSC and the provincial/territorial governments must continue to undertake structured and informed decarceration efforts (i.e. efforts directed at reducing the number of people housed in Canadian prisons). While undoubtable not a simple undertaking, such actions would be in line with recommendations made by the UN and by a working group of the Council for Penological Co-operation (PC-CP) of the Council of Europe (who released a “COVID-19 related statement” in April 2020).

Simply put, for those Canadians who think they may have made it through the worst of it – prison administrators included – then please think again. Fortuitously, in this very same connection, Dignity’s newly launched Guidance Document gives us much to reflect on.

Reduce, reduce, reduce…

The accompanying press-release outlines the publication’s overall purpose:

The world is facing an unprecedented public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic comes at a time when the global prison population is record high with 11 million prisoners worldwide and with over 124 states reporting prison overcrowding. Globally, the pandemic has exposed and accelerated the detrimental consequences of chronic overcrowding in places of detention.

The pandemic warrants resolute action by states to reduce the prison population as an imperative for preventing an outbreak within the prison and, in turn, within society. Without compromising public safety, states must limit new admissions to prison and accelerate the release of certain categories of prisoners. To this end, states should consider increased use of non-custodial alternatives to detention and imprisonment.

Juvenile Detention Centre – Stuart McAlpine (2011).

Dignity’s two authors explain in 25 or so pages of useful, practical detail how such a reduction in a country’s prison population might be achieved in reality. The publication examines non-custodial measures at three main stages of the criminal justice process, namely (1) the pre-trial stage, (2) trial and sentencing stage, and (3) post-trial stage. In doing so, the authors draw on positive penal practice from across the globe in the context of the current global health emergency.

At the pre-trial stage, for example, non-custodial measures might include home arrest, reporting obligations, restrictions on leaving or entering a specific space without authorization, retention of travel documents, bail or bond, supervision by specific agency, and electronic monitoring. Country examples from India, Jordan and The Netherlands are cited.

At the trial and sentencing stage non-custodial measures might comprise fines, suspended or deferred sentences, probation or judicial supervision, community service, diversion to treatment, restrictions on movement, and electronic monitoring, with brief country examples offered from Thailand, Malaysia, USA and Norway.

Finally, at the post-trial stage non-custodial measures envelop an array of country examples in relation to non-custodial measures. These include parole or early conditional release, temporary release, compassionate release, pardon or amnesty, and electronic monitoring. In this section of the publication there are too many country examples to enumerate in these short pages – so just see for yourself.

Regrettably, Canada is not cited as an example in any of these three stages, despite there having emerged certain positive examples of non-custodial measures being employed at the provincial level, Ontario in particular. Even so, Dignity’s excellent publication warrants a much closer inspection.

And if those home-schooled children and maddeningly annoying bosses of yours have – once again – worn you down to the bone and you are even more time-poor than usual, you can always read the publication’s Executive Summary or overview of non-custodial measures. Busy parents of the world rejoice!

Finally, on a personal note, as we approach yet another International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June, the Canada OPCAT Project salutes and thanks you for your unflagging commitment to the cause. As our motley collection of posters remind us, a better torture-free world is one day possible.


Read Reducing Overcrowding in Pre-Trial Detention and Prison in the Context of COVID19 (23 June 2020) and the related press release.

Explore Dignity’s Legal Fact-sheets.

Read Rosemary Ricciardelli and Sandra Bucerius’ Royal Society of Canada COVID-19 Series article, ‘Canadian prisons in the time of COVID-19: Recommendations for the pandemic and beyond’.

Explore UNODC’s and the Thailand Institute of Justice’s highly rated Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures.

Posted by mp in COVID-19, Places of detention, Prisons

COPCAT Shorts – Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures Toolkit

Occasionally something really good just slips right by, leaving you wondering how you ever missed it in the first place? One would think that, battened down in the nation’s capital while waiting for life to jump-start, there would be precious little else to do than to keep up with current developments in the wonderful world of human rights law and criminal justice.

Alas, on this occasion it was the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ) to somehow fly so swiftly and stealthily low so as to successfully avoid the radar reflectors of Ontario.

Not to worry, published just a few short weeks ago via a high-profile webinar launch, UNODC and TIJ unleashed on the coronavirus-locked-down world a highly rated Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures. While not the most flashily or zippily titled resource, it most certainly does what it says on the tin.

