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Pace Law Review Prison Oversight Sourcebook Article 10 Citizens and Nonprofits Role 2010

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Pace Law Review
Volume 30
Issue 5 Fall 2010
Opening Up a Closed World: A Sourcebook on
Prison Oversight

Article 10


The Role of Citizens and Non-Profit Advocacy
Organizations in Providing Oversight
Vivien Stern
International Centre for Prison Studies, King's College

Recommended Citation
Vivien Stern, The Role of Citizens and Non-Profit Advocacy Organizations in Providing Oversight, 30
Pace L. Rev. 1529 (2010)
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Revised and Updated Speech by
Baroness Vivien Stern to the
Conference on Prison Oversight,
Austin, Texas, April 25, 2006:
The Role of Citizens and NonProfit Advocacy Organizations in
Providing Oversight
Baroness Vivien Stern*
Every prison in England and Wales (and every
Immigration Removal Centre) is required by statute to have an
Independent Monitoring Board. These Boards go back, in some
form, to the 16th century, when “magistrates of the County
Quarter Sessions had a hand in the administration and
regulation of . . . prisons.”1
Thus, in most countries with a British past (ex-colonial

Vivien Stern is Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre
for Prison Studies (ICPS) at King‟s College, London. She has been a member
of the Upper House of the UK Parliament since 1999 and was a member of
the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights from 2004 to 2008.
She is a member of the Advisory Council of the International Legal
Foundation in New York, and a member of the Advisory Council of the Legal
Policy Research Centre in Kazakhstan. In September 2009, she was
appointed by the UK Government to lead a review of how rape complaints are
handled from when a rape is first disclosed until the court reaches a verdict.
Her publications include Bricks of Shame: Britain’s Prisons; A Sin
Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World; Alternatives to Prison in
Developing Countries; and Developing Alternatives to Prison in East and
Central Europe and Central Asia. Her latest book, Creating Criminals:
People and Prisons in a Market Society, was published by Zed Books in May
1. Indep. Monitoring Bds., Background Information—Independent
Monitoring Boards in Prisons, Immigration Removal Centres and Short-Term
Centres, (last visited
Mar. 5, 2010).





[Vol. 30:5

countries), there will be a system of local oversight of prisons
by a group of lay citizens, usually called a Visiting Committee.
I was in a prison in February 2006, in a small African country,
formerly a British colony, called Malawi. I checked the visitors‟
book and sure enough, there was an entry. Someone from the
Visiting Committee had been there the month before and she
had recorded, in the book, her impressions and her suggestions
for improvements.
In England and Wales, the word “visiting” was dropped in
2003 and replaced by a more official-sounding name,
“Independent Monitoring Board.” Every one of the 135 prisons
and 10 Immigration Removal Centres in England and Wales
has such a board, made up of between 12 and 20 members.
Altogether there are over 1,850 members in total. Vacancies
are advertised locally and anyone can apply. Each member is
appointed to a specific prison or Immigration Removal Centre.
Members are lay people from the local community (i.e., not
prison professionals) and they receive no payment (but may be
reimbursed for basic expenses). They are expected to serve two
days per month. The members may enter the prison at any
time and go anywhere in the prison (subject to security
considerations and personal safety). They can enquire into
anything (except confidential medical files).
Independent Monitoring Board members‟ statutory duties
are set out in the 1952 Prison Act.2 Additionally, an updated
prison rule that was proposed by the National Council was
recently accepted by the Minister, which among other things,
requires the Board to “satisfy itself as to the humane and just
treatment of those held in custody within its prison and the
range and adequacy of the programmes preparing them for
The Board must also inform the responsible
government department when it has a serious concern about
any matter and it must produce an annual report for the
government on how well the prison has met the standards and
requirements.4 Boards are encouraged to publish their annual
reports. These are publicly available on the Boards‟ websites
2. Prison Act, 1952, 15 & 16 Geo. 6 & 1 Eliz. 2, ch. 52, § 6 (Eng.).
3. See Letter from Norman McLean, Head of Independent Monitoring
Boards‟ Secretariat, to prison administrators (June 30, 2004), at Annex A,
available at
4. Id.





