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An in-depth analysis of some topics of special interest for pluralism

Institutional Ill-Treatment: Disabilities in Prison and in Social Care Facilities

Institutional Ill-Treatment: Disabilities in Prison and in Social Care Facilities

Myriads of individuals inhabit this world. ‘Normalcy’ is the vague yet dominant criterion according to which many rules, practices, and places are organised. What happens when the prevailing normalcy clashes with the many ‘other’ ways of being, living and acting? This Focus addresses a limited but crucial part of this question. It provides an overview of inhuman and degrading treatments as serious violations of human rights carried out upon persons with disabilities in institutional contexts. Two recent judgments of 2022 and one decision of 2012 issued by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) are at the heart of this study, namely Stanev v. Bulgaria, Sy v. Italy and Laniauskas v. Lithuania. In the three cases, the applicants complained about the violation of, inter alia, the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment under Article 3 ECHR.


While the factual circumstances of these cases differ, these decisions have at least two elements in common. The first one is the nature of the space where the breach took place, that is an institution – two prisons (Sy v. Italy, Laniauskas v. Lithuania) and a social care home (Stanev v. Bulgaria). The second common feature is the specific vulnerability of the victim subject to ill-treatment. The facilities where the applicants lived were deemed incompatible with the therapies needed for their mental or physical disability, that is bipolar disorder (Sy v. Italy), supposed schizophrenia and alcohol abuse (Stanev v. Bulgaria), and serious visual impairment (Laniauskas v. Lithuania). Of course, differences matter. Indeed, as to the merits, only in Laniauskas v. Lithuania the ECtHR found that there had been no violation of Article 3. The applicant, a convicted prisoner with severe visual disabilities, complained about the incompatibility of his detention with the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment. Yet the Court concluded that the impairment was not such as to make the continued detention incompatible with Article 3. On that occasion, the Court also specified that the concerned provision ‘cannot be construed as laying down a general obligation to release detainees on health grounds’ (paragraph 55).


Overall, the ECtHR identified the inadequacy of the institutions from two angles. First, in Stanev v. Bulgaria, the poor hygienic conditions and the insufficient food made the social care home hazardous to the applicant’s health and his reintegration into society. The government did not close the social care home, despite two visits by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, condemning the conditions of the facilities. Second, the assessment of the Court looks at the type of institution per se rather than its conditions in the other two judgments. The Court, in fact, evaluated to what extent the detention in prison had prevented the victim from receiving adequate health care in Laniauskas v. Lithuania and Sy v. Italy. Precisely, the breach of Article 3 had materialised in the continued detention in an ordinary prison, despite the domestic court’s order to transfer the applicant to a Residential Centre for the enforcement of preventive measures, so that he could follow the therapeutic plan.


Against this backdrop, this Focus contains a preliminary exploration of ill-treatment in institutional contexts perpetrated against people with disabilities. The aim is to introduce the reader to these abuses as well as the protections available against them at the international human rights law level.


(Focus by Giovanna Gilleri)


Case law


Laniauskas v. Lithuania, No. 48309/19, ECtHR (Second Section), 29 March 2022


Stanev v. Bulgaria, No. 36760/06, ECtHR (Grand Chamber), 17 January 2012


Sy v. Italy, No. 11791/20, ECtHR (First Section), 24 January 2022


International instruments and documents


Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (adopted on 10 December 1984, entered into force 26 June 1987) 1465 UNTS 85


Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (adopted on 13 December 2006, entered into force 3 May 2008) 2515 UNTS 3


European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (adopted 26 November 1987, entered into force 1 February 1989) ETS 126


Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez, A/HRC/22/53, 1 February 2013, paragraph 24


Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Dubravka Šimonović, ‘Rape as a grave, systematic and widespread human rights violation, a crime and a manifestation of gender-based violence against women and girls, and its prevention’, A/HRC/47/26, 19 April 2021, paragraph 85(b)


Essential bibliography


A. Lawson, Disability equality, reasonable accommodation and the avoidance of ill-treatment in places of detention: the role of supranational monitoring and inspection bodies, in International Journal of Human Rights, 2012, 845


N. Nowak, W. Suntinger, The right of disabled Persons not to be subjected to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, in T. Degener, Y. Koster-Dreese, eds, Human Rights and Disabled Persons, Brill, 1995, 117


T. Opgenhaffen, J. Put, Means of restraint in residential care when there is no acute danger. Time for the European committee on the prevention of torture to set the standard, in International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 2022, 101807


C. Pachnik, G. Rotuski, Rights of persons with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders — A tough challenge for psychiatric medical care during the COVID-19 pandemic, in Journal of Human Rights Practice, 2021, 654


H. Ryland, Mental illness in prisoners, in D. Bhurga et al., eds, Oxford Textbook of Social Psychiatry, Oxford University Press, 2022, 465 


B. Saraceno, Human rights of persons with mental disability: from discourse to reality, in International Review of Psychiatry, 2022


L. Series, Disability and Human Rights, in N. Watson, S. Vehmas, eds, Routledge Handbook of Disability Studies, Routledge, 2022