The Nelson Mandela Rules – Our Chief Operating Officer’s First Blog


August 29, 2017

  • chief operating officer
  • TACT
  • Training

When I first heard of the Summer School run by the Association for Prevention of Torture (APT), and Penal Reform International (PRI), through our partners at the UKNPM, I was excited. Prior to joining ICVA, it has been a while since I have had any training as part of my job or indeed my professional development. A Summer School on the Nelson Mandela Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners? – yes please!!! (I know I sound like a geek at this point but unashamedly so!)

Now what does this have to do with police custody and custody visiting I hear you say? Well, the truth is that I wasn’t sure but was really keen to do it in any case, thinking that even if there was no direct application of the rules to police custody, my knowledge in terms of Human Rights for detained persons, and the roles of various institutions dedicated to this would be greater, which was no bad thing. To my delight ICVA’s very lovely and supportive CEO Katie Kempen agreed and I was able to apply.

A small wait whilst the applications came in and I was lucky to get a place, it was open internationally so I was delighted to be able to attend! When the agenda and the delegate list came through I was blown away by the international presence at the course, delegates from as far away as Argentina, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Cambodia as well as a wealth of those from European and Eastern European countries. Being inherently nosey I love new people and new people with different life and cultural experiences is especially exciting to me.  Add in a dollop of insight into prisons and custody in other countries and I was a very happy COO.

We arrived on the Sunday and were astonished to see where the course was being held, if you have never visited University of Bristol, do! It has massive touches of Harry Potter about it and as we all got together for Sunday dinner (roast of course, yum), all of the delegates were excitedly chatting about sorting hats and spells! In amongst this excitement were of course those initial chats working out what roles we each played in our NPMs – some were part of monitoring groups, some working for the NPM directly and a whole host of other experiences. I found a friend from Finland who also monitors police custody as part of her role so was pleased there was someone else there to discuss this aspect of custody as well as me (although those readers who know me will know that speaking out is not something that’s a struggle usually!).

Monday morning and our first day at school. We were introduced to our organisers (more on these guys later), given the outline for the week and the history from the Standard Minimum Rules (SMR) to the Nelson Mandela Rules. An interesting point to note, the SMR’s were developed in 1955 and hadn’t been changed since, just take a moment and think about the change in society and attitudes we have had since then and you can imagine why the rules needed a re-write. There are still many aspects of the original rules that remain, but large swathes have been re-written, including but not limited to basic principles, prisoner file management, restrictions, disciplines and sanctions and complaints. PRI have a short video here.

The course covered all of the new rules, and I wont go through them all here although do be assured that for each module there was lots to learn and some fabulous speakers and facilitators from all sectors and backgrounds to inspire and bring the rules to life.

What was interesting to me was for a topic like prisoner file management – initially one could be forgiven for looking at the header and planning a small day dream about dinner, file management not seeming like a difficult or, dare I say it, interesting topic and I am rather ashamed to say I was somewhat complacent. I realised I was wrong at the opener in which there was a discussion about how different countries manage their prisoner records, during which it was discussed that paper files could be easily lost, misplaced, pages missing or indeed not exist, meaning that it would be very easy indeed for a detainee to be mistreated or even disappear without trace and no ability to investigate who this person was, the reason for detention or indeed what had befallen them.

Taking this back to custody records in our work, although it is certainly fair to assume that custody suites will know and have records (insofar as they can) of those held there, the quality of the custody record could vary, and without accurate recording around contentious topics such as use of force or complaints, monitoring institutions could struggle in terms of investigations, and identifying areas of good practice and indeed those of concern. Interestingly there are still some areas of detention in the UK that use paper files.

Another area that really struck a chord with me was the use of isolation, either as a prison management technique or as a punishment. The use of isolation throughout prisons and custody of all types is common and the effects of doing so are still being examined, but the emerging findings from a variety of sources are all in agreement that it causes damage to the individual. Whether or not this is reversible and the extent of the damage caused is still a matter of debate. The Nelson Mandela rules define solitary confinement as the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact. Prolonged solitary confinement refers to solitary confinement for a time period in excess of 15 days. Relating this to police custody in the UK, those detained under the Terrorism Act 2000 seems most pertinent. Although the maximum period of detention is 14 days, the likelihood of an individual being in a cell for 22 hours or more without meaningful human contact is increased, given that investigations can be continuing without further interview necessary during the 14-day .

In January 2017 the UKNPM produced a guide to isolation including a section on isolation in short term detention and police custody.  This included guidance regarding release of transfer at the earliest opportunity, and the rights and entitlements to exercise, light, fresh air and books and reading materials. We have heard from a TACT suite manager this week at our conference some excellent practice to avoid feelings of isolation during the quieter periods of detention in that they will play films in cell where they can to reduce the feeling of isolation during detention. They also allow visits where possible. It’s great to see some good practice in the spirit of the rules and OPCAT are in practice. There is much more I could say, and please do check out the Mandela Rules for yourself, I am not sure in this blog that I have done the content or importance justice and may yet blog again on further reflections.

Kudos to all of the speakers to getting through a vast amount of material and consistently putting in exercises, quizzes and open discussions to ensure that we all remained engaged and learning, and, at one point a rendition of heads, shoulders, knees and toes to wake us all up post lunch! I also had lots of fun explaining what Scotch Eggs were and various other English idiosyncrasies as well as being the on-call weather girl for the week!

ICVA is a mighty but small organisation, meaning that often I work alone for periods of time, with most of my friends/family working in the private sector and therefore limited chat on the criminal justice system in this or other countries. The week I spent at Bristol was amazing, everyone there, delegates and speakers alike, shone with the will to treat people in all types of detention with dignity, professionalism and above all with humanity.

Massive thanks to Olivia Rope and Andrea Huber from PRI, Jean Sebastian Blanc from the APT and everyone who helped to organise and deliver the week. It has left me inspired, human rights focussed and googling OU law degrees!