A new independent monitoring system is to be established in Scotland, replacing the current system of prison visiting committees. The new system, consisting of four part-time prison monitors, supported by lay monitors and overseen by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, is subject to Parliamentary scrutiny and agreement but is expected to be up and running by autumn 2014.
Under the new system, prison monitors are to be afforded unrestricted access to all prison areas in the course of their visits, including hearing complaints from prisoners. An advisory group, made up of key stakeholders from the justice sector, will also be set up to provide guidance on monitoring, appointments and training.
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, Brigadier Hugh Monro CBE, welcomed the proposal, stating that such a system will provide a framework for independent prison monitoring that has the potential to become the benchmark for the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT).
This new system has been proposed in response to a review by Professor Andrew Coyle of proposals to improve the independent monitoring of prisons. The report found that the existing prison monitoring system did not meet the standards set out in OPCAT, since budgetary matters and administrative arrangements of the visiting committees are managed by the Scottish Prison Service, which also runs the institutions they are charged with monitoring.
In the Irish context, IPRT has campaigned for similar reform of prison visiting committees. Under the current system in Ireland, membership of visiting committees is by government appointment, meaning they also lack the independence required of a prison monitoring mechanism under international standards. Members of the visiting committees have also complained of insufficient training and resources to effectively perform their functions. The shortcomings of the current system are perhaps underlined by the discrepancies between the Annual Report 2011 of the St. Patrick’s Institution Visiting Committee and the report of the Inspector of Prisons following an inspection of the same prison in 2012.
The Irish Government has stated its commitment to strengthening independent oversight of Irish prisons, including improving the effectiveness of prison visiting committees, but progress in this regard has been slow.
IPRT calls on Government to ratify OPCAT without delay; to review the existing functions and powers of the visiting committees, as well as the appointment and reporting process; and to make resources available to ensure appropriate training for committee members.