and they are issued to the press and are often reported.5
What do the Board members actually do? They monitor
the day-to-day life of their prison. They visit it regularly,
usually unannounced. They listen to the concerns of prisoners
and report them if necessary. The Board must inspect the
prison at least once per month, but in practice most Boards
inspect once per week. As part of the inspection the Board
member must visit the kitchen, healthcare unit and
segregation unit.
The members also regularly listen to
requests and complaints by individual prisoners. The Board
must meet once a month (with the director of the prison in
attendance) to discuss the results of its inspections and any
concerns raised by prisoners.
The crucial part of prison life of course, if there is a
concern about possible ill-treatment and abuse of prisoners, is
when order is under threat and coercive measures have to be
used. This occurs when prisoners need to be segregated from
others, when mechanical restraints are used, and when there
are incidents and disturbances. Therefore, Boards have special
responsibilities in this regard. If a serious incident happens at
any time, day or night, a Board member must be called to the
prison to monitor the situation and observe how it is dealt
with. A serious incident could include, for example, concerted
indiscipline, escapes, hostage taking, deaths, roof climbing,
barricades, fires, food refusal or deliberate self-harm. In these
cases Board members, according to an official document, “have
a duty to monitor, observe and record serious incidents. Board
members have a duty to visit the incident area and remain as
observers until a resolution is reached.”6 Board members must
also monitor any use of restraint on prisoners and monitor the
treatment of prisoners placed in segregation cells separated
from other prisoners.
Board members are given advice on how to carry out their
role. They should make sure they do not behave as if they are
part of the management of the prison. They should make sure
they do give prisoners an opportunity to talk to them about
their concerns, away from staff if necessary. The leaflet
5. Id.
6. Independent Monitoring Board Secretariat, Reference Book for IMBs
at (Section 35).




[Vol. 30:5

explaining what the Boards do says members should be: “„Open
minded,”7 “[c]aring,”8 “[c]ommitted to diversity, equality and
human rights,”9 and “good listener[s].”10 „They should also
have the “„[a]bility to challenge.‟”11
However, Board members‟ powers are limited. The Board
is not an executive body. It cannot demand action. It can raise
its concerns with the director of the prison, and if it is not
satisfied with the response, it can raise the concerns with the
various levels of the hierarchy up to the top political level.
Most recently, in 2009, the matters raised by the Boards with
the top political level include: the high number of mentally ill
people in prison who should not be in prison but in an outside
hospital, the effects of the financial stringency on prisoners‟
programmes and activities, overcrowded accommodation, and
prisons holding an inappropriate number of elderly people with
This description of the role suggests that Independent
Monitoring Boards are strong watchdogs with access to all
parts of the prison, a right to talk to prisoners in private and a
line of communication with the part of government responsible
for the system. How far does this system of oversight by
citizens actually produce a better system with a higher level of
protection of the rights of prisoners?
I would argue that the existence and presence of
Independent Monitoring Boards in prisons does improve the
treatment of prisoners and raises the level of their protection
from abuse and ill-treatment. It does this through the actual
presence—in the prison, in the cells, on the landings and in the
exercise yards—of people from the outside world, who have a
commitment to ethical treatment of other human beings.
It also improves the prison system because of the
contribution it makes to the penal culture. A distinction is
often made between countries that aim to treat their prisoners
as citizens and those countries that make it clear that
prisoners are despised enemies of the state. It is usually quite
7. Independent Monitoring Board, What‟s in it for Me?, (last visited Mar. 5, 2010).
8. Id.
9. Id.
10. Id.
11. Id.





easy when visiting a prison system in a particular country to
see which is the predominant philosophy. Are prisoners
treated as one would wish a family member to be treated? Do
they keep many of the rights of citizenship such as, for
example, the right to vote? Or are they treated as though they
are from another species, with all the insignia of the
stigmatised person, with what have become the instantly
recognisable regalia—orange jumpsuits, shackles?
It is worth asking, how are these different cultures—
prisoners as citizens and prisoners as enemies—determined and
how are they preserved? It is interesting that the U.S. State
Department, in its annual human rights reports on the
countries of the world, notes as a positive factor that the
government in question allows visits to its places of detention
by NGOs and outside monitoring bodies. Here, I come back to
the importance of the Independent Monitoring Boards and of
all the groups that go into prisons to monitor or to help. The
group of worthy, public-spirited, concerned human beings that
makes up Independent Monitoring Boards brings more than a
formal presence. These people bring with them the values of
the outside world to the closed and deformed world of the
prisons. They keep alive in the prison a certain view of how
human beings should be treated. They can be the eyes and
ears from the outside that ask why is something being done, or
why can the prisoner not have certain things that make life
It is normal that in all residential institutions, not just the
ones where those who are deemed to have offended against
society are held, as their distance from the outside world
increases, so their standards can slip. The mind-set easily
becomes: no one will notice if the showers do not work. These
are, after all, only prisoners. No one will dare to complain if
the prisoners‟ mail doesn‟t reach them for a couple more days
because there is no time to deal with it. These people are not
in any hurry. No one will know if nothing is done about a bad
beating that happened in the segregation block yesterday.
These people are prisoners and they are used to violence.
When there is a Board member in the prison every day,
and an inspection of some parts of the prison every month, and
an opportunity for prisoners to bring their complaints to an
independent person, out of the hearing of prison staff, then it is




[Vol. 30:5

probably not worth it to leave the showers unrepaired, the mail
unsorted and the violence unreported because it will all be
discussed at the Board‟s monthly meeting and prison
management will be under constant pressure to fix the




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