Irish Penal Reform Trust

Adapting to COVID-19: Prison Oversight and Monitoring During a Pandemic

22nd April 2020

Adapting to COVID-19: Prison Oversight and Monitoring During a Pandemic

The Network on External Prison Oversight and Human Rights has published a special issue newsletter focusing on prison oversight and monitoring during COVID-19. Experts in oversight and monitoring in places of deprivation of liberty have contributed to the issue, to share updates on how oversight roles are shifting during this pandemic. When access to penal environments is severely or completely limited, it is more important than ever to ensure that external monitoring continues to prevent potential ill-treatment. We have summarised several of these expert contributions below.


Covid-19: United Kingdoms National Preventative Mechanism (NPM)

NPMs are developing new approaches to provide preventive monitoring to places of detention while upholding the do no harm principle. In England and Wales, scheduled inspections of prisons and other places of detention have been suspended until the end of May. Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) for England and Wales has created an adapted visiting methodology for this period that involves one-day visits, with two to three inspectors. This new model is expected to begin in late April. Independent Monitoring Boards have also developed methods of providing independent assurance at this time, these depend on local circumstances, but this includes:

  • receiving daily updates from the establishment and being in regular contact with wings;
  • participating by telephone in reviews of prisoners or detainees in segregation or separation;
  • attending to monitor any serious incidents (such as a large-scale outbreak of violence);
  • continuing to deal with applications remotely;
  • direct email contact with immigration detainees.

In Scotland, all site monitoring and full inspections have been suspended. They have developed a remote monitoring framework and implementation plan. A framework has also been developed for the Chief Inspector and Deputy to visit prisons where they believe the urgency outweighs precautions related to COVID-19.

In Northern Ireland, the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) is not currently scheduled to undertake any inspection fieldwork and are not required to make alternative solutions to prison oversight at present.


Advice of the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture to States Parties and National Preventative Mechanisms relation to the Coronavirus Pandemic (SPT)

Professor Sir Malcom Evans, Chair of the SPT, has stressed that the during this pandemic that the work of NPMs must be seen as an ‘essential’ service. The advice given by the SPT to NPMs operating within the OPCAT framework was not to suspended their work during this time as it not an appropriate response, this advice is available here. He highlights that the heart of the advice is that the NPMs should be placing focus on states and how they are responding to the risks posed by COVID-19 for those deprived of liberty. He notes that reducing the size of detained populations is needed along with ensuring that those who are detained are not just ‘locked up’ until the crisis is over. Communication in places of detention is vital, especially during these times. He ends by stating that NPMs should be focusing on new approaches to the fulfil their mandates and that the current crisis may, in time, turn out to be a wake-up call to the need for a fundamental reappraisal of the use of detention and to reconsider our responses to a whole host of deep-seated problems within our detention systems.


Arbitrary Deprivation of Liberty in the Light of Responses to the Covid-19 Outbreak (WGAD)

Dr. Elina Steinerte, Vice Chair of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, discusses situations that might lead to arbitrary detention. These include; pre-trial detention, fair trial rights and the right to challenge the legality of detention. She states that NPMs, National Human Rights Commissions and other state bodies should be able to continue with their mandates during the pandemic. Measures that are aimed at prevention of torture and other ill-treatment serve the dual purpose of preventing instances of arbitrary deprivation of liberty. She asks the oversight groups to bare this in mind as they carry out their mandates during the pandemic and believes that this could amplify their own work.


Respecting the Human Rights of Detainees during the Coronavirus Pandemic: A New Statement of Principles by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT)

Mark Kelly, First Vice-President of the CPT, writes that in many Council of Europe member States, people whose health may already be compromised are detained in conditions in which “social distancing” is virtually impossible In March, the CPT issued a statement regarding to treatment of persons deprived of their liberty in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, available here.

The CPT has suspended its regular visiting programme for the first time in its thirty-year history. Since the CPT and the SPT have both been obliged to suspend its visits, he acknowledges that ‘effective monitoring by independent national bodies, including National Preventive Mechanisms, assumes even greater significance’.


The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Multi-Disciplinary Response to COVID-19 in Places of Detention

The current situation has allowed the IRC to capitalise on activities they have already been engaged in: supporting the authorities in contingency planning, inter-agency bridge-building and reducing overcrowding. The do not harm principles remains central and requires that the ICRC avoid harmful effects that could arise from their work.

Through all of this, the IRC is trying to capture critical information from detainees, from their families, from staff and from ministries. The goal of which is to create meaningful interventions now, as well as giving a solid basis on which outcomes can be evaluated later.


What Does Prison Monitoring and Oversight Mean in Times of COVID-19? (APT)

Audrey Olivier Muralt, Deputy Secretary General of the Association for the Prevention of Torture, writes that NPMs play a key role in checking how preventive measure are implanted by detaining authorities to protect staff and detainees. There is no clear answer on whether NPMs should continue their work in the midst of this pandemic, the response belongs to the NPMs. However, international expert bodies – in particular the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and the United Nations Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture (SPT) – have encouraged NPMs to continue their monitoring functions within a context of a global pandemic. Under no circumstances can detaining authorities deny NPMs from having access to all relevant information, places and persons, to carry out their mandate.

Last year, the APT shared a few practical recommendations for monitoring bodies which conduct visits to places with a high prevalence of tuberculosis. Some of these recommendations can also apply for NPMs while they visit prisons in times of COVID-19. Muralt writes that the alternative techniques that have been developed by NPM during this time have shown how essential their work is.


Other contributions in this special issue include updates on monitoring in the Australian Capital Territory, Iowa, Western Australia and New South Wales.

The special issue newsletter is available to read in full here.

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.



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