Monitoring places of detention
This page provides information about the Ombudsman’s role in examining and monitoring places of detention under the Crimes of Torture Act 1989, giving effect to New Zealand’s international obligations under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT).
This information is also available as an Easy Read pamphlet: Monitoring places of detention.
- What do we do?
- What places are monitored?
- Who is involved?
- What is involved in an inspection?
- What is the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT)?
- What is a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM)?
- What is the Crimes of Torture Act (COTA)?
- How do we know if New Zealand's places of detention meet international human rights standards?
- Where can I find the latest information?
The Chief Ombudsman is tasked with examining and monitoring the treatment of people who are, or may be, ‘deprived of their liberty’ in ‘places of detention’ and making any recommendations considered appropriate to improve that treatment.
- 'Detention' means keeping someone in a place they cannot leave.
The Chief Ombudsman is responsible for examining and monitoring the treatment of people detained in New Zealand’s:
- prisons and court facilities
- immigration detention facilities
- health and disability places of detention (such as within hospitals and secure care facilities, including those in publically and privately run aged care facilities)
- child care and protection and youth justice residences.
The role requires the Chief Ombudsman to carry out both announced and unannounced in-depth inspections as well as shorter ad-hoc visits of these facilities on a regular basis with a view to identifying conditions that could give rise to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
For the legal definition, see Article 4 of the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), which New Zealand has signed up to.
The risk of ill-treatment exists in all situations where people are deprived of their liberty. People living in places of detention still have human rights. This means that people should be treated with respect, not be treated badly, and be safe.
Places of detention need to be monitored to make sure the people living in them are safe and are treated in the right way. OPCAT is about preventing any ill-treatment from occuring.
- 'Monitor' means to look into something to see what is happening.
Inspectors and other staff assist the Chief Ombudsman to carry out his National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) function by inspecting places of detention.
Inspectors gather information on the treatment and conditions of detained people in those places of detention for which the Chief Ombudsman is the designated NPM. There is a consistent inspection framework for the same type of detention facility so it’s fair to all. Find out more about inspector powers here.
Inspectors have various expertise and backgrounds in mental health and disability, social work, aged care, and prison operation and management.
Inspectors are also helped on their visits to health and disability facilities by specialist advisors with medical, cultural, disability and social expertise, and lived-in experience, or people who have advocated on behalf of detainees.
'Inspect' means to look at something closely to learn more about it.
Our Inspectors regularly inspect relevant places of detention and look at:
- The treatment of detainees, including any allegations of ill-treatment, the use of isolation, force or restraint
- The facility’s protection measures, such as information provided for detainees, complaint processes, registers, and record-keeping
- Detainees’ material conditions, such as facilities and living conditions
- Detainees’ activities, such as contact with their family and others outside the facility, outdoor exercise, education and leisure activities
- Detainees’ access to health care
- Staff, such as staffing levels, conduct and training.
Following the visits, the Chief Ombudsman produces a report of what was found at the time of the inspection. The report may recommend practical improvements that will ensure there are sufficient safeguards in place and any risks, poor practices or systemic problems are addressed. The Chief Ombudsman’s inspection reports are provided to those in charge of the facility. Some reports are also tabled in Parliament.
In some cases, our Inspectors do a follow up visit to find out how the Chief Ombudsman’s recommendations are being addressed.
- Read the Chief Ombudsman’s recent reports on prison inspections here.
The United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) is a unique international human rights agreement that New Zealand ratified in 2007.
Unlike other human rights treaty processes that deal with violations of rights after the fact, the OPCAT focuses on preventing human rights violations of people deprived of liberty. OPCAT emphasises cooperation with national authorities rather than condemnation.
The OPCAT establishes international and national monitoring mechanisms to visit places where people are detained, with the overall aim of preventing torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. These are called ‘National Preventive Mechanisms’ (NPMs).
- Find out more about the OPCAT on the Association for the Prevention of Torture's website.
In New Zealand, the Crimes of Torture Act 1989 (COTA) provides for the designation of 'National Preventive Mechanisms' (NPMs), as required by the OPCAT.
NPMs are independent bodies whose role is to examine, at regular intervals, the conditions of detention and treatment of detainees, and make recommendations to the government for improvement.
New Zealand’s NPMs are the:
- Independent Police Conduct Authority, which is responsible, with the Ombudsman, for examining and monitoring the treatment of people detained in court facilities, in Police cells, or in the custody of the New Zealand Police;
- Children’s Commissioner, who is responsible, with the Ombudsman, for examining and monitoring the treatment of children and young people detained in child care and protection and youth justice residences
- Inspector of Service Penal Establishments, who is responsible for examining and monitoring the treatment of people detained in defence force penal establishments.
- The Human Rights Commission is the 'Central Preventive Mechanism' (CPM), responsible for coordinating the activities of the NPMs, and liaising with the United Nations.
The NPMs’ functions are formally recorded in the New Zealand Gazette, most recently on 6 June 2018.
The Ombudsman’s designation was extended on 6 June 2018 to include monitoring and inspecting the treatment of people detained in the custody of the Department of Corrections (that is where people are in the custody of Corrections, outside of a prison), court facilities, and in privately run aged care facilities.
- The NPMs must report to Parliament at least annually. The NPMs’ annual reports are published on the Human Rights Commission’s website and also here.
- Find out more about the role and functions of NPMs in this guide on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights' website.
- Find out more about the New Zealand laws that promote and protect human rights, on the Ministry of Justice’s website.
The countries that have signed up to the OPCAT can expect to have their progress monitored by the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT). The SPT has the same entitlements to information and access to places of detention as the NPMs.
The SPT’s reports on all countries that have obligations under the OPCAT, and its annual reports, are available on the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ website.
The SPT visited New Zealand from 29 April to 8 May 2013. Its report on that visit is available on the Human Rights Commission website or from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ website.
- Find out more about the international human rights laws and treaties that New Zealand has signed up to, and its obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil the human rights of everyone in New Zealand, on the Ministry of Justice’s website.
- Download our Fact Sheet (PDF | Word) - Update: OPCAT inspections to include people held securely in privately-run aged care facilities - August 2019
- View the Chief Ombudsman’s presentation to the Alzheimers NZ conference about his role in ensuring the rights of detained people are protected, including people living with dementia who are detained within hospitals, secure care, or aged care facilities here - October 2018
- View the Chief Ombudsman's presentation to the New Zealand Aged Care Association's annual conference on protecting the rights of detained people here - September 2018
- Download our Fact Sheet (PDF | Word) – Ombudsman’s new responsibilities in monitoring the treatment of people detained in private aged care facilities - July 2018
- Read our media release on the extension of the OPCAT designation - 6 June 2018
- Download our Monitoring places of detention pamphlets in regular or large print, or in Easy Read. This information is also available in Maori, Samoan, Tongan, Hindi, Korean and Mandarin here.
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