The Irish Prison Service cannot meet its commitments to provide safe custody and effective rehabilitative regimes for as long as prisoner numbers remain stubbornly high, with hundreds being held on protection for reasons of safety. While the new strategy for co-operation between the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service is a very positive initiative, the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) believes any such initiatives will be limited in their effectiveness for as long as prisons are overcrowded and unsafe. To this end, IPRT calls on the Minister for Justice to take radical steps to reduce prison numbers in the short term, such as commuting all sentences of under six months, increasing standard remission to 33%, and introducing an amnesty for fines.
Commenting on the marginal decrease in overall prison committals in 2012, IPRT Executive Director Liam Herrick stated:
“Legislation requiring judges to consider community service orders in lieu of sentences under 12 months, and pilot projects such as the Community Return Scheme, are not having a fast enough impact in terms of reducing prisoner numbers. The Minister for Justice needs to take radical action now, such as commuting all sentences of under six months, introducing an amnesty for fines, and increasing standard remission to 33%, with incentivised enhanced remission of 50%. Most of these measures have already received approval by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality.”
The small reduction in prison committals in 2012 masks the grave reality that around 20% of prisoners are held on protection on any given day, including over 190 on 23-hour lock up – a practice which amounts to inhumane treatment. On 17th March 2013, there were 193 prisoners on 23-hour lock up; 87 of these were in Wheatfield prison, and 44 in St Patrick’s Institution for Young Offenders, including 2 seventeen year old boys.
Commenting on the high numbers held on protection, IPRT Executive Director Liam Herrick stated:
“We need to re-think how risk is managed in the prison system. It is not sustainable or acceptable that the main response where there is a threat of violence is to lock up the person who is threatened for 23 hours a day. Holding any prisoner on 22-24 hour lock up is a measure which should be used only in exceptional circumstances and for the shortest possible period of time. It is an extremely damaging substitute for proper risk management, with long term negative consequences."
"While the new strategy for co-operation between the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service is a very positive initiative, reintegration is impossible if a prisoner is held in a cell for 23 hours a day, with little or no access to work, education or training. Furthermore, the UN has found that the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible after a relatively short period."
"Balancing prisoner safety and humane regimes is a challenge that is made much more difficult in the context of overcrowding and doubling up. The only way to address the numbers being held on 23-hour lock up is to reduce density and overcrowding in larger prisons through a reduction in prisoner numbers."
Other issues of concern include ongoing inhumane conditions in Cork Prison, and the ‘creeping penal expansion’ which has seen the Midlands Prison increase its capacity to 900 – now Ireland’s largest prison.
“Cork Prison continues to be of grave concern, with more than 250 prisoners sharing cramped cells with no in-cell sanitation. The decision to park the issue of degrading conditions and the lack of regimes in Cork while awaiting the building of a new prison, due to come on stream by the end of 2015, is not good enough.”
On the publication of the Irish Prison Service Annual Report 2012 and the Probation Service Annual Report 2012, the IPRT is calling on Government to:
- Commute all sentences of 6 months or less, as proposed by Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality Report on Penal Reform, published 27th March 2013.
- Increase standard remission to 33%, with incentivised access to enhanced remission of 50%, as recommended by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality.
- Consider the introduction of an amnesty for all fines – particularly those handed down before the Fines Act 2010 was signed into law – if the facility for payment of fines by instalment cannot be introduced in the short term.
- Progress with urgency the IPS Strategy for Prisoners requiring protection
IPRT was responding to the figures released in the Irish Prison Service Annual Report 2012, which was published alongside the Probation Service Annual Report 2012 and the Joint Irish Prison Service & Probation Service Strategic Plan 2013-2015 today (Wednesday 8th May 2013).
For all media enquiries, or to arrange an interview with Liam Herrick, please contact Fíona on: 01 874 1400 or 087 181 2990
NOTES FOR EDITORS
1. Prison figures:
- Current prison population is 4,306 (7 March 2013)
- 87.5 % committals under sentence in 2012 were for sentences of <12 months.
- 8,304 committals for fines default in 2012 (7,514 in 2011; 6,683 in 2010).
- 3,540 people sentenced directly by Courts to <12 months in 2012 (total <12 months excluding fines)
- 193 prisoners were on 23-hour lock up; of these, 87 in Wheatfield Prison and 44 in St Patrick’s Institution (including 2 seventeen year old boys). (Source: Dail Questions, 19th March 2013)
- 34.6% of 17 year olds in custody in St Patrick’s are on remand (28 Feb 2013); this is more than double the average remand rate, and the highest after Cloverhill Remand Prison.
- 13% increase in number of women committed to prison in 2012; women now make up 15.5% of individuals committed (compared with 13.5% in 2011).
- 25% increase in female sentenced committals in 2012 (2,071 up from 1,660 in 2011)
- 29.7% increase in women imprisoned for fines default in 2012 (1,687 up from 1,300 in 2011).
2. International standards on solitary confinement
The United Nations and the Council of Europe have both called for an end to the practice of detaining any prisoner for more than 15 days on 22-24 hour lock up, a measure which should be applied “only in exceptional circumstances and for the shortest possible period of time.” (CPT Annual Report, published 10 Nov 2011. See: http://www.cpt.coe.int/en/annual/press/2011-11-10-eng.htm)
UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, has set 15 days as the limit for solitary confinement since at that point “some harmful psychological effects of isolation could become irreversible.” See http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2011/gashc4014.doc.htm
3. Reports published:
- Irish Prison Service Annual Report 2012: http://justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/PB13000174
- Probation Service Annual Report 2012: http://justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/PB13000172
- Joint Irish Prison Service & Probation Service Strategic Plan 2013-2015: http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/PB13000173
4. Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) | www.iprt.ie
IPRT is Ireland's leading non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of everyone in prison and the progressive reform of Irish penal policy, with prison as a last resort.