The U.S. is unlike most other Western nations, which have formal and robust correctional oversight mechanisms. Learning about the structure and functions of some of these international oversight bodies can help policymakers and practitioners better understand a variety of models of effective correctional oversight.
The Human Rights Framework
Through a series of international treaties designed to strengthen efforts to protect human rights, the United Nations created a framework for correctional oversight that many countries have since adopted.
The United Nations’ Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment established the Committee Against Torture (CAT) with broad powers to examine and investigate reports of torture and to hold countries accountable for human rights violations. All countries that have ratified the Convention are required to submit reports to the Committee to describe how rights are being implemented. The CAT also can consider individual complaints, undertake inquiries, and consider inter-country complaints.
Adopted as a supplement to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment (OPCAT), OPCAT is an international agreement designed to strengthen the protection of people deprived of their liberty. OPCAT reflects a consensus among the international community that people in detention are particularly vulnerable to ill-treatment and that efforts to combat torture should also focus on prevention. While CAT sets out a process for responding to torture and ill-treatment, OPCAT went a step further by creating a mutually reinforcing national and international system of oversight that requires ratifying countries to adhere to regular, independent monitoring in places of detention by the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT). More than 76 countries are signatories to OPCAT.
Born in the backdrop of serious atrocities and violations during the Second World War, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms was adopted by members of the Council of Europe (CoE) in 1950 in Rome. It was primarily a result of the demands by the European Movement for an independent body to oversee violations by states. The preamble of the instrument explains that the purpose is to achieve greater unity among the CoE members through realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The first part of the convention describes the rights and freedoms available to people in the 46 member states. Many of these rights are contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The following part of the convention provides details about the Constitution, jurisdiction and powers of the European Court of Human Rights, which ensures observance of the provisions of the convention. Over the years, additional rights have also been guaranteed by way of Protocols.
Countries that have ratified OPCAT are required to establish at least one “National Preventive Mechanism” (NPM), a national oversight body or multiple bodies responsible for monitoring all places of detention and closed environments. Under OPCAT, countries must give NPMs the authority to conduct unannounced visits, to interview people in custody away from facility staff and administrators, and to access data and other relevant information it needs to assess facility conditions and the treatment of people in custody. The NPMs must be independent of the country’s government and the institutions they monitor, and they must have sufficient resources, expertise, and diversity to carry out their duties. NPMs are also required to submit annual reports with their findings and recommendations to government officials and may conduct follow-up visits to monitor the implementation of its recommendations. Government officials are required to make these reports available to the public. A database with information about every NPM around the world is maintained by the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT).
A Sampling of International Correctional Oversight Bodies
Supranational oversight bodies have either a worldwide or regional reach and are responsible for monitoring conditions of confinement in multiple countries. Monitoring teams comprise representatives of numerous countries.
The Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment (SPT) is the supranational oversight body responsible for conducting inspections of places of detention in accordance with OPCAT. Countries that ratify OPCAT give SPT the right to visit their places of detention and to examine the treatment of people in custody. SPT engages with countries on a confidential basis and cannot publish reports and recommendations without their consent. SPT also provides countries assistance and advice on the establishment and ongoing work of the National Preventative Mechanism (NPM).
Established by the adoption of the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) is the body responsible for monitoring prisons and other places of detention across Europe and assessing the treatment of people in custody. CPT complements the judicial work of the European Court of Human Rights.
The ICRC is an independent, neutral organization ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence. Since its founding in the mid-1800s, the ICRC has been working to secure humane treatment and conditions of confinement for people in detention settings. Traditionally, the ICRC has focused on people held in connection with armed conflict and other situations of violence, working to prevent torture and other forms of ill-treatment and improve conditions of detention. Over time, ICRC’s scope in this area has expanded to include the humane treatment of all detainees, regardless of the reasons for their arrest and detention.
