Setting up an NPM annual visit plan

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Cover Photo/Yi-Ching Tsai (The Prison Museum in Chiayi, Taiwan)
Author/Pavel Doubek (Czech scholar and lawyer formerly working at Czech NPM)[i]
Translator/Yi-Ching Tsai (Researcher of Covenants Watch)

National Preventive Mechanisms (NPM) should conduct their work according to predefined plans. [ii] Among the various kind of activities that the NPM may be engaged in, the “preventive visits” to all kinds of “places of detention” is no doubt the most special and the most demanding one.

Considering the importance and complexity of such tasks, NPMs should set up an annual visit plan that carefully decides which and how many places should be visited in a given year, trying to maintain a balance between the scope, depth and frequency of the visits and paying attention to the preparations and subsequent work required by one visit, so that the NPMs can organize its human and financial resources in an efficient way and fulfil its torture preventive mandate effectively. [iii]

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

In this article, I’d like to share with you some principles and real practices on how a NPM should develops its annual plan, which is based on the experiences I know from several European countries as well as relevant international guidelines in this regard, especially those released by the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT). (For practical notes on how to plan one particular visit, please refer to the next article.)

What should an annual visit plan include?

First of all, because all types of places of detention must be monitored in a regular and systematic way, a NPM’s annual plan should provide a list of places to be visited within a particular year. It should be noted that the “places of detention” not only includes prisons and police stations, but also health care and social care facilities like private elderly homes. [iv] According to the APT, each of the following categories of places should be subject to an in-depth visit at least once per year:

1. police stations with known problems plus a random sample of other police stations;
2. remand or pre-trial detention centres;
3. places with high concentrations of especially vulnerable groups; and
4. any other place which is known or suspected to have significant problems with torture or other ill-treatment, or known to have poor conditions relative to other institutions in the country.

For other kinds of places falling outside the above four categories, an in-depth visit should be carried out at least once every 3 years. All of these regular visits should not preclude the continuous possibility of ad-hoc visits in between. Another important rule is that each one of the official places of detention (e.g. prisons) should be inspected with intervals no longer than 5 years, particularly when the NPM cannot attain relevant information about that place in the interim. Altogether, NPM should conduct visits regularly, preferably at least one visit per week.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Second, when setting up an annual plan, the NPMs must bear in mind that preventive visits are very time-consuming and make sure it has enough time and appropriate human and financial resources to fully carry out the plan. Think about what NPMs have to do during one comprehensive visit. It has to make in-depth interviews with detainees, review their medical records, visit all premises within the facility and the so on.

This also means relevant experts must be recruited beforehand (e.g. doctors, interpreters and psychologists) and the NPM personnel and the visit team must receive appropriate training with regard to that particular type of facility and the composition of persons it is holding. In the Czech Republic, the NPM would usually spend 1 to 3 days for the on-site visit following a long preparation work, and then another several weeks for writing visit reports with recommendations. Subsequent dialogue with the visited facility and relevant authorities regarding the implementation of the recommendations usually takes several months. In a nutshell, it can take several months or even a year to fully process one single visit.

Therefore, the NPM should make a thoughtful decision on the list of targeted places, the visiting order and repetition frequency, the intended length of each visit through the development of an annual visit plan, and clarify whether the visits should be announced or not. Besides the normal general visits, NPMs can also conduct thematic visits focusing on several key issues or follow-up visits aimed at clarifying the compliance of the recommendations by the NPM from previous visits when needed.

A difficult balance: some country practices

In practice, NPMs in some countries decide to choose one certain type of detention places as a main focus in a given year so that it can systematically explore the conditions and the situations of the detainees in this type of places. Such an approach will surely help the NPM staff and experts to better prepare for and gain experiences from the visit, but it can also lead the NPM to overlook other forms of detention completely. On the other hand, for those NPMs who visit a broad range of facilities simultaneously within one year, their team members could be overburdened and find it difficult to produce in-depth recommendations for each distinctive type of detention.

Photo by Victoria Kure-Wu on Unsplash

The Czech NPM is trying to balance between the two approaches. In general, its annual plan would prioritize certain types of facilities but also include a few visits to other types. For example, in 2012 the Czech NPM focused on and visited 18 educational facilities for children, but it also visited 5 social-care facilities, 3 health-care facilities, 5 police stations and 1 prison. The main focus of 2013 was on social-care facilities, while no visit to prison was made, but on the next year most of the types of places were visited by the NPM, including 5 prisons, 2 police stations, 2 education facilities, 1 migrant facility, 7 social-care facilities and 2 health-care facilities.

