#Canada

Webinar ‘COVID-19 and North American Corrections: Lessons for Australia’

If you missed this now past webinar, you can watch it on demand here.

The related PowerPoint presentations can also be accessed here.

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Depending upon exactly where you are in the world, set to take place on either 7th or 8th September, this is a webinar you will not want to miss out on! Incurable Australian OPCAT enthusiast Steven Caruana has pulled together yet another first-class panel of speakers, this time to reflect on the critical question of whether there are any key lessons for Australia from how the USA and Canada have responded to the current COVID-19 pandemic in prisons.

The spotlight will first fall on Canada, whose prisons – so far at least – have appeared to have escaped the very worst ravages of the current pandemic. This timely discussion will be led by the current Canadian Correctional Investigator, Ivan Zinger, followed by Ontario Independent Advisor on Corrections, Howard Sapers, and leading Public Health and Preventive Medicine Physician, Fiona Kouyoumdjian.

In stark contrast, as has been widely documented, many prison institutions south of the 49th parallel find themselves in truly dire straits. The current state of affairs in the USA will be explored by leading medical experts, Homer Venters and Brie Williams, and penal reform activist Adnan Khan. Please click on the biographies of the different speakers to find out more about the webinar presenters.

As the webinar host, Thalia Anthony, a penal reform activist and law professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, will pull the discussion tightly together and coax out the most relevant COVID-19-related lessons for prison institutions in Australia.

During these different presentations webinar viewers will learn at first hand about the respective COVID-19 prison situations in Australia, Canada and USA, whether restrictive locked-down regimes have succeeded in protecting prisoners and staff alike, and whether prison decarceration has been an effective solution in countering the worsening pandemic.

You can watch the webinar on Zoom by requesting an invitation from Steven Caruana: steven_caruana1@hotmail.com. Please send requests early, as participation is limited to 400 persons and the seats are sure to fill up quickly!

Viewers in Ottawa/New York can watch the webinar at 7 pm on Monday 7th September 2020.

Viewers in Australia should tune into the webinar at 9 am on Tuesday 8th September (Australian Eastern Standard Time).


In the meantime, why not spend the next week exploring several of the other exciting seminars in the current series? Take a look below:

  • Human Rights and Detention in the time of COVID-19watch here;
  • The Relationship Between Civil Society and the National Preventive Mechanismwatch here;
  • Culturally Appropriate Oversight of Detained Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander People in the Northern Territorywatch here;
  • Implementing OPCAT in Australiawatch here.

Many thanks to Steven Caruana for all of the above information and links.

Posted by mp in COVID-19, Prisons

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

COVID-19: Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?

This troublesome question of whether to stay or to go is one not just to afflict a famous English punk rock band some four decades ago. Rather, it is one today to rack the human rights hearts and minds of detention oversight mechanisms from all over – in this new, but far less brave COVID-19 world of ours.

Boiled down, the burdensome decision to be reached is whether inspection bodies, OPCAT mechanisms or not, should continue to exercise their core detention visiting function in the wake of the current, seemingly quickly deteriorating global health pandemic? At first blush, the general answer to this quandary, while certainly far from clear, appears to be a somewhat reluctant not – at least not physically.

Wash Your Hands (COVID-19 Self-Protection Advice – William Murphy (2020).

Less than a week ago, the Canadian Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, marked out the monitoring position of his institution in the following statement issued in English and French:

The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has implemented exceptional COVID-19 measures that will affect routines and conditions of confinement in Canada’s federal penitentiaries, including suspension of all visits until further notice.  At this time, though regular and scheduled institutional visits from OCI staff members have also been temporarily suspended and most staff are working remotely from home, as an external independent oversight body the Office of the Correctional Investigator will maintain an essential level of services and operations, including regular situational monitoring… As the situation evolves, the Office will consider making emergency institutional visits on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration directions from health authorities.”

This position appears to strike a crucial balance between doing no harm, keeping a close eye on the current, fast-moving situation, and reserving the ultimate right to knock hard on any institutional door, if needs must. The emerging global practice suggests that the Canadian Correctional Investigator may not be alone in adopting such a stance.

Elsewhere in Canada the situation is less clear. While on one hand, the Ombudsman Ontario is working remotely and liaising with the detaining authorities from afar, the approach of the country’s other provincial and territorial ombuds-type bodies is ambiguous.

Flower Stream – Rennett Stowe (2020).