A deeper dive into this new publication reveals an abundance of useful advice and guidance on alternatives to prison at all trial stages. Its introduction offers a depressingly succinct summary of the toolkit’s overall purpose:

Women are the fastest growing prison population across the world. As further outlined in this toolkit, poverty, discrimination, violence and a punitive legal responses are some of the key underlying causes behind the increase in female imprisonment. The harmful and negative impact of imprisonment on women, their families and communities has been widely documented.

More hopefully, it continues:

Since the adoption of the United Nations Rules on the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules), which complements the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules on Non-custodial Measures (the Tokyo Rules) and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), there has been increased attention on gender-responsive treatment of women in prison. This toolkit seeks to provide support and guidance on taking steps to ensure that women in contact with the law are not detained or imprisoned unnecessarily and that detention is used as a measure of last resort. The starting point for this toolkit is to take the least interventionist approach possible, acknowledging that in certain situations contact with the criminal justice system can be harmful to women. (1)

The 90-page publication is accordingly divided into the following three primary sections:

  • Identifying the needs of women in contact with the law;
  • Ensuring gender equality in the use and application of non-custodial measures;
  • Special categories of women.

The second section is the most comprehensive part of the toolkit, focusing on the different trial and sentencing stages in any given criminal justice process, accentuating the availability of non-custodial measures at all such phases. In so doing, it closely examines an array of alternatives to detention such as bail, arrest and supervised release in the pre-trial stage, combined with non-custodial sentences such as fines, suspended sentences, deferred sentences, home detention, community treatment orders, and community service orders during the later sentencing instances.

More impressively still, UNODC and TIJ are currently hosting a series of webinars under the title ‘Gender-Responsive Criminal Justice and Prison Reform‘, which run until 24 June 2020. Please click on the link above or see the flyer below for more detailed information:

As the flyer itself states:

Criminal justice and prison systems face unprecedented challenges that are amplified by the COVID-19 global pandemic. In a system primarily designed for men, gender-responsive approaches are crucial to ensure no one is left behind. Sustained action is needed to address the disproportionate increase in the imprisonment of women, and the lack of gender-specific health care and social reintegration programmes in prisons.

Readers could do much worse than idle away a few well-spent hours in the company of these virtual and non-virtual resources.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime are certainly no strangers to these pages, despite the organization’s somewhat deceptive moniker. The website has previously thrown a spotlight on its other first-class materials, including on the Nelson Mandela Rules and the importance of internal inspection of places of detention. In a word, UNODC continues to place into the public domain many excellent criminal justice-related materials with an invaluable human rights bent.

The Thailand Institute of Justice has similarly authored multiple first-class publications, not least the widely known and highly respected Global Prison Trends series, which it co-publishes with Penal Reform International.

If you were at a loss with what to do with yourself today, dear quarantined readers, then this short summary may have given you at least a couple of useful ideas. Apart from the endless house-work, full-time employment, and home-schooling your multiple children that is to say…

No matter, thank you for your visit. It will get better.

School Closed – Travis Wise (2020).

Download the publication, Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures.

Find out more about TIJ and UNODC’s global webinar series on ‘Gender-Responsive Criminal Justice and Prison Reform‘.

Read the Executive Summary of Global Prison Trends 2020 and the full report.

View other recently published prison-related materials with a focus on women and deprivation of liberty.

Posted by mp in Prisons, Tools, Violence Against Women, Women prisoners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prison by Matthias Mueller (2007)

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

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

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


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

Read the related news release in English and French.

Check out the OCI backgrounder in English and French.

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

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

Women in Prison – New Publication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Posted by mp in Prisons, Tools, Women prisoners

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 – New Dignity Fact Sheet

Dignity – Danish Institute Against Torture has unleashed on the torture-prevention world a brand new Fact Sheet. Published as No. 10 in Dignity’s superbly useful series of Legal Fact Sheets, its focus on Prisoner Contact Rights offers a succinct overview of this topic, citing various relevant international standards such as, among others, the UN Nelson Mandela Rules.

New Dignity Fact Sheet on Prisoner Contact Rights (November 2019).

Dignity’s entire collection of Legal Fact Sheets merit closer examination by detention monitors and human rights actors alike. To date, this distinguished Copenhagen-based international NGO has covered an array of important topics, including the following:

Legal No. 1 – Defining Torture

Legal No. 2 – Redressing Torture

Legal No. 3 – Preventing Torture

Legal No. 4 – Investigating Torture

Legal No. 5 – Criminalizing Torture

Legal No. 6 – Prosecuting Torture

Legal No. 7 – Safeguards in Police Custody

Legal No. 8 – Torture & Migration

Legal No. 9 – Pre-Trial Detention

Additionally, Dignity has also produced a non-numbered Fact Sheet on Corruption & Torture, a topic of concern highlighted on this website. If that were not enough for the over-worked, time-poor and possibly under-paid, but highly thought-of reader, the organization has published a whole range of other useful resources relating to the prevention of torture, not least on the broader issues of health and rehabilitation.

