#COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flower Stream – Rennett Stowe (2020).

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

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

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

Prison Tower – Jobs For Felons Hub (2016).

International practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

National-level developments

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID-19 notice – Iain Cameron (2020).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quarantine-related powers

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion: staying or going?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for your time, dear readers.


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

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

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

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

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

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

WHO COVID-19 Key Guidance Document

On 23 March 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) – Europe published interim guidance on how to deal with the coronavirus disease in prisons and other places of detention, titled Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention.

The WHO publication is presently only available in English and can be downloaded here. However, a broad overview of the 30-odd-page guidance document is available in French, German and Russian.

The accompanying press release succinctly explains the overall focus of the document, as follows:

“The guidance provides useful information to staff and health care providers working in prisons, and to prison authorities. It explains how to prevent and address a potential disease outbreak and stresses important human rights elements that must be respected in the response to COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention. Access to information and adequate health care provision, including for mental disorders, are essential aspects in preserving human rights in such places.”

Cover of new WHO publication.

It is stressed in the WHO document that the guidance has application to various places of detention, including:

  • prisons (both public and privately managed);
  • immigration detention settings;
  • detention settings for children and young people.

The intended target audience of the WHO publication is primarily health-care and custodial staff working in prisons and other places of detention. However, it is emphasized that the information given will also be useful for the wider prison authorities, public health authorities and policymakers, prison governors and managers, people in detention, and the social relations of persons deprived of their liberty.

The guidance document is structured across 15 chapters and includes sections with detailed operational information, including: about the COVID-19 virus; preparedness, contingency planning and level of risk; training and education; risk communication; a list of important definitions; and crucial prevention measures. Other chapters relate to the assessment of suspected COVID-19 cases as well as their case management.

Prison 4040 – Sylvia Westenbroek (2006)

For the lay-reader, however, the earlier introductory chapters through 1 to 6 may prove the more interesting and accessible. These sections set out the rationale, scope and objectives and target audience of the WHO publication as well as key planning principles and human rights considerations.

In this latter connection, key points include:

  • The provision of health care for people in prisons and other places of detention is a State responsibility.
  • People in prisons and other places of detention should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the outside community, without discrimination on the grounds of their legal status.
  • Adequate measures should be in place to ensure a gender-responsive approach in addressing the COVID-19 emergency in prisons and other places of detention.
  • Prisons and other detention authorities need to ensure that the human rights of those in their custody are respected, that people are not cut off from the outside world, and – most importantly – that they have access to information and adequate healthcare provision.
  • The COVID-19 outbreak must not be used as a justification for undermining adherence to all fundamental safeguards incorporated in the Nelson Mandela Rules.

It is relevant to note that in the latter section, the following key points concerning the access of independent monitors to closed settings during the current global public health emergency are underpinned, namely:

The COVID-19 outbreak must not be used as a justification for objecting to external inspection of prisons and other places of detention by independent international or national bodies whose mandate is to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; such bodies include national preventive mechanisms under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.”

Even in the circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak, bodies of inspection in the above sense should have access to all people deprived of their liberty in prisons and other places of detention, including to persons in isolation, in accordance with the provisions of the respective body’s mandate.” (p.5).

In this sense the WHO publication reinforces the core guidance advanced in recent weeks by other international authorities, including the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, European Committee on the Prevention of Torture and Penal Reform International.

Canadian prison administrators and human rights actors can download the publication and access other key COVID-19-related materials below.


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

See the WHO accompanying press release in English and French.

Read Professor Juan Mendez’ recent article on a healthy prison environment.

For other materials please visit the COVID-19: Deprivation of Liberty Information Corner.

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

COPCAT Shorts – CPT Statement of Principles on COVID-19

The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture issued on 20 March 2020 a Statement of Principles relating to the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty in the context of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The CPT’s Statement of Principles – copyright Council of Europe.

Even though Canada is only an Observer State before the Council of Europe, the CPT’s Statement of Principles has huge resonance in the Canadian context, more so at a time when so many persons deprived of their liberty in different settings are at potential risk of infection in the country.

The CPT press release accompanying the publication of the document stated the following:

“The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has created extraordinary challenges for the authorities of all member States of the Council of Europe”, says Mykola Gnatovskyy, President of the CPT. “There are specific and intense challenges for staff working in various places of deprivation of liberty, including police detention facilities, penitentiary institutions, immigration detention centres, psychiatric hospitals and social care homes, as well as in various newly-established facilities/zones where persons are placed in quarantine. Whilst acknowledging the clear imperative to take firm action to combat COVID-19, the CPT must remind all actors of the absolute nature of the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. Protective measures must never result in inhuman or degrading treatment of persons deprived of their liberty.”

In the CPT’s view, the Statement of Principles should be applied by all relevant authorities responsible for persons deprived of their liberty within the Council of Europe area. The Canada OPCAT Project would argue that the principles have potential application well beyond the 47-state European region, such is their important take on the widespread phenomenon of deprivation of liberty in the context of the developing global COVID-19 emergency.

Prison Tour – Steve Mays (2013).

The Statement of Principles comprise 10 key points which are currently available in English, French and Russian.

It is noteworthy that CPT Principle 10 states the following:

“Monitoring by independent bodies, including National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) and the CPT, remains an essential safeguard against ill-treatment. States should continue to guarantee access for monitoring bodies to all places of detention, including places where persons are kept in quarantine. All monitoring bodies should however take every precaution to observe the ‘do no harm’ principle, in particular when dealing with older persons and persons with pre-existing medical conditions.”

In this connection, the new CPT document echoes key guidance contained in a Briefing published earlier this week by the international NGO, Penal Reform International, as well as the key advice issued by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture to the UK NPM in February 2020.

The other nine principles in the CPT Statement equally merit close scrutiny. At just one page in length the 10 principles as a whole are readily and quickly digestible. Canadian readers are therefore kindly encouraged to consult the CPT’s Statement of Principles.

They may also wish to consult the recently added COPCAT’s COVID-19: Deprivation of Liberty Information Corner in order to access other resources and news materials on the current, quickly changing COVID-19-related conditions.


Read the Statement of Principles relating to the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty in the context of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in English, French or Russian.

Read the accompanying CPT press release in English or French.

Explore other CPT publications and tools under Other Resources.

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