The role of inspection in preventing torture

Roger Grimshaw writes about the work of the National Preventive Mechanism in preventing torture and mistreatment in custody

Roger Grimshaw
Monday, 19 December, 2016

The Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture provides for the establishment of National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) with powers to visit places of detention and to report to the authorities.

Their mission embraces the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

How can the structure and functions of the UK NPM be characterised in a way that increases understanding of its role in preventing mistreatment? This is the purpose of a new briefing being published today by the Centre.

The content of the briefing was originally prepared as part of our contribution to European Prison Observatory project on prison conditions in Europe. It therefore should be understood as an extension of the main report on conditions in several countries and so has not been updated.

However, several of the themes contribute to our contemporary understanding of the state of torture prevention in the UK and more widely.

In particular the complexity of the NPM stands out. The briefing describes the myriad organisations across the four countries of the UK, each with monitoring powers, which together form its NPM.

In order to ensure coverage of all detention settings, including mental health, military and immigration facilities, members include the Care Quality Commission, the Office for Standards in Education and so on.

The role of inspection

The briefing highlights the level of resources for monitoring. For example, according to the report, the expected frequency of HM Prisons inspections has been as follows.

  • Secure Training Centres and Young Offender Establishments – annually
  • Prisons – normally every five years
  • Immigration Removal Centres – every four years
  • Non-residential short-term holding facilities – every six years.
  • Residential short-term holding facilities – every four years
  • Border Force facilities – every two years
  • Two to three inspections of immigration removal escort – every year
  • Police custody suites – at least once every six years

These frequencies suggest that of itself the inspection process has not been sufficient to offer assurances that mistreatment will be uncovered. The regular visits of Independent Monitoring Boards gain significance in this context; they mean that prisoners can be accessed far more frequently. Similarly, police custody suites are inspected by police inspectorates and are also accessed by independent custody visitors.

Creating alliances

Hence we should be alert to the importance of the NPM in creating a vehicle for alliances of members to work together, in conjunction with civil society and professional representatives such as lawyers. It’s not enough to welcome the broad constitution and membership of the NPM and to expect the individual members simply to get on with their jobs. The coordinating structures of the NPM should provide capacity to bridge organisations and reinforce their effectiveness.

In order to shed light on how topics raised by the NPM are dealt with at national level, the briefing pays attention to the scrutiny of international bodies, such as the UN Committee Against Torture, which formally engages with governments.

The importance of independent inspection

Close study of the effectiveness of international practice is overdue and recent detailed research edited by Richard Carver and Lisa Handley presents new evidence and insights, at least in relation to torture as narrowly defined. Their report on the UK NPM, in particular, contains a clear warning against undermining its independence.

It’s vital that monitors have unhampered access to detainees, who are protected from harm for having spoken with the monitors.

Their conclusions support the presumption that monitoring and reporting help to produce detention safeguards that do prevent torture. What is crucial is that governments listen and act to develop safeguarding provisions that are properly implemented.

Preventing torture and mistreatment is less about the narratives of individual monitoring bodies than of bringing together all the many organisations that claim to represent or protect detainees in efforts to hold the state accountable for its actions. For this reason the work and impact of the NPM should themselves be the focus of greater monitoring, analysis and public discussion.