Young offenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Read the related press release.

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

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

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

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

New Report – Care In Custody: A Special Report on OC Spray and Segregation in Alberta’s Young Offender Centres

“The treatment of young people in custody should uphold their human rights, in alignment with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The current use of OC spray and segregation contradict the intention of the UNCRC and other United Nations rules and conventions. The Advocate urges the Young Offender Branch to review its policies and practices to ensure they align with the goals of its legislation and support the human rights of the young people they serve.”

Excerpt from the Executive Summary of the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate Alberta report, Care In Custody: A Special Report on OC Spray and Segregation in Alberta’s Young Offender Centres (September 2019).

The new report by the Child and Youth Advocate Alberta examines the use of oleoresin capsicum spray (OC spray) in the province’s two young offender centres, since its deployment by correctional staff was liberalized through a Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General policy change in May 2016. Alberta is currently one of only four provinces in Canada which permits the use of OC spray in young offender centres. Since its liberalization in 2016, the Child and Youth Advocate has found that “…OC spray use has increased significantly and continues to rise.” [12]

Care In Custody September 2019

The Child and Youth Advocate also investigated the use of segregation in young offender centres in the same report, highlighting various concerns. As a case in point, the office underscored: “It is alarming that segregation occurs in Alberta’s young offender centres without legislation to provide guidance and ensure accountability, transparency, and fairness.” [18] More specifically, the report stated the following:

“Alberta needs to reduce and regulate segregation in young offender centres. While recent legal changes, if implemented, will significantly restrict segregation in federal adult prisons, no comparable safeguards exist for Alberta’s young people. This discrepancy must be addressed because young people are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of segregation than adults; they require greater protection, not less. Alberta needs to strengthen policy, guidelines, and accountability measures to uphold the rights of young people in custody and to ensure that they receive the supports they need.” [24]

In the report the Child and Youth Advocate advances the following four recommendations:

1. OC spray should only be used in exceptional circumstances, if there is an imminent risk of serious physical harm to a young person or others.

2. The Young Offender Branch should review and update their policies and standards to reduce the number of hours a young person can be segregated, ensure that they receive appropriate programming and supports, and improve conditions within segregation.

3. The Young Offender Branch should develop an impartial complaints and review process for young people. An impartial multi-disciplinary committee that includes external stakeholders should hear complaints and reviews, and young people should have access to a supportive adult.

4. The Young Offender Branch should monitor and publicly report all incidents of OC spray use and segregation annually.

The detailed versions of these recommendations can be found in pages 29-31 of the report.

It is notable that the Child and Youth Advocate Alberta has not been the only detention oversight body to express such concerns. In March 2019 the Manitoba Ombudsman and Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth published the critical findings of a joint investigation into the use of pepper spray and solitary confinement in youth correctional facilities in the province, as highlighted on this website. Thus, the concerns of the Child and Youth Advocate Alberta concerning the use of OC spray and segregation appear to extend beyond the borders of the province.


Read the full report, Care In Custody: A Special Report on OC Spray and Segregation in Alberta’s Young Offender Centres.

Find out more about the work of the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate Alberta.

Read the reports of the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth and the Manitoba Ombudsman on the use of solitary confinement and pepper spray in youth detention.

Read the most recent ICPA External Prison Oversight Newsletter and its Focus on Solitary Confinement.

Posted by mp in Oversight bodies, Places of detention, Solitary confinement, Young offenders