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Overreliance of Irish prisons on prolonged solitary confinement must be addressed with urgency – IPRT

23rd July 2013

The Irish prison system is over-reliant on 22-hour and 23-hour lock up as a method for securing prisoner safety, and the practice of holding any prisoner in isolation for more than 15 days must cease. Where any category of prisoner is held on lock up for 22 or more hours, this must only ever be a temporary measure, and robust safeguards must be in place in relation to the use of such regimes. Furthermore, solitary confinement should never be used for prisoners detained on remand, for people with mental disabilities, or for juveniles.

These clear calls were made by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) on the launch of its Annual Report 2012 - ‘Realising Reform: Achievements and Activities in 2012’ which was published alongside a new Briefing on Solitary Confinement, Isolation, Protection and Special Regimes today (Tuesday, 23 July 2013) at the IPRT Annual Lecture "Solitary confinement: necessity, convenience or inhumanity?" delivered by leading authority on solitary confinement, Dr Sharon Shalev, University of Oxford. The lecture took place at the King’s Inns in Dublin, chaired by Judge Gerard Hogan of the Irish High Court. Fr. Peter McVerry SJ spoke about his experience in seeing the effects of prolonged isolation on prisoners within Irish prisons.

Speaking in advance of the lecture, IPRT Executive Director Liam Herrick said:

“The potential harm to prisoners’ mental health that can be caused by extended periods of isolation means that the practice of holding any category of prisoner on 22- or 23-hour lock up must only ever be a temporary measure. As recently as 20 March 2013, there were 193 prisoners on 23-hour lock up, with little or no contact with teachers and services, and just one hour a day of out of cell time for shower and exercise, which can mean walking alone around a yard for 45 minutes. Meaningful rehabilitation is simply impossible in such conditions, and this damaging practice will have long term negative consequences for the prisoner and for society.”

“It is a challenge for any prison service to balance prisoner safety while at the same time providing prisoners with a reasonable and humane regime. However, locking up prisoners for more than 22 hours a day cannot be a solution in itself to prisoner safety concerns. In developing much needed policy and procedures in relation to protection, the Irish Prison Service must ensure that current high levels of isolation and restricted regimes are significantly reduced.”

Although a term not widely used in Ireland, the practice of isolating any person in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day is internationally regarded as solitary confinement. When this extends beyond 15 days, it is considered prolonged solitary confinement, at which point the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible. The adverse health effects associated with isolation range from insomnia and confusion to hallucinations and mental illness. These health risks can arise after only a few days and can increase with each additional day spent in isolation.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, has proposed a worldwide ban on prolonged solitary confinement (of over 15 days), as well as solitary confinement used as a penalty, in pre-trial detention, for persons with mental disabilities, and for juveniles.

For all media enquiries, or to arrange an interview with speakers, please contact Fíona on: 087 181 2990

1. IPRT Annual lecture

The event takes place Tuesday, 23rd July, 2013 from 6-8pm in the King’s Inns, Henrietta St, Dublin 1. Full details here: http://www.iprt.ie/contents/2524  

2. IPRT Briefing: Solitary Confinement, Isolation, Protection and Special Regimes

This new Briefing, published today, is available for download here: http://www.iprt.ie/contents/2535

3. Protection prisoners in St Patrick’s Instn

In his Annual Report 2012, published 3 July 2013, the Inspector of Prisons detailed the following observations from a follow-up visit to the prison in March 2013:

  • “Two prisoners in a cell – one on the floor. Both on protection – both afraid to leave their cell as one alleged he had been badly beaten by another prisoner the other alleged he had been stabbed three times in the past.”
  • “A 19 year old on protection. Locked down for 23 hours a day. Stated that his last visit was in either the previous October or November. Trying to do his Leaving Certificate but could only do it in one subject. It was obvious that his mental health was deteriorating.”
  • “Another protection prisoner who had been studying five subjects for his Leaving Certificate in Limerick Prison prior to his transfer to St. Patricks where he was at that time only able to study one subject – Art.”

4. Figures

  • Approximately 25% of all prisoners are on protection. (Source: Inspector of Prisons, Annual Report2012)
  • On 22 July 2013, there were 211 prisoners locked up for 22 hours or more in Irish prisons. Of these, 171 were on protection; 33 were for disciplinary reasons; and 7 were for medical reasons. (Figures taken from The Irish Times, ‘Prison service urged to reduce use of restrictive lock-up regimes’ 23 July 2013.)
  • On 21 March 2013, there were 193 prisoners on 23-hour lock up in Irish prisons. Of the 193 prisoners on 23-hour lock up, 44 were in St Patrick’s Institution, including two 17-year-old boys. (Source: Dáil Question no. 200, 21 March 2013.) 
  • On 17 May 2013, of 673 prisoners on protection 112 had been on protection for 3-6 months and 385 had been on protection for more than 6 months. There is no data available for how many of the 385 were on restricted regimes, including 23-hour lock up. (Source: Dáil Question no. 202, asked by Pádraig MacLochlainn TD on 21 March 2013, answered 17 May 2013.)
  • “When prisoners are on 23 hour lock up they effectively have little or no contact with teachers, addiction services, the gym, religious observation, the library or with the many voluntary external bodies who do excellent work with those prisoners who have access to them.” (Inspector of Prisons, Annual Report for 2012)

5. Dr. Sharon Shalev | www.solitaryconfinement.org

Dr. Sharon Shalev is a human rights worker and a criminologist. She is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford, and an Associate of the International Centre for Prison Studies. She is also a Fellow of the Mannheim Centre for Criminology, London School of Economics.

She has been researching the use of solitary confinement in prisons, in particular the American ‘supermax’ prisons, for more than two decades and has authored various publications on the subject, including the Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement (available as a free download on www.solitaryconfinement.org). Her book, Supermax: controlling risk through solitary confinement (Willan, 2009) has been awarded the British Society of Criminology’s Book Prize for 2010. 

6. International standards

The UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez defines solitary confinement as “the physical and social isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day”. He has suggested 15 days as the limit between solitary confinement and prolonged 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

7. 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.

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