For the most part, the country’s patchwork system of ombudsperson institutions have issued statements, informing the public that they have closed their doors with a view to limiting face-to-face contact with the masses and/or are working remotely. Unlike, the Office of the Correctional Investigator, however, no detailed information is generally provided about the modalities of any interaction with the detaining authorities over which they have an oversight function.

Ideally, one would hope that a similar approach to the Correctional Investigator has been adopted, but in the absence of specific information this assumption is far from certain. The Office of the Human Rights Commissioner of British Columbia, for example, has simply stated that its employees are working remotely until 30 April 2020.

Similar missives have been posted on the websites of the Le Protecteur du Citoyen Quebec, Alberta Ombudsman, Ombudsman Saskatchewan, Manitoba Ombudsman, Ombud New-Brunswick, Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman, and the Office of the Northwest Territories Ombud. Somewhat surprisingly, a small minority of ombuds-institutions currently have no COVID-19 operational-related information on their websites.

Prison Tower – Jobs For Felons Hub (2016).

International practice

Despite putting on hold its own programme of international visits, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) has encouraged National Preventive Mechanisms under the OPCAT to continue to exercise their preventive visits function. In key guidance issued this past week, the SPT stated the following:

“Numerous NPMs have asked the SPT for further advice regarding their response to this situation. Naturally, as autonomous bodies, NPMs are free to determine how best to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic within their respective jurisdictions.” [6]

Even so, the SPT underscored the fundamental importance of conducting visits to all places of deprivation of liberty as broadly defined by the OPCAT:

“The SPT would emphasise that whilst the manner in which preventive visiting is conducted will almost certainly be affected by necessary measures taken in the interests of public health, this does not mean that preventive visiting should cease. On the contrary, the potential exposure to the risk of ill-treatment faced by those in places of detention may be heightened as a consequence of such public health measures taken. The SPT considers that NPMs should continue to undertake visits of a preventive nature, respecting necessary limitations on the manner in which their visits are undertaken. It is particularly important at this time that NPMs ensure that effective measures are taken to reduce the possibility of detainees suffering forms of inhuman and degrading treatment as a result of the very real pressures which detention systems and those responsible for them now face.” [7]

This position has been echoed by other authoritative international bodies, including just last week by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. The World Health Organization also chimed this same key point in a recent publication, as discussed on this website.

Prison Riot Squad – Jobs For Felons Hub (2016).

National-level developments

At the national level, detention monitoring practice in the light of the spiraling global COVID-19 crisis appears to be more of a mixed picture.

Fairly early on into the crisis, on 16 March 2020, the French NPM, the Le Contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté announced its suspension of visits. Similarly, across la Manche, the next day Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales Peter Clarke stated that the mechanism had postponed future visits for nearly two-and-a-half months. The published statement read:

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, has announced that all scheduled inspection work involving visits to prisons or other places of State detention in England and Wales has been suspended up to the end of May 2020. This will affect around 15 full inspections, independent reviews of progress and visits as part of thematic inspection work. This decision will be kept constantly under review in the light of COVID-19-related developments.”

Not too long afterwards, on 25 March, the Swiss NPM, the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture followed suite in a letter addressed to the prison and health authorities, ostensibly so as not to overburden the prison authorities.

In Scotland, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, also announced a suspension of all such visits. However, in a statement issued on 31 March the Chief Inspector reaffirmed that the institution was committed “… where possible, to undertake a liaison visit to any prison establishment where we believe the urgency to visit outweighs our precautions related to COVID-19.”

The above position was not entirely dissimilar to the stance adopted by the Canadian Correctional Investigator.

COVID-19 notice – Iain Cameron (2020).

These bodies (all of which are part of the UK NPM) are not alone. Dame Anne Owers, the National Chair of the Independent Monitoring Boards, the lay-visitor prison and immigration detention monitoring scheme in England and Wales, issued a statement on 30 March, marking out a similar position:

“Boards will be able to carry out some limited on-site work where it is safe and feasible to do so. However, we have also developed remote methods of providing some independent assurance at a time of heightened concern for prisoners and detainees.”

Staying in Albion for a moment longer, the overall UK NPM Chair, John Wadham, wrote to Secretary of State Robert Buckland the same day stating the following:

Firstly, NPM members are developing risk criteria that allow them to respond to allegations or concerns about potential ill treatment that warrant some kind of visit to be conducted. In most situations, these visits would be carried out by one or two people and follow a much more targeted methodology than normal inspections/monitoring visits. Secondly, NPM members are developing new approaches to remote forms of monitoring. Given the rapidly changing picture across different detention settings and the severity of the measures that are being imposed (restriction of family visits, long periods of isolation, limitations on exercise and association), NPM members are looking into how they can monitor the situation using data from a range of sources, including from detention authorities themselves, via phone lines and correspondence, and from wider stakeholders.”