For Canadian readers perhaps less familiar with Dignity, now some 37 years into their existence, why not explore the organization’s website. After all, what is there not to like about this exceedingly fine international human rights organization?!


Read more about Dignity – Danish Institute Against Torture, including its long history.

Explore Dignity’s 10 different Legal Fact Sheets and other publications.

Learn more about the UN Nelson Mandela Rules and UNODC’s related posters.

Check out this website’s ‘Other Resources’ for more tools and reports about deprivation of liberty.

Posted by mp

COPCAT Shorts – Québec Ombudsperson’s Prison Focus 2018-2019

Conditions of detention in Québec’s provincial prisons have once again formed a core focus of the Québec Ombudsperson’s Annual Report 2018-2019, launched this past week.

During the period under review over 5600 complaints concerning prisons were processed by the institution, representing a sizeable increase over the previous year.

According to the Annual Report 2018-2019, the three most common grounds for complaint related to lengthy wait times, a failure of the authorities to respect the rights of persons deprived of their liberty, and the material conditions of detention. Once again, the institution focused on the extensive and prolonged use of solitary confinement.

A summary of the key concerns included the following:

  • The rules governing the use of physical restraints (handcuffs and chains) in correctional facilities go back more than 20 years. They must be updated so that there is better oversight of this practice in keeping with detainees’ rights.
  • Too often, correctional facilities resort to solitary confinement for extended periods and without any specific instructions to follow. The Québec Ombudsperson recommended that solitary confinement be limited to 15 days pending a new provincial instruction in this regard.
  • During its visits, the Québec Ombudsperson witnessed the dilapidated conditions at Leclerc de Laval and Baie-Comeau correctional facilities.
  • In the past three years, a large number of complaints from detainees to the Québec Ombudsperson have concerned health services in correctional facilities.

A more in-depth account of these concerns is available in the related chapter of the Annual Report.


Read the Québec Ombudsperson’s Annual Report 2018-2019. Read the report in French.

Consult the overview of prison-related concerns. Consult the French version.

Read the Québec Ombudsperson’s Annual Report 2017-2018. A French version is also available.

Find out who is the Québec Ombudsperson, including in French.

Could Canada’s many ombuds-type institutions play a role in the context of the OPCAT? Read on.

Posted by mp in Oversight bodies, Prisons

COPCAT Shorts – Indigenous Canada Featured in Global Prison Trends 2019

“Indigenous peoples are heavily overrepresented in prison populations – particularly in Australia, Canada and New Zealand – and this is a persistent and growing problem, especially for women.” (21)

“Women from Indigenous communities and ethnic minorities face significant disadvantages in the criminal justice system, due to the double discrimination of gender and race – which is usually coupled with poor socio-economic status and education. The rate of criminalisation and imprisonment of Indigenous women is particularly concerning in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.” (20)

“Nearly half of all youth who were in custody in Canada in 2016–17 were Indigenous, despite making up only eight per cent of the youth population.” (24)

Excerpts from Penal Reform International’s Global Prison Trends 2019.

Indigenous Canadians in PRI's report, Global Prison Trends

Global Prison Trends is Penal Reform International’s annual flagship publication series which identifies topical developments and challenges in criminal justice, and prison policy and practice at the global level. 

PRI sets out a raft of key recommendations in the report. These include:

  • States should closely monitor the representation of foreign nationals and people from ethnic and racial minority or Indigenous backgrounds in criminal justice systems. They should review sentencing policies or practices to determine if they are discriminatory, and develop specific measures to meet the rehabilitation and reintegration needs of these prisoners;
  • Countries that have not ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture should do so. (42-42)

Global Prison Trends 2019 can be downloaded here in English.

Read the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s (NWAC) policy backgrounder, Indigenous Women in Solitary Confinement.

Explore NWAC’s factsheet on Prison Issues.

The ICPA’s March 2019 newsletter on solitary confinement can be read here.

Examine the ICPA’s focus on independent oversight of prisons in Canada.

Posted by mp in Indigenous people, Prisons, Solitary confinement