The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights investigates and adjudicates human rights violations throughout Africa, including violations that occur in places of detention. The Commission also queries governments and drafts resolutions on prison conditions throughout the continent.
The Commission carries out its work by appointing various special rapporteurs and working groups that it charges with focusing on specific issues common to prisons in African nations or on the treatment of specific vulnerable populations. Additionally, several countries in Africa have established national human rights institutions and have tasked them with overseeing human rights monitoring, including in places of detention. The work of these institutions compliment/supplement the work of the Commission.
Established by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to help it carry out its work, the Special Rapporteur on Prisons and Conditions of Detention in Africa (SRP) monitors the conditions of prisons within the countries that have ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. At the direction of the Commission, the SRP conducts monitoring visits and may also investigate individual complaints about prison conditions.
The SRP does not have unfettered access to facilities—it must be invited by a country’s government. During monitoring visits, the SRP tours facilities and meets with prison officials and people in custody and may make recommendations to officials on any pressing issues it identifies. It may also conduct follow-up visits to ensure any issues have been appropriately addressed.
The SRP drafts a report with its findings and recommendations and submits it to the country’s government, which may choose to respond. A final draft of the report with a government’s response is prepared and submitted to the Commission. These reports are not made available to the public.
Additionally, the SRP is also charged with analyzing national penal legislation to ensure its compliance with international and African law.
The SRP position is filled by a member of the Commission for a two-year term.
His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) has a statutory duty to inspect every adult prison in England and Wales, as well as other places of confinement, such as police custody facilities, in order to determine whether people in custody are safe, whether they are treated with respect for their human dignity, whether they are able to engage in purposeful activity, and whether they are prepared to return to their community. The Inspectorate inspects every facility at least once every three years, surveys incarcerated people prior to inspections, gathers information about conditions from multiple sources, and issues reports with findings from the inspections. This oversight body has been a model for similar inspectorates in other countries around the world. His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland (HMIPS) is responsible for overseeing prisons and other places of confinement in Scotland.
Every prison in England and Wales has an Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) that is composed of unpaid volunteers appointed by the Ministry of Justice to monitor conditions in that facility.. As the eyes and ears of the public, IMBs have a statutory right of entry into their community’s prison, where board members must make regular visits, hold interviews with prisoners and staff, address complaints and requests of incarcerated people, report serious concerns immediately, and publish annual reports with their findings and recommendations. The IMBs report their findings directly to the administration of the facility that they oversee. There is an Association of Members of Independent Monitoring Boards, which provides training and guidance to the members of the IMBs.
The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales (PPO) is responsible for investigating and responding to individual complaints made by prisoners, as well as investigating deaths in custody and deaths of individuals that occur within 14 days of their release from prison. The purpose of the PPO’s investigation is to better understand the incident that occurred and to correct any injustices that may have contributed to an incident. The PPO publishes non-binding recommendations for reform as well as annual reports.
The HMIPS inspects 15 prisons across the country and usually reports to the Scottish Parliament on an annual basis. Apart from HMIPS staff, the inspection team includes a diverse team of experts on health, education, and child rights among others. The body has developed its own nine standards for evaluation of prison conditions based on domestically and internationally agreed-upon human rights standards. These include transparency, decency, personal safety, humane use of authority, protection against mistreatment, purposeful activity, transition from custody to community, organizational effectiveness, and health and well-being.
The Office of the Inspector of Prisons in Ireland is a statutory body charged with regularly inspecting all prisons in Ireland and to submit an annual report with findings and recommendations about each facility to the Minister for Justice. Additionally, the Inspector is also required to investigate any matter relating to the operation and management of a prison as requested by the Minister for Justice and may also decide to investigate any matter it considers to be of concern.
The Inspector has also been tasked by the Minister for Justice with the investigation into the circumstances of all deaths in custody and those within one month of temporary release from custody.
The Office of the Inspector of Prisons does not deal with complaints from, or on behalf of individual prisoners; however, they may examine the circumstances surrounding a complaint during an inspection and/or investigation.
