People in Custody and The National Preventive Mechanism

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

How many people are detained in custody in the United Kingdom?

Every day of the year, over 125,000 people in the United Kingdom are detained in hospitals, prisons, immigration facilities, children’s homes and police cells.  This startling figure was published last month by the UK National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) NPM Detention Population Data Mapping Project.  It is internationally recognised that people in detention can be vulnerable to ill-treatment.  As HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, one of my responsibilities is to visit prisons regularly both to encourage improvement in how they are run and to prevent ill-treatment of those detained.  The NPM has the legal responsibility to monitor places of detention for the purpose of preventing ill-treatment.  

The National Preventive Mechanism is a network of independent statutory bodies that have responsibility for preventing ill-treatment in detention. The NPM was created in 2009 to fulfil the UK’s obligations as a signatory to the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT).  The oversight and scrutiny of places of detention acts to prevent ill-treatment and to provide reassurance to the public and to friends and relatives of those whose liberty has been restricted.

How does the National Preventive Mechanism work?

The UK’s NPM comprises 21 bodies, covering every type of detention in all four nations of the UK.  Six of these bodies cover detention in Scotland: the Care Inspectorate, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland, HM Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland, Independent Custody Visitors Scotland, the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland and the Scottish Human Rights Commission.  These organisations have responsibility for ensuring that all places of detention in Scotland are regularly monitored and inspected.

Last month, the UK NPM published its annual report for 2015-16 NPM Annual Report.  The annual report provides a useful summary of the activities and findings of the NPM members.  Over the last two years the NPM has reviewed the impact on detainees of being held in isolation from other people in detention.  It has developed and published a guidance document drawing on the lessons from the review NPM Isolation Guidance.  This guidance is intended to provide advice not only to the monitoring and inspection bodies, but also to the organisations which are being monitored and inspected. 

Who provides oversight and scrutiny of prisons in Scotland?

The oversight of prisons in Scotland is the responsibility of HMIPS, which has a legal duty to inspect and report on the conditions in prisons and the treatment of prisoners.  This is carried out by both professional inspectors and Independent Prison Monitors (IPMs).  There are over 120 volunteer IPMs across Scotland in fifteen teams, one for each prison.  Every prison has to be visited by IPMs every week, to monitor the treatment and conditions in prison and to respond to requests made by people in prison.  People in prison are able to make a request to see an IPM by telephoning a confidential helpline.  This is the most popular way for requests to be made.

Similarly, police custody cells in Scotland are regularly monitored by Independent Custody Visitors – members of the local community who fulfil their duties on a voluntary basis.  The Care Inspectorate, too, has a network of volunteers from local communities who help to monitor the conditions in residential homes.

What are Scotland’s prisons like?

As HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, I regularly visit and inspect all prisons in Scotland.  In general I am encouraged by what I see and find.  We should not take for granted that Scotland’s prisons are in general well-run, ordered and stable places.  It is to the credit of the men and women working in prisons that most prisoners say that they feel safe.  I see clear evidence of the benefits of positive relationships between prisoners and staff, which I am convinced contributes positively to people’s preparation for release as they near the end of their sentence.

There are, of course, still challenges facing those leaving prison.  Too many people leave prison without settled accommodation and without having registered with a local doctor, particularly people with mental health and addictions problems.  Often people leaving prison have insufficient funds to support them, and it can be notoriously difficult for people with criminal convictions to secure employment.

I am encouraged that the prison population in Scotland has reduced over the last seven years, particularly in the case of young men.  I would like to see this reduction continuing, so that we see fewer people on a pattern of repeating the cycle of offending and reoffending.

A civilised society desires to have as few people as possible deprived of their liberty.  We must make sure that for those who do need to be detained, their human rights are protected and they are treated with humanity and with respect for their inherent dignity as human beings.


David Strang

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland                                                                               28 February 2017