Just to add further colour to the palette, Katie Kempen, the Chief Executive of the Independent Custody Visiting Association, the organizational entity supporting the lay-person police visiting scheme in the UK (which is also part of the country’s 21-body NPM), stated on 25 March that such visits could continue. Volunteer independent custody visitors deemed high-risk (due to their age or health) would be exempt from such activities. However, she stressed that remote monitoring possibilities were also being considered.

In sum, a range of options seem to be on the table in the United Kingdom.

It bears noting that the Canadian Correctional Investigator and the UK NPM’s use of a range of options (some remote, some not) to monitor closed settings mirror-image the key advice advanced by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture in last week’s guidance document (please see paragraphs 12 and 13).

Quarantine-related powers

As an interesting aside (at least we think so), at least two NPMs have issued statements, stressing that, despite any public emergency measures, they retain the power to access any compulsorily quarantined individuals and/or related detention facilities.

The Public Defender of Georgia issued a statement on 17 March, noting that her office would consider monitoring facilities or persons who had been quarantined, provided that certain conditions were met, such as the safety of the monitoring team and non-interference with healthcare provision were ensured.

Across the border in Armenia, likewise the Human Rights Defender of Armenia reaffirmed in no uncertain terms in a FAQ document published on 27 March that it cannot be prevented from exercising its monitoring activities during the present state of emergency in the country, remarking:

“Restrictions enforced in the declared state of emergency cannot hinder the activity of the Human Rights Defender. The right to apply to Human Rights Defender is of absolute character and is not subject to restriction in state of emergency.”

Whether the two NPMs in question will actively opt to exercise their stated rights to visit quarantined individuals in places of deprivation of liberty remains to be seen – as the situation unfolds.

Prison Fence Barbed Wire – Jobs For Felons Hub (2016).

In conclusion: staying or going?

As for other detention monitoring entities, concrete information about whether such bodies – to quote our favourite English punk rock band – have decided to stay or to go is somewhat scant.

A random scan of the websites of a range of different inspection mechanisms revealed little concrete information in this connection, including those of the Commissioner for Human Rights in Ukraine, Commissioner for Human Rights in Kazakhstan and the Office of the Inspector of Prisons in Ireland, which remains altogether silent on the issue of COVID-19.

At the time of writing, no information about the curtailment of visits had been posted on the respective websites of the Austrian and German NPMs, the Austrian Ombudsman Board and the National Agency for the Prevention of Torture.

In Moldova, the People’s Advocate (comprising an important element of the country’s NPM) has created a section on its website for the purpose of monitoring human rights violations during the present health crisis. A press release issued on 30 March strongly suggested that the mechanism would be handling any such complaints remotely and would be liaising from a distance with the relevant government agencies. While no direct mention was made of the suspension of visits, one might conclude from the above that this has been in fact the case.

With 71 designated NPMs in the world and numerous other detention oversight mechanisms, the reader will appreciate why this – wholly unintended – mini-research project on the part of the Canada OPCAT Project very quickly ran out of steam. And to think, we barely left Europe!

Thankfully help has come to the rescue in the shape of a recent research initiative by the Expert Network on External Prison Oversight and Human Rights. The latter has arrived at a very timely moment.

The Network, which is hosted by the Independent Corrections and Prisons Association and chaired by the Canadian Correctional Investigator, is aiming to compile information about the impact of COVID-19 on the work of detention monitoring bodies, including the measures taken to respond to this crisis as well as any related lessons learned. The findings of the research, to be shared in future newsletters, will be very revealing of how NPMs and other bodies are adapting to the quickly changing COVID-19 circumstances.

The research will thus no doubt shine a brighter light on the pressing question of how such bodies are continuing to exercise their all-important preventive visiting function in the light of the present-day conditions. Better still, there might even be a PhD in all of this for someone one day…

Thanks for your time, dear readers.


Read the latest newsletter of the Expert Network on External Prison Oversight and Human Rights and learn how to contribute to its COVID-19 monitoring-related research.

See the document, Advice of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture to States Parties and National Preventive Mechanisms relating to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Read the CPT’s Statement of Principles relating to the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty in the context of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in EnglishFrench or Russian.

Consult Penal Reform International’s publication, Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison.

Read the WHO publication, Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention.

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