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Human Rights in Closed Environments

Edited by Bronwyn Naylor, Julie Debeljak and Anita Mackay
Annandale, New South Whales: The Federation Press. 2014.

This book is a collection of eight articles from eminent scholars, experts and practitioners from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand who attended a conference in Melbourne in February 2012. The conference was hosted by Monash University, funded under a research grant provided by the Australian Research Council, and focused on “closed environments,” including prisons, police cells, forensic psychiatric institutions, closed mental health and disability units, and immigrations centres. The articles examine the application of domestic and international human rights obligations in various closed environments, the role of preventive monitoring mechanisms and organizational cultures.

Penovic provides a detailed overview of the history of outsourcing to private contractors of immigration detention services in Australia and its impact on human rights compliance. Despite best intentions, a succession of profit-making enterprises have repeatedly failed to uphold human rights obligations; to ensure humane treatment and conditions of confinement; to produce significant savings; and to promote accountability and transparency of operations. This article should be mandatory reading for any government considering outsourcing to improve efficiency and reduce cost of closed environments.

Frawley and Naylor review the situation of people with disabilities housed in congregated residential institutions in Australia, and the capacity of these institutions to recognize and protect the human rights of residents. The authors provide evidence that the rights of people with intellectual disabilities living in closed environment are often contested, not acknowledged and at increased risk of abuse. As is the case for all closed environments discussed in this book, the authors identify a gap between existing domestic and international human rights protections and the everyday experience of people living in closed facilities.

Naylor examines the ways in which human rights can be made part of the day-to-day practices of people operating and living in closed environments. She explores how people held in prison understand and talk about issues relating to human rights. Prisoners who were interviewed for this study consistently voice the importance of being treated with respect and dignity, and protected from inhumane and degrading treatment and humiliation. The other broad themes discussed encompass prison conditions (including overcrowding), maintaining contact with family and the wider community and provision of health care. Policy makers and practitioners interested in contributing to the development of a culture respectful of human rights and enhancing openness, accountability and transparency in prison settings will enjoy this article.

Two articles focus on the contribution of international instruments and mechanisms for the advancement of human rights in closed environments. Firstly, Grossman, the Chair of the UN Committee against Torture since 2008, reviews the UN Convention against Torture, its reporting requirements by States Parties and the work of the Committee. Despite an impressive track record for improving human rights protections among many States Parties, Grossman candidly admits that “it cannot be affirmed that torture has decreased in the world.” Secondly, Pierce provides a detailed account on the implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) in New Zealand after its ratification in 2007. She reviews how NZ adopted a unique multi-agency model when establishing its National Preventive Mechanisms (NPM) and how it meets its obligations to conduct regular visits of closed environments. Pierce discusses the key features of NZ’s NPMs and emphasizes the importance of their independence for effective delivery of their legal mandate. These two articles are very relevant to the Canadian context. Reputation aside, Canada no longer has a tradition to drive domestic reforms by actively promoting and relying upon international human rights instruments. For example, 13 years after being adopted by the UN General Assembly and after 77 countries have ratified the OPCAT, Canada has yet to sign it and increasingly struggles to demonstrate human rights leadership.

Owers, a former Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, describes five essential elements for effective implementation of human rights within closed environments, and focus on two key elements, namely inspection and its interaction with those running detention systems. Her contribution is pragmatic and illustrates succinctly what is required to create healthy prisons: safety, respect, purposeful activities and resettlement. Interestingly and importantly, she addresses head-on the issue of enhancing victims’ rights and public safety in the context of protecting human rights of prisoners and detainees.

The last two articles are perhaps most valuable for those managing closed environments. First, Mackay describes the experiences of an Australian prison and a police service and what strategies can assist those organizations in achieving a culture respectful of human rights. Leadership, clear accountability, communications, training and support for staff are key to instil such a culture. Secondly, Stevens provides practical advice on how to contribute to positive cultural changes and ultimately to better treatment and conditions of confinement in closed environments. The discussions on cultural values, attitudes and the role of leadership in setting and maintaining a human rights agenda are most helpful. She also addresses the societal context which may influence institutional culture. This is relevant to Canada as the law and order agenda of the current government has had a negative impact on Canadian correctional culture. For example, in a law and order environment which advocate for longer sentences and harsher conditions of confinement, correctional authorities may feel indifferent or immune about being responsive to recommendations of oversight bodies.

This book makes an invaluable contribution to the existing literature on human rights. The most significant strength of this book is how the experiences of diverse closed environments and jurisdictions can inform lessons learned and drive human rights policy, practice and compliance.

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