The National Preventive Mechanism of the United Kingdom – John Wadham

12 May 2016 by

Prisoners release

John Wadham today takes on the role of National Preventative Mechanism chair. He was formally Chief Legal Officer for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Deputy Chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission and most recently the Director of the international human rights organisation, Interights.  Throughout his career, John has worked to protect the rights of detainees.

We are delighted to feature this from John on his new role:

The National Preventive Mechanism describes the network of independent statutory bodies that have responsibility for preventing ill-treatment in detention. In every jurisdiction of the UK – England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – the bodies in this network have the job of inspecting or monitoring every place of detention to try to prevent the ill-treatment of those detained. Whether a person is compulsorily detained in a prison, an immigration removal centre, a psychiatric hospital, or as a child in a Secure Training Centre, there is an organisation responsible for assessing how detainees are treated and ensuring that no ill-treatment will be tolerated.

The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) is the international human rights treaty designed to strengthen the protection of people deprived of their liberty by requiring National Preventive Mechanisms to be set up in every country. OPCAT’s adoption by the United Nations General Assembly in 2002 demonstrated a consensus among the international community that people deprived of their liberty are particularly vulnerable to ill-treatment and that efforts to combat such ill-treatment should focus on primarily on prevention. OPCAT embodies the idea that prevention of ill-treatment in detention can best be achieved by a system of independent, regular visits to all places of detention. OPCAT entered into force in June 2006. There are already 80 countries party to OPCAT, and 62 designated NPMs across the world – all designed to prevent ill-treatment in their places of detention. The UK ratified OPCAT in December 2003 and designated its own NPM in March 2009.

In order to carry out its monitoring role effectively, the NPM must:

  • be independent of government and the institutions it monitors;
  • be sufficiently resourced to perform its role; and
  • have personnel with the necessary expertise and who are sufficiently diverse to represent the community in which it operates.

The NPM must have the power to:

  • access all places of detention (including those operated by private providers);
  • conduct interviews in private with detainees and other relevant people;
  • choose which places it wants to visit and who it wishes to interview;
  • access information about the number of people deprived of their liberty, the number of places of detention and their location; and
  • access information about the treatment and conditions of detainees.

Twenty individual bodies now make up the UK’s NPM.


Last year the UK NPM focused its work on isolation in detention and found:

The number of instances where prisoners are informally isolated, and in many cases in conditions that amount to solitary confinement, over long periods of time is of great concern. Governance of the basic regimes or of unemployed prisoners does not provide safeguards against the impact of isolation or solitary confinement, and the lack of specific health care reviews could leave prisoners at risk. The extent to which prisoners are isolated and even in solitary confinement as a result of restricted regimes and staff shortages warrants greater attention.

NPM members have frequently raised their concerns about the number of vulnerable prisoners who are formally segregated, and the numbers of deaths that have occurred in segregation units are a reminder of the serious risks.

The conditions under which children were isolated varied considerably. In the YOI included in this review, boys held in a separation and care unit were in a poor environment, with an inadequate regime. Although some improvements had been made, the exercise yards were bare and austere, and there was little evidence of any constructive activities. Some boys had been allowed to exercise together, but all of the boys that the NPM member spoke to said they had spent most of their time locked in their cells.

As children have not fully developed cognitively, mentally or emotionally, the possibility that isolation or solitary confinement could cause lasting harm cannot be dismissed. This provides a rationale for rigorous scrutiny of practices that amount to isolation and solitary confinement by NPM members. Children should not be isolated as a punishment, and should never be held in conditions that amount to solitary confinement.

Speaking about his new role, John Wadham has said in the  NPM’s news release: “I’m delighted and honoured to have been appointed as the Chair of the NPM, particularly because the appointment was made by the NPM members themselves. The inspection and monitoring bodies provide essential protections for anyone detained anywhere in the UK, many of whom are vulnerable.”

Read more about the National Preventive Mechanism and its current work on solitary confinement here:

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