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Blog: addressing human rights concerns in UK detention

Wendy Sinclair-Gieben – UK NPM Chair

I am delighted to welcome you to the first edition of the UK National Preventive Mechanism’s blog. Established in 2009, the UK NPM is a multi-body organisation that has been working to prevent torture and ill-treatment in places of detention in the UK for fifteen years now. In that time, thanks to the efforts of a broad range of actors, including the 21 bodies that make up the UK NPM, we have seen some improvements in the treatment of people deprived of their liberty. However, serious systemic issues persist which breach these individuals’ human rights every day. I will highlight some of these systemic issues here, as well as some of the work the NPM is doing to address them.

In the UK, people are deprived of their liberty in places such as prisons, police and court custody, secure mental health facilities, secure children’s homes, immigration detention and military detention. Individuals deprived of their liberty are at an increased risk of torture and ill-treatment, by virtue of the fact that they live out of the public’s view. Scrutiny, including inspections and monitoring visits, is essential to ensuring that people’s basic human rights are protected in places of detention.

One of the main challenges facing detention centres in the UK is overpopulation. With a growing number of individuals being detained, many facilities are struggling to accommodate everyone in a safe and secure manner. This not only puts a strain on staff and resources, but raises concerns about living conditions and treatment.

Shortages in prison and healthcare staff, and in particular mental health support, leave centres ill equipped to provide adequate support and services to increasingly complex populations.This can lead to increased rates of violence and self-harm, and make it more difficult for management to be proactive in reducing risk to prevent the next victim.

Increasingly, pressures on the detention estates see, for example, prisoners locked up for 22 hours a day, and a high number of people who are clearly mentally unwell held in prison isolation for lengthy periods; some of whom have been identified as requiring inpatient treatment.

To address these challenges, it is vital that NPM bodies continue to work together to document these concerns and to hold UK governments to account for their obligation to improve treatment and conditions. NPM bodies must also continue to develop our knowledge and abilities with regards to how we can collectively contribute to the prevention of torture and ill treatment. In this endeavour, we have produced guidance developing a more sophisticated understanding of what prevention means.

The UK aspires to be a human rights-respecting nation, and we must prioritise ensuring all human rights are protected, and that all people are treated with dignity and respect. The UK NPM provides the necessary collective approach to help ensure that those deprived of their liberty are also protected.

This month, at my last NPM annual conference as Chair, the NPM bodies will come together to share best practice and discuss future work to prevent ill-treatment in the UK. At last year’s conference, NPM representatives agreed a dynamic working plan to address ongoing issues, which the NPM has been collectively working on all year. I am looking forward to sharing outcomes and planning for the year ahead at the end of our upcoming conference, which will take place from 24-25 April.

There are many ways the public can help, including by volunteering to visit places of detention, such as police custody and prisons, to document concerns regarding the treatment of people deprived of their liberty. Please contact us or one of the individual NPM bodies to enquire about becoming a monitor, or to share your views or ask question about these issues.

Wendy Sinclair-Gieben is the Chair of the UK National Preventive Mechanism. She currently also serves as His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons in Scotland, as part of HMIPS, one of the 21 scrutiny bodies that make up the UK NPM.

This is the first in the UK NPM’s new blog series. Each month, we will hear from UK NPM bodies, as well as other important stakeholders, about issues related to the prevention of torture and ill-treatment in places where people are deprived of their liberty in the UK.