Institutional culture and management: risk or protection?

The Parliamentary Ombudsman has found in connection with its prevention efforts that institutional culture and management can play an important role in the protection of people deprived of their liberty. They are essential to ensuring that people are treated humanely and with dignity, but they can also present a risk of violation.

There will always be an unequal distribution of power in places where people are deprived of their liberty; between management and staff on one hand, and detainees on the other. People deprived of their liberty depend on an institution’s staff to meet their basic needs and enjoy their fundamental rights. This power imbalance and the restricted public access at places of detention allow for different forms of vulnerability to violations of human dignity and fundamental rights. A desire to protect against such vulnerabilities lies at the heart of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s prevention mandate.

When a few people are assigned power over others, rules must be established to define how this power is exercised. The culture at an institution can be a factor in preventing violations resulting from a power imbalance, but it can also pose a risk.

When values and attitudes create poor practice  

An institutional culture is primarily formed by the prevailing values and attitudes of the staff.[1] In an institutional culture, some characteristics and attitudes can represent a clear risk of ill-treatment. This applies in particular to internal cultures where the staff stop seeing those deprived of their liberty as individuals, but treat them as objects or as a group, e.g. based on diagnoses, gender, age, language or cultural background. Such attitudes create distance and lessen possibilities for good human relations. Research shows that ‘us/them’ attitudes in agencies that exercise power can result in increased use of force.[2] In prisons, it has been found that such attitudes among staff generally lead to a higher stress level among inmates.[3]

In places where staff perceive control, or so-called “static security”, as an overriding priority, there is an increased risk of attitudes emerging where coercion and the use of force are seen as normal and necessary.[4] The same applies in situations where the staff do not believe that they have alternative means at their disposal or lack knowledge about other ways of dealing with conflicts.

The management can play a key role, in either a positive or negative sense. When the management tacitly accepts injustice, this sends a signal that such practices can continue without having any consequences for those involved. If the use of force is normalised or violations occur and the management does not react, this may create a sense of impunity from sanctions and punishment.[5] When staff members cover things up for each other, or do not report injustices that are committed, they help maintain the culture of impunity.

During the visits carried out in 2016, the NPM identified an ‘us/them’ attitude in some places of detention. Examples were found of detainees being talked about in ways that were perceived as dehumanising and that made them feel insecure and inferior. Deprived of their liberty, these people were unable to protect themselves from staff members’ negative or degrading comments.

At several of the places visited, the NPM also concluded that coercive measures had been implemented without an administrative decision. Such findings may indicate that some members of the staff regard using force as an integral part of normal practice and sometimes as punishment. At some of the sites, the organisation of the staff allowed for little or no interaction between different shifts, for example with specific groups of staff only doing night shifts. Such organisation increases the risk of unhealthy subcultures developing.

When the management’s attitudes and values are not clear, are not respected or are seen as supporting a negative culture, there is a markedly increased risk of institutional cultures developing that permit abuse. Examples were found during some visits where the management had not addressed detrimental attitudes among staff. Similarly, where there is a lack of common values promoted by a clear management, there is an increased risk of abuse.

A perception that staff will be held accountable for abusive practices, on the other hand, has a strong socialising effect in the positive direction.

Institutional culture and management as a protective factor

An institutional culture marked by openness, reflection on own practice, accountability, participation by those deprived of their liberty and a good working environment will be important protective factors for the detainees.

In order to counteract the risk of ill-treatment, it is very important that institutions where people are deprived of their liberty actively promote values, attitudes and a shared culture that are in accordance with the right to be treated humanely and with dignity.[6]

The management is responsible for ensuring that its institution’s social identity and culture supports compliance with fundamental rights such respect for dignity and patient safety. Staff perception of the management’s acceptance or engagement will reinforce the culture. Addressing the needs of staff will also be important in this work. Secure employees who feel they are looked after, seen and respected are important for ensuring a protective institutional culture. It is also important that staff receive follow-up if serious incidents occur at work, or if anyone is injured during working hours.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) has pointed out:

‘It should be acknowledged that resort to restraint measures appears to be substantially influenced by non-clinical factors such as staff perceptions of their role and patients’ awareness of their rights. Comparative studies have shown that the frequency of use of restraint, including seclusion, is a function not only of staffing levels, diagnoses of patients or material conditions on the ward, but also of the ‘culture and attitudes’ of hospital staff.'[7] 

[1] Penal Reform International (PRI) and the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT) (2013): Institutional culture in detention: a framework for preventive monitoring.

[2] Terrill et al. (2003): Police culture and coercion, Criminology, 4, p. 1003–1034.

[3] Liebling (2007): ‘Why prison staff culture matters’ in The culture of prison violence, Byrne, Taxman and Hummer (eds.), Allyn and Bacon, page 105.

[4] See Norvoll and Husum (2011): Som natt og dag? – Om forskjeller i forståelse mellom misfornøyde brukere og ansatte om bruk av tvang (‘Like night and day? – About differences in understanding between dissatisfied users and staff on the use of force’), Work Research Institute, which states that: ‘Several studies show that groups of personnel in hospital wards (especially those where control cultures prevail) are characterised, among other things, by a wish on the part of the staff to maintain a distance to the patients. […] This contributes to creating a view among staff of the patient as “the other” and significantly different from themselves.’ (page 10)

[5] Penal Reform International and the Association for the Prevention of Torture (2013): Institutional culture in detention: a framework for preventive monitoring.

[6] The UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), Article 10.
See also the Scottish Human Rights Commission (2009): Human Rights in a Health Care Setting: Making it Work for Everyone.
An evaluation of a human rights-based approach at the State Hospital.

[7] The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), CPT standards, CPT/Inf/E (2002) 1 – Rev. 2015 English, page 68, paragraph 54.