Planning a visit to a place of detention

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)

Before the NPM visiting team can knock on the door of the place selected for the preventive visit, it must go through the preparatory phase. It is important that the NPM prepares the visit well and in detail because good preparation determines the effectiveness of the visit itself.

Just like a travel agency, to prepare for one visit, the NPM has to gather information, decide the destination, recruit and train the team members, and confirm all the travel details. Although the preparations would differ according to the type of places to be visited, however, there are some basic issues common to the visit plan for any type of facilities. 

Photo by Ivan Zhukevich on Unsplash

In fact, the Czech NPM has developed internal guidelines that cover all these processes in details, so let me share with you some of the guiding principles and experiences. (For practical notes on the annual visit planning, please refer to the previous article.)

Gathering information and defining the specific goal of the visit

Before the visit, the NPM shall strive to get as much information as possible about the given facility, including the purpose, the organizational structure, and the management of the facility, as well as the number and composition of the detainees. In addition to these basic facts, it is desirable to get an idea of the current human rights situation in the facility, especially the problems and challenges that the institution faces. This information will help NPM define the specific objective(s) of the visit. 

The Czech NPM had elaborated some general visit topics or areas of interest for each type of facility, such as privacy of detainees, the autonomy of will, health care, cultural and social needs, the right to file a complaint, and so forth; it also elaborated on the methods to monitor these topics, such as interviews, observation, review of documentation, etc. 

Photo by Brandon Holmes on Unsplash

Some of the information needed for preparation may come from public sources, such as the facility’s websites, information from media, and public audit reports. If the NPM is established within the ombudsman institution, the NPM unit may benefit from the experience of the Ombudsman as he or she usually also investigates the individual complaints of detainees.[ii] Furthermore, the NPM may request additional information from the competent state authorities, for example, asking for the results of previous controls carried out by state inspection bodies. However, the NPM shall strive to strike a balance between the need to collect as much information as possible and the need to carry out visit secretly.

For the Czech NPM, the issue of confidentiality has the highest priority, so it does not routinely seek cooperation with other bodies prior the visit and nor does it turn to the facility prior the visit, and relies mainly on publicly accessible information and information provided by the Ombudsman.[iii] In my personal experience, the relevant facts concerning the facility (for example the number of personnel, organizational structure, the composition of detainees, etc.) can be easily accessed soon after the arrival to the facility, so there is no need to get 100% of the information in advance. Nevertheless, it is always desirable for NPM to have prior knowledge about the approximate number of detainees, which is usually accessible from the facility’s website or public registers, to design the length of the visit and arrange the number of monitors.

Setting up the team and prior trainning of the monitors

In the Czech Republic and in other European countries that I have researched, the head of the NPM unit appoints a visiting leader from the personnel of the NPM unit. He or she is then responsible for the overall preparation and conduct of the visit, including assembling and managing the visiting team. When the permanent NPM members do not have the required expertise, external experts such as psychiatrists, nurses, and interpreters will be invited to the visiting team. 

Photo Credit: CPT

All of these monitors (including the ombudsman’s employees of the NPM unit and external experts invited) must have an excellent knowledge of the international human rights law, including relevant judicial decisions and non-binding recommendations of the European Court of Human Rights, as well domestic legislation regarding the detention facilities and human rights norms. [iv] Although the results of the visit also depend heavily on the communicational skills of the individual monitor, the leader of the visiting team has to ensure each monitors has sufficient knowledge of the chosen facility, fully understands the NPM’s goal and his/her own role, and is familiar with the methodology of the visit. 

So for example, when a visiting leader appoints a certain monitor to focus on the topic of psychiatric care in prison, especially regarding prisoners with disabilities, this monitor must prepare for the visit in the following way:

  • He or she must have knowledge of the international and domestic law and human rights standards concerning people with disabilities;
  • He or she must know the legal regulations concerning the rights and duties of medical staff in prison, the way how medical treatment is organized in prison facilities, etc.; and
  • He or she must be familiar with the strategy on conducting interviews with the medical personnel and detainees and to be trained in interpersonal communication, especially with respect to people with disabilities.
The European Court of Human Rights. Photo Credit: @ Wikimedia Commons

The leader will also assist the monitors in preparing checklists and questionnaires (used for  monitors, and if appropriate, can be designed for the facility’s staff and detainees) and other necessary documents, such as the NPM ID card and documents required by domestic legislation. According to the Czech law, for instance, when NPM monitors access the medical record of detainees, they must fill a special record including the name of the monitor and date when the medical record was accessed. 

As mentioned above, the Czech NPM has developed an internal document that provides monitors with sufficient guidelines to manage the preparation for the visit. However, close cooperation with the visit leader is necessary, as he or she is the one who has the last word concerning the visit strategy and management of the visiting team. The other responsibilities of the visiting leader include communicating with the officials, drawing up the finding report after the visit, which will be reviewed and adopted by NPM Unit and the Ombudsman, and following up on the facility’s compliance with NPM recommendations.

Arranging the travel details of the visit

Visits of the Czech NPM visits usually last between one to three days and involve three to five monitors, and sometimes the Ombudsman himself. The team members must stay 100% focused during monitoring, continuously evaluate and discuss their immediate findings and decide on the visit strategy for the next hours/day(s). 

Photo by K8 on Unsplash

Therefore, the leader of the team has to arrange appropriate accommodation and means of transport for the monitors. The accommodation should be close to the visited facility, allowing the monitoring team to come and leave the facility at any time during the day or even during the night. The leader also needs to arrange the necessary technical equipment (e.g. cars, computers, cameras, etc.) in collaboration with the ombudsman. [v] 

Needless to say, the visiting is both mentally and physically demanding, so the well-being of the monitors must be considered. For example, one way to prison in Kynšperk nad Ohří takes Czech monitors about 4 hours (similar distance as from Taipei to Kaohsiung). If this visit would be done in one day, it would be extremely demanding.

In summary, the NPM must combine knowledge, experience and appropriate methodology in the planning of each visit. The better the preparations are done, the more likely that the monitors can reveal the signs of torture and ill treatment, bringing us closer to a true picture of the reality in a place of detention.


[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] In the Czech Republic, when the Ombudsman receives an increased number of complaints from a certain facility, it can instruct the NPM unit to carry out the visit in the facility. This is big benefit of having NPM created within the Ombudsman. However, the NPM must maintain its preventive mandate and do not substitute the Ombudsman in his or her reactive mandate.

[iii] See the different practice of Norwegian NPM that asks a given facility to provide with some information before the visit is started.

[iv] For example, if the NPM intends to visit a prison facility, the monitors must be familiar with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules) and CPT Standards (CPT/Inf/E (2002) 1 – Rev. 2010).

[v] The visiting leader can utilize the professional drivers employed by the Czech ombudsman. Although the monitors can also drive a car by themselves (if they have a driver’s license and are prepared to drive), but it is not recommended to let the monitors spend too much energy on driving. 

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