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Deaths in prisons: the need for strengthened mechanisms of accountability

22nd December 2011

Following the death of a prisoner on suicide watch at Cloverhill Courthouse, the Irish Penal Reform Trust has restated its calls for an independent system for the investigations of deaths in prisons.

Mr Rogers, who took his own life in a holding cell at Cloverhill Courthouse, was on remand at the prison having been charged with murder. Investigations have been launched by both the Gardai Siochána and the Irish Prison Service. However, these investigations do not satisfy the requirement for an effective and independent mechanism of investigation into deaths in prison custody. The lack of such a mechanism in Ireland is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Where a death occurs in a Garda station, the case is immediately sent to the Garda Ombudsman for an independent investigation; however, in Ireland there is no Prisoner Ombudsman (as exists in other jurisdictions, including Northern Ireland and England & Wales) or equivalent independent complaints and investigations mechanism.

IPRT has consistently raised this critical issue at national level and also before international human rights monitoring bodies and processes, including the CPT, UNCAT, ICCPR and UN UPR.

Below we republish our clear position on the need for strengthened mechanisms of accountability around deaths in prison.

2.2 Deaths in custody – the need for strengthened mechanisms of accountability

(Extract from IPRT Position Paper 7: Complaints, Monitoring and Inspection in Prisons)

When a death occurs in custody, effective mechanisms of investigation must be in place to uncover all circumstances in which the death took place and, if necessary, hold those who may be responsible for such deaths to account, as required by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights and national courts in other jurisdictions. Such investigation should go beyond the mere apportioning of blame to the direct assailant or assailants,or, in cases of suicide in custody, beyond the establishment of the fact that the prisoner took his orher own life. An investigation into deaths occurring while in the custody of the State must look at all circumstances which may have contributed to the loss of life, including the management of the prisonand behaviour of prison staff (systemic issues). When deaths occur in custody, it is the duty of the State to provide a satisfactory and convincing explanation as to the circumstances and causes of such death. The requirements for an effective investigation of deaths in custody were set out in the case of Jordan v UK in which the ECtHR stated that for such investigation to be seen as effective and independent, a number of elements must be in place:

  1. the investigation must be undertaken on the State’s own initiative
  2. it has to be capable of leading to a determination of responsibility and the punishment of those responsible;
  3. the investigation has to be independent both institutionally and in practice;
  4. it must be prompt;
  5. the investigation has to allow for sufficient public scrutiny to ensure accountability;
  6. and the next-of-kin has to be allowed to participate in the process.

In Ireland, deaths in custody are normally subject to investigation by the Garda Síochána, and an inquest into such death is held by the coroner under the Coroners Act 1962. IPRT is concerned that currently the cumulative effect of the law and practice concerning investigations into deaths in custody falls short of the requirements of the ECHR, particularly in relation to the involvement of the next-of-kin in the process; the ability to establish responsibility, if any, of the Irish Prison Service; and the ability to examine the wider context in which the death took place, or any systemic issues.

The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission already investigates all deaths in police custody. The creation of an independent body with a remit to review all deaths in custody of the Irish Prison Service wouldensure the equality of provision across the various agencies responsible for custody of individuals coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

IPRT therefore urges the Government to include in the remit of the proposed [by IPRT in the Position Paper] Office of Prisoner Ombudsman in Ireland the duty to investigate all deaths in the custody of the Irish Prison Service.

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