On the morning of Monday 11 June 2018, a conference took place at HMP Warren Hill which was attended by law students from HMP Warren Hill, the University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia. The conference aimed to examine the influence of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and the European Court of Human Rights on prisoners’ rights – a fascinating opportunity to discuss and exchange ideas among a group of people with different backgrounds and perspectives.
Our conference began with a working lunch, giving everyone the opportunity to introduce themselves and talk about the posters which had been set out on tables, each of which covered a particular theme of the research project: suicide, strip-cells, Northern Ireland, segregation and over-crowding in prison.
Few participants had prior knowledge of the CPT and so perhaps some of the readers of this blog might also be wondering what it’s all about. In short, the CPT is the supervisory body for the Convention for the Prevention of Torture. For nearly three decades, the CPT has been sending delegates to visit places of detention in countries that are signatories to the Convention. Visits are carried out periodically every four to five years, on an ad hoc basis, after which reports are produced to which the government of the relevant state must respond. Despite this obligation to respond, Professor Daems, who joined us for the day from Belgium, repeated concerns that the CPT’s impact, in terms of improving the conditions of prisoners, is limited. The CPT itself has a ‘constant refrain’ of complaint that its recommendations are not implemented. Nevertheless, he argued that the CPT continues to be a valuable institution, as its reports are useful material for academics and students and it sets a baseline standard across Europe.
Following introductory presentations, five law masters students from the University of Cambridge spoke about research they have been carrying out over the past year about the practical impacts of the CPT on prison conditions. Each presentation considered the work of the CPT and the European Court of Human Rights on a specific topic, including Northern Ireland, suicide prevention, strip searches, overcrowding and segregation. Charles McCombe covered the context of Northern Ireland as a distinctive part of the United Kingdom – which the CPT considers to be a single jurisdiction. Northern Ireland has been without a government, and therefore without locally accountable ministers since 2017. Charles explained that the absence of a Justice Minister impeded the implementation of the CPT’s recommendations, even though many of the recommendations which appeared in the CPT’s 2008 report also appeared in a 2010 report produced on behalf of the Northern Irish government, suggesting that they had been noted and taken up.
The other presentations, by contrast, shared a common thread of lack of engagement from the British Government with the CPT’s recommendations. On a scale devised by Professor Daems to assess the formal responses to the CPT, the British Government was found repeatedly to have responded in terms which effectively amounted to ‘in reality everything works perfectly’ in relation to the issues covered during the day – in other words, demonstrating an unwillingness to implement CPT recommendations. Elizabeth Abati discovered the Government’s response to the CPT’s findings that solitary confinement was premised on rules being obeyed and implemented in practice. Sheriar Khan made similar findings in relation to suicide and self-harm prevention, using Dworkin’s doughnut analogy to illustrate the subversion of official guidelines in practice through the discretion allowed to officials.
Juliana da Cunha Mota, considered the use and degrading impacts of strip searching and found that the topic was in practice seldom mentioned in CPT reports. She also found (with the exception of Wainwright v UK) that the issue had not the focus of significant debate by to the European Court of Human Rights. Both she and Elizabeth Abati compared the content of CPT reports and domestic reports, including those of the Independent Monitoring Boards, and noted discrepancies between their accounts.
Presentations were followed by group work, discussing the subject-areas covered during the day. The results varied from a detailed examination of causes and potential prevention strategies for suicide and self-harm, to one group’s suggestion that improving public awareness of prisons and prisoners may improve the public’s understanding and therefore help to change political attitudes. The CPT does not have any powers to sanction governments or enforce compliance with the Convention, and its effectiveness is to some degree dependent on its aims converging with those of the relevant government. In the UK in particular, politicians have been repeatedly elected on the basis of manifesto promises to be ‘tough on crime’ and have predominately pursued policies of ever longer sentences and investment in the building of new prisons rather than fundamental improvement to the prison system, including through decarceration.
A wide range of views were expressed during the conference; for example, some Warren Hill students were ambivalent about strip searches, whereas others strongly objected to it. When we noted that it was surprising that more cases had not been brought to the European Court of Human Rights, one of the Warren Hill students commented that it would not have occurred to him to complain about being strip-searched as it was seen as an unpleasant, but inevitable, part of the routine. The lived experiences of the Warren Hill students were also informative and helpful when thinking of solutions to the problems which the CPT highlights in its reports.
Overall, the conference was a valuable and informative experience, particularly for those attendees who only had a theoretical understanding of how the criminal justice system operates. People under sentence in prison are not individually consulted by delegations from the CPT. It was therefore apt to have input from some of the Learning Together community in Warren Hill to help us think further about the CPT’s role and potential improvement. Particular thanks go to Jack Merritt and Ellie Brown for their careful and thoughtful organisation of our day together.
by Elizabeth Campion.