Parliamentary Ombudsman: Rights of the institutionalised constantly violated
The fundamental rights of people living in institutions, such as prisons, homes for the elderly, and the disabled are being violated constantly, says Parliamentary Ombudsman Petri Jääskeläinen. He faults inadequate legislation and negative attitudes for the situation.
According to Jääskeläinen, psychiatric patients are sometimes treated as if they had no rights at all. He points out that patients at mental hospitals sometimes have to ask for special permission to receive guests, to move around on hospital grounds, or to use the telephone.
“The situation should be exactly the other way around. The law on mental health forbids so-called institutional power. The rights of patients cannot be denied on the basis of some general regulation in force in a ward. Restrictions need to be based on legislation and individual discretion”, Jääskeläinen argues.
The law says nothing about the right to self determination by the elderly. The status of prisoners has been defined more precisely, but Jääskeläinen also sees serious shortcomings in how they are treated.
A year ago the Ombudsman made an inspection tour of the Niuvanniemi psychiatric hospital in Kuopio. He found many shortcomings that required further investigation, such as extended periods of isolation, unjustified body searches, and unauthorised demands for permission.
Although Eila Tiihonen, the head physician at Niuvanniemi, insists that changes have been made to the hospital’s old culture, Niuvanniemi is just one example of how human rights are violated in institutions.
At the Pitkäniemi psychiatric hospital in Nokia, a patient who had been kept in isolation had to urinate and defecate on the floor of the isolation room, and to wait for a long time for a clean-up.
When the patient complained, the Parliamentary Ombudsman found that while there was a justified reason under the Mental Health Act to put the patient in isolation, the treatment of the patient had been “humiliating, and a violation of human dignity
The Ombudsman recommended that the health care district should compensate the patient for the humiliating treatment under the European treaty on human rights. The patient was paid compensation of about EUR 500.
In another case a prisoner was held in solitary confinement, was not allowed out of his cell, which had no source of natural light from outdoors. There were also no facilities for washing. The prisoner was also not allowed to call relatives, or to practice his religion.
The Ombudsman felt that the prisoner’s human dignity had been violated. The recommendation was monetary compensation, and the prisoner was given EUR 50 for each day spent in solitary.
In a third case a patient committed to a psychiatric hospital won a court decision ruling on a complaint of deprivation of liberty only after the three months of coercive treatment was over.
The common feature of the abovementioned cases is the violation of the rights of people who have been institutionalised. Recently recognition has been given in Finland to the right of victims of rights violations to get restitution for their suffering.
The restitution need not always be monetary. In less serious cases a mere apology can be enough.
The European Treaty of Human Rights requires restitution, but the only mention of it in Finnish law is in cases in which a judicial process has been unreasonably delayed.
Jääskeläinen feels that it is important to fix the restitution system.
“Nevertheless, what is most important is to prevent violations of human rights from happening”, he says.
When patients at the Niuvanniemi hospital were asked what their biggest issue with human rights was, a key grievance was the price of a cup of coffee at the hospital canteen: a cup cost one euro.
Ombudsman Jääskeläinen has not yet come up with a solution in that matter, but he has pondered what a dignified price would be for a cup of coffee in an enclosed institution where no other sources of coffee are available.
He feels that the fairest solution would be to have coffee available at cost-price, or close to it.