In some cases, the annual plan must be adapted to a current human rights situation in the country or in a certain type of facility. For example, due to serious violations of human rights of migrants in migrant detention centre named Bělá-Jezová, this facility had to be visited repeatedly in 2015. [v]

To maintain a desirable frequency of visits, the NPM may set up a binding minimum of visits for each year. Such practice is developed in Georgia and Slovenia: “Ideally, NPM shall carry out minimum 100 days and maximum 150 days of a visit throughout the year. This number should include a fixed number of regular and thematic visits and should also leave the possibility of having ad hoc visits upon necessity.”

Photo by Eri Pançi on Unsplash

Slovenian NPM sets forth a rule that “at least one visit to relevant places of deprivation of liberty in each region is anticipated per month unless conditions in this field show that different arrangements are suitable.” Czech NPM does not set up any minimum requirement for visit frequency and its annual plan may be modified during a year if necessary.

Who should make the annual visit plan?

The OPCAT requires that the NPM shall have the right and appropriate capacity to freely set up the annual visit plan. Some NPMs have developed internal documents or strategies that elaborate the course of the visits in details, while some others even established a specialized advisory committee for the purpose of planning. In countries like the Czech Republic where the ombudsman carries out the mandate of the NPM, the specialized NPM unit within the ombudsman institution is usually responsible for drawing up the annual visit plan. Although the Czech Ombudsman is the formal leader of the NPM who has the final authority to approve the plan, the draft is first prepared by the head of the NPM unit, while each member of the unit may suggest his or her own ideas in the beginning. [vi]

Photo by Yuri Catalano on Unsplash

Normally, the NPM annual plan is an internal document and is not shared with the public. However in Czech Republic’s experience, when the ombudsman deems it appropriate, s/he can disseminate general information about the visit plan for the forthcoming year when there is a need to launch a public call for experts or to attract public attention and discussion. For example, prior to the visits to long-term care facilities, a public campaign was started by the Czech ombudsman in 2015 to collect suggestions regarding the prevention of ill-treatment in this type of places, as well as to call for doctors, nurses and other professionals to join in the visit team. In order to enhance the cooperation from the directors of correctional facilities, the Czech ombudsman would inform the General Director of the Prison Service and clarified the NPM’s competency before the visits without disclosing the particular time and facility chosen.

On the whole, the preparation of an annual plan thus requires a difficult coordination a variety of professional skills. NPMs need to have profound knowledge from the legal field to understand regulations concerning some types of detention facilities, extensive expertise from the medical and social field to better care for the diverse situations and distinctive needs of persons deprived of their liberty (e.g. persons with disabilities), and practical knowledge about the structures and conditions of different facilities and good time management and communication skills to make a good and feasible plan.


Note

[i] This article is one of the NPM TRAVELBOOK series written by Mr Pavel Doubek and invited by Covenants Watch (CW), Taiwan. The original text was written in English and was translated by Yi-Ching Tsai, CW’s researcher. For more information about the column, please read the preface to the column.

[ii] This may sound obvious since any other control mechanism, including the institution of the ombudsman, has to plan its activities. However, while the traditional controlling bodies employ the reactive approach and investigate individual complaints, they are, to some extent, uncertain in their annual activity as they do not know the number and matters of receiving complaints. The activities of the NPMs are, on the contrary, entirely dependent on plans.

[iii] It must be reminded that the NPM also has to save some time and resources for other competencies and tasks, for example, to carry out educational activities, make recommendations on existing laws and draft laws, maintain a constructive dialogue with stakeholders, etc.

[iv] Please refer to other articles in the NPM TRAVELBOOK, e.g. NPM in elderly homes.

[v] Normally the NPM has no capacity to conduct follow-up visit at every visited facility, but in this case it was highly necessary. Although the series of visits to Bělá-Jezová resembles the “reactive” ombudsman’s visits in some degree, such follow-up visits are considered helpful to strengthen the NPM’s preventive role.

[vi] Of course, the Ombudsman’s own personality and priorities play a crucial role in the planning process, and he/she has a final word on the numbers and types of places to be visited. Some people may be worried about the possible conflicts between the NPM unit and the Ombudsman. This is a reasonable concern and an ongoing issue of debate, but to date there has been little disputes in this regard in the Czech Republic, and the final NPM plans are outcomes of close dialogue between the Ombudsman and the NPM unit represented by its head.


References

1. APT, Monitoring places of detention – A practical guide (April 2004), p. 67.
2. Practical Guidelines on Drafting Reports and Formulating Recommendations for the National Prevention Mechanism of Georgia, p. 1
3. Human Rights Ombudsman of Slovenia, Report of the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Slovenia on the Implementation of tasks of the NPM under the OPCAT for 2014 (2015), p. 173.

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