New Guidance Note: Urgent need to open prison doors to civil society

Vitória de Santo Antão child detention centre in Pernambuco State, Brazil © Bianca Moreira

News release

Geneva, 20 December 2022

Civil society organisations (CSOs) working for the rights of persons deprived of liberty and criminal justice reform face, all too often and in too many places, obstacles and exclusion preventing their access to places of detention. Governments need to take the necessary steps to enable civil society access, and scrutiny of prisons and other places where people are deprived of their liberty, the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) said today in a new Guidance Note.

In Brazil, the pandemic context accentuated the violence perpetuated within the juvenile detention system. After several months without being allowed access to these detention facilities, the organisation Gabinete de Assessoria Jurídica às Organizações Populares (GAJOP) resumed visits and detected many cases of abuse, including a teenager who had lost an organ following ill-treatment. GAJOP’s access to him and prompt legal assistance led to the removal of the director of the centre by judicial order.

This is only one example, but there are countless more. “I am immensely proud of the role many of our members have played in ensuring sound prison responses, health support and policies ultimately preventing violence and human rights abuses, said Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of the OMCT. “As we go forward and build back, it is time to acknowledge what is evident: Transparency is essential for detention settings and civil society access one of the best ways to prevent abuse”.

Throughout recent history, and remarkably in the context of emergency responses, CSOs have made valuable contributions to access to information and transparency, showing great flexibility and building trust, expertise and legitimacy, backed by multiple recommendations from international human rights bodies. It is high time for governments to recognise them as vital actors in the prevention of and protection from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

For CSOs to be able to operate effectively and play a meaningful role in the monitoring of conditions of detention of over 11 million people held in penal institutions across the world, they need to be afforded the necessary guarantees to be able to access those facilities, undertake visits and engage with detainees and staff.

A paradigm shift is needed by which justice systems and detention authorities embrace the paramount importance of being open to scrutiny and advice from CSOs and a range of actors involved in the prevention, investigation, sanction and reparation of torture and other ill-treatment, notably national preventive mechanisms, national human rights institutions and other State bodies with monitoring and oversight roles, as well as international human rights and humanitarian bodies.

In the Guidance Note published today, the OMCT provides practical guidance for CSOs and practitioners on how to engage in successful legal, policy and advocacy interventions vis à vis detention authorities, leading to the strengthening of the recognition of CSOs as crucial actors in the monitoring of places of detention and the crafting of emergency preparedness responses by authorities in charge of persons deprived of liberty. The Guidance Note builds on the expert input and orientation provided by the OMCT Covid-19 Crisis Action Group*.

Read the full Guidance note here.

* The OMCT Crisis Action Group is an advisory body composed of eminent experts in the detention, prevention of torture, criminal justice system, health, child rights, women's rights and human rights defenders fields. For more information, read our Guidance Notes Covid-19 and detention: Impacts, lessons and urgent actions.

The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) is the largest global NGO group actively standing up to torture and protecting human rights defenders worldwide. It has more than 200 members in 90 countries. Its international Secretariat is based in Geneva, Switzerland.

For more information, please contact:

Iolanda Jaquemet, Director of Communications

ij@omct.org, +41 79 539 41 06