Prison Visiting Committees are independent oversight bodies responsible for monitoring the prisons to which they are assigned and for receiving any complaints incarcerated persons may communicate with them during their visit. PVCs compliment other independent oversight mechanisms in Ireland. If committee members have concerns about anything they saw or any concerns expressed to them by incarcerated persons, they may raise them with a facility’s warden or administration during their visit and recommend ways to address the issue. This informal process allows the warden an opportunity to immediately address the concern. Additionally, each committee submits an annual report with their findings and recommendations to the Minister of Justice; committees’ annual reports are also published on the department’s website. Committee members are representatives of civil society and are appointed by the Minister for Justice for three-year terms with the option of re-appointment. Members are drawn from a wide spectrum of expertise to ensure that the needs of prisoners are understood.
By way of a statutory law passed in 1962, the Norwegian Parliament provided for the election of a Parliamentary Ombudsman for Public Administration. The Ombudsman is Norway’s National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) mandated by Article 3 of the 2002 Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). The Ombudsman ensures that public authorities, including prisons, do not treat individual citizens unjustly and respect human rights. Cases can be considered by the Ombudsman on their own initiative or upon receiving a complaint. The Ombudsman has the power to call for requisite records and information from concerned persons and institutions. They may also require the taking of evidence by the courts of law. Further, they have the right to access any places or sites to carry out statutory responsibilities. The Ombudsman reports annually to Parliament.
The Parliamentary Ombudsman is commissioned to supervise all levels of public administration. As the country’s National Preventative Mechanism, the Ombudsman monitors the conditions of institutions that hold people against their own will, including all local and state prisons. In 2009, the Danish Parliamentary Ombudsman entered into a formal agreement with two civil society organizations—DIGNITY (an NGO) and the Danish Institute for Human Rights (National Human Rights Institution)—to advise the Ombudsman’s Office on the implementation of its NPM duties. Under this agreement, the Parliamentary Ombudsman is responsible for organizing OPCAT activities, and staff from all three organizations are responsible for monitoring places of detention and drafting reports and recommendations concerning new legislation. Both annual reports and thematic reports are available on the Danish NPM website.
The Office of the Correctional Investigator in Canada is an ombudsman for prisoners. The Office investigates prisoner complaints, meets with inmate committees, conducts unannounced visits to prisons, reviews applicable Correctional Service of Canada policies and procedures, and issues annual reports to the legislature highlighting issues of concern.
The primary function of the Office of the Correctional Investigator in Canada is to investigate and bring resolution to individual complaints from people in custody. The Office also has a responsibility to review and make recommendations on the Correctional Service’s policies and procedures associated with the areas of individual complaints to ensure that systemic areas of concern are identified and appropriately addressed.
Citizens’ Advisory Committees (CACs) were established in the 1960s to be a “public presence” in the Canadian federal corrections system and to help the Correctional Service Canada (CSC) build stronger relationships with people in custody and the community. CACs consist of volunteers from the community where a prison is located who are appointed by prison wardens or parole office directors. CACs observe CSC’s day-to-day operations and assess the adequacy of CSC’s treatment of people in custody. Committees also listen to public concerns and offer CSC a community perspective on facility operations and on the impact of its policies, programs, and services.
The Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman is one of the oversight entities in the Australian National Preventative Mechanism (NPM) Network, which is comprised of NPM organizations at the federal, state, and territory levels. Like the HMIP in the UK, the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman is also tasked with coordinating the Network’s member organizations. The Office monitors prisons and other places of detention across Australia and investigates and responds to individual complaints from people in custody. Ombudsmen have a right to visit prisoners, regularly visit prisons to promote awareness of their position and role, and other than in the state of Tasmania, prisoners have an unfettered right to communicate with ombudsmen.
The Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services in Australia oversees the way people in custody are managed. It conducts regular inspections and reviews of prisons, work camps, court custody centers, and youth justice centers. The Office reports its findings and recommendations to Parliament and makes its reports available to the public. The first Office was established in Western Australia in 2000, and since then, Prison inspectorates have been established in New South Wales, Tasmania, and the ACT.
The New Zealand Office of the Ombudsman is responsible for monitoring prisons across the country and assessing facility conditions and the treatment of people in custody. While the Ombudsman’s office has responsibility for complaints from all government agencies, it has four specialist investigators who work on prison-related issues and visit each prison facility multiple times per year. The office handles minor complaints, and also monitors the prison agency’s investigations of serious incidents and deaths in custody. The Ombudsman also has the power to investigate systemic issues and reports directly to Parliament.
As part of its OPCAT compliance, South Africa has set up a unique multi-body National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) consisting of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS), the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), the Office of the Military Ombud (OMO) and the Office of the Health Ombud (OHO). This is coordinated by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). The SANPM was set up in 2019 after the OPCAT took effect in the country. Since then it has conducted unannounced visits to places where people are detained, including police stations, correctional centres, mental health institutions, secure care centres, and refugee reception centres. Independence and resource adequacy have been mentioned in its annual reports as critical for ensuring OPCAT compliance.
National oversight bodies monitor conditions of confinement in the prisons of specific countries. Many of these bodies are designated as one of the country’s National Preventive Mechanisms (NPM), though some exist separate and apart from the NPM designation. Many countries, notably England and Wales, have multiple oversight bodies, each responsible for different oversight functions. A sampling of these oversight bodies is described here, though this listing is far from comprehensive.
International standards for the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty provide guidance to international oversight bodies in their effort to assess the conditions of prisons and other places of detention. A sampling of these standards include:
The Standard Minimum Rules (SMR) for the Treatment of Prisoners were first adopted in 1957, and in 2015, were revised and adopted as the Nelson Mandela Rules. In many countries, the SMRs are regarded as the primary—if not only—source of standards relating to treatment in detention, and they are the key framework used by monitoring and inspection mechanisms in assessing the treatment of prisoners. The 122 Rules cover all aspects of prison management and outline the agreed minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners, whether pre-trial or convicted. The Standards emphasize the need for robust and effective systems of prison oversight.
The 70 standards that together comprise the Bangkok Rules address a long-standing gap in operational standards that provide for the specific characteristics and needs of women, and they give guidance to policy makers, legislators, and corrections agencies to reduce the imprisonment of women while simultaneously meeting the specific needs of women who remain in custody.
The European Prison Rules provide a comprehensive set of standards designed to ensure prison safety, security, and discipline while not undermining prisoners’ individual dignity and rehabilitation. The standards outline basic principles of human rights and inspections and provide detailed guidance on issues such as conditions of imprisonment, health, good order, safety, discipline, and use of force. Moreover, the European Prison Rules mandate that prisons be inspected regularly by a government body to ensure compliance with the rules, and that there be monitoring by an independent body to assess the treatment of prisoners.
Adopted in 2002 by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, the Robben Guidelines are the first regional instrument used to ensure the prohibition and prevention of torture in Africa, including in places of detention. The Guidelines encourage African nations to adopt minimum international standards on prison conditions and give detailed instructions on how to ensure facilities meet them.
The Association for the Prevention of Torture is an international non-governmental organization (NGO) that works to prevent torture and ill-treatment, including in places of detention, by advocating for monitoring and other prevention mechanisms and by providing trainings and tools about correctional oversight and transparency to oversight bodies. For nearly a decade, APT’s “Monitoring Places of Detention: A Practical Guide,“ has been a go-to resource for international oversight bodies. APT also has new a e-learning platform, “Torture Prevention Learning Village,” that provides free courses about the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) and monitoring, including courses focused on gender-sensitive monitoring.
The External Oversight and Human Rights Network of the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA) is an international network of correctional oversight experts. Network participants share details about their countries oversight bodies in newsletters and at international conferences.