National Preventive Mechanism Annual Report published today – solitary confinement a real concern

solitaryconfinementIn his introduction to the National Preventive Mechanism 6th Annual Report published today, Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons states:

This annual report describes the work of the 20 inspection and monitoring bodies that make up the UK National Preventive Mechanism (NPM). The NPM fulfils the UK’s obligations arising from its status as a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) to ensure the independent, preventive monitoring of all places of detention and carry out other effective preventive measures.

The report focuses first on solitary confinement and isolation, the most restrictive form of custody any NPM member monitors.

Second, it reviews the progress the NPM itself has been able to make in strengthening its own governance and effectiveness in order to share best practice and develop a consistent approach to tackling common concerns. Our work on solitary confinement and isolation is a long-term project that began this year with developing a picture of how it is used across the range of establishments we monitor throughout the four nations of the UK. In the next stage, NPM members will aim to develop some consistent standards and methodology for monitoring its use.

In many cases, detainees are isolated legitimately to prevent harm or provide a calm environment that is in their best interest. However, prolonged solitary confinement or isolation can also have a detrimental effect on a detainee’s mental health, exacerbate behaviour problems and increase the risks of their ill-treatment. It is already clear that poor governance, inconsistent practice and a soothing terminology allow some individuals to be held in solitary confinement for long periods without adequate safeguards – and that includes some of the most vulnerable people in detention, such as children and mentally ill people. Solitary confinement and isolation go under many names: solitary confinement, isolation, separation, care and separation, unemployed disruptive, single unlock, loss of association, losses, basic for violence, basic, group separation, low stimulus, time out, intensive care suite, therapeutic isolation, single-person wards, enforced segregation, removal from association, temporary confinement, separation and reintegration, close supervision centres, special cells, confined to room, duty of care. There is a risk that some of this terminology can obscure the seriousness of the practice and the need for rigorous monitoring and governance.

What all of these processes have in common is individuals locked up on their own for long periods with limited contact with other detainees or staff. In this report we have drawn on United Nations and international standards to define ‘solitary confinement’, 1 and draw a qualitative distinction between this and ‘isolation’ (see page 24 for definitions). Our review shows that it would be possible to have two men with identical mental health needs, disruptive behaviour and self- harm risks held in very different conditions, depending where they ended up. A man in a prison segregation unit might be locked in a dirty cell for 23 hours a day, with no activity apart from a radio to listen to and very limited human contact. A man with identical characteristics might also be isolated in a secure hospital, where he would be kept in his own room, allowed as many of his own things as possible, and visited regularly by staff and health professionals who would help him reintegrate.

A boy of 16 in a YOI might be disciplined by being confined in an adult segregation unit for some days; the same boy in a STC might be confined in his own room for a few hours for the same behaviour. Inconsistencies in the use of isolation and solitary confinement, however, are just one example that demonstrates the need for NPM members to work effectively together to develop common standards and methodologies to improve treatment and conditions across the whole range of detention settings.

The summary of NPM members’ work during the year contained in this report provides further examples of the pressures on the establishments we monitor, and the opportunities to share both the concerns and best practice that have arisen in response to this. Last year, we reported on the major exercise we had undertaken five years after the NPM had been designed to assess how effective it was in fulfilling its responsibilities. This year we can report that real progress has been made. Awareness of their responsibilities arising from OPCAT has increased among NPM members, and this is increasingly reflected in their own monitoring and inspection processes and the development of human rights–based standards. NPM members have agreed to take action to reduce their reliance on seconded staff and avoid conflict of interest where this is necessary.

Members are also working to develop and implement arrangements to ensure detainees and others do not face sanctions because of their contact with NPM members. An NPM website was developed during the year and went live shortly after the year end. NPM sub-groups on children, mental health and Scotland provide an opportunity to share best practice, and coordinate contact with government and detention authorities. Progress on measures to strengthen the NPM’s governance has been slower. Some NPM members in England were themselves subject to welcome calls from parliamentary committees and other bodies for their independence from their sponsoring departments to be reviewed and strengthened. It was disappointing that the government did not accept these recommendations.

The recruitment of an independent chair for the NPM as the first step in establishing its own board – capable of holding members to account for their work, ensuring appropriate consistency and developing a distinct NPM identity – was delayed because of concern by the Ministry of Justice, the responsible department. Frustrating though these delays were, the UK NPM continued to attract widespread international attention as an example of best practice, and members had much contact with other NPMs and states interested in the UK system.

About the time this report is scheduled to be published, in December 2015, the United Nations General Assembly is expected to adopt the Mandela Rules, a timely revision of the 1955 Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and a hugely important contemporary statement by the international community about the responsibility to treat prisoners decently and humanely. This document reasserts the importance of independent detention monitoring. It would be a fitting time for the UK to demonstrate that its own arrangements for preventing ill-treatment of detainees have also continued to develop and meet the new international standards.”

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