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Irish Penal Reform Trust Welcomes the Robust Engagement of the UN Human Rights Committee with the State on the Most Pressing Human Rights Concerns in Our Prisons

15th July 2014

On 14th and 15th July 2014, Ireland was examined by the United Nations Human Rights Committee on the State’s human rights record, including in respect of its treatment of prisoners and use of imprisonment.

Speaking today, IPRT's Executive Director Deirdre Malone said:

"We welcome the Committee's robust engagement with the State on the most pressing human rights issues in our penal system. As well as posing challenging questions to the State on "chronic" overcrowding, "poor" cell conditions and the "inhuman" practice of slopping out, the Committee also firmly focussed on the crucial issue of State accountability.

In response to direct questions from the Committee, the Minister announced that she would consider extending the independent oversight element of the current complaints system to Category B prisoners. If implemented, this reform would bring complaints of verbal abuse, discrimination and inappropriate searches within the remit of an external independent investigator and would represent and important step towards accountability and transparency.

The Committee was also rightly critical of Ireland's overuse of imprisonment noting that last year 89% of prison detainees in Ireland were serving sentences of 12 months or less. Imprisonment should be embedded in law and practice as an option of last resort and in this regard we sincerely hope that the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014 will be implemented without any further delay.

It was clear that the Committee will not tolerate any further delays from the State in meeting its international human rights obligations. We hope and expect that the stated commitment by the Minister at the hearing to transfer all remaining remanded 17 years olds from adult prisons to appropriate facilities by mid-October will indeed be met.

We were however disappointed that despite being questioned on two occasions by the Committee in respect to reported "dangerous levels" of inter-prisoner violence, the State did not provide any response on this issue at the hearing. We will be following this up directly with the Minister."

NOTES

The IPRT urged the Committee to hold the State to account on the most pressing current human rights issues, including:

  • The ongoing practice of “slopping out, a practice to which more than 300 prisoners are still subjected;
  • Persistent overcrowding in our prisons, particularly within Ireland’s two female prisons;
  •  Continuing high levels of inter-prisoner violence;
  • The ongoing detention of children in adult prisons, including 17 year olds remaining on remand in St. Patrick’s Institution;
  • The soaring rates of committal to prison for non-payment of a court ordered fines;
  • The lack of a fully independent complaints mechanism for prisoners or Prisoner Ombudsman;
  • The failure to ratify OPCAT and establish a National Preventative Mechanism
Speaking on 14th July, Deirdre Malone, Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust said:

“Ireland’s appearance before the UN Human Rights Committee provides a vital opportunity for an expert international monitoring body to closely examine what is really happening behind our prison walls and how Ireland measures up to international human rights standards.

It is wholly unacceptable that in 2014, more than 300 prisoners continue to slop out, while in Cork prison, there are 59 cells measuring just 7.5m² currently holding two or more prisoners. In May of this year, 43 prisoners were on 23 hour lock up with another 218 prisoners subject to a restricted regime of 19 or more in-cell hours per day. While the State committed over 8,000 people to prison for non-payment of a court-ordered fine last year, many prisons frequently operated at levels well beyond the capacity designated by the Inspector of Prisons and over 600 incidences of inter-prisoner violence were recorded.

Behind bars and hidden out of sight, enormous power differentials exist. The exceptional nature of the powers of the State over humans in detention makes effective external scrutiny of their use a matter of fundamental public importance. Monitoring and inspection of places of detention, along with an effective independent complaints mechanism for prisoners, are central to the protection of human rights of prisoners and form part of Ireland’s obligations under international law. The creation of a National Preventative Mechanism (NPM) and the ratification by Ireland of the OPCAT would act as a safeguard against the potential inhumane treatment of people in places of detention in Ireland. The establishment of a Prisoner Ombudsman would spur further improvements in prison conditions and would constitute a major step towards transparency and accountability.”

For all media enquiries or for interview requests, please contact Executive Director, Deirdre Malone on +00353 83 441 7577

The IPRT submission to the UNHRC can be read in full here http://www.iprt.ie/contents/2634

The hearing on 14th July 2014 will be the fourth time Ireland is examined by the UN Human Rights Committee on its human rights record and compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Ireland ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1989.

Ireland signed the OPCAT in October 2007, but has yet to ratify it. The commitment to ratify was included in the Programme for Government, published in March 2011, and remains in the 'C' list of legislation, within the proposed 'Inspection of Places of Detention Bill': “To give legislative effect to the OPCAT, strengthen Prisons Inspectorate, put Council of Europe inspection regime on a statutory footing and address matters relating to Prison Visiting Committees. The heads of the Bill have yet to be approved by Government, with a current status of: "Publication Expected - Not possible to indicate at this stage".

The process of examination under the ICCPR takes place periodically and Ireland has thrice been reviewed by the UN Human Rights Committee in 1993, 2000 and 2008.

The Joint ICCL/Civil Society submission can be read here http://iccl.ie/civil-society-report-to-the-fourth-periodic-examination-of-ireland-under-the-iccpr-%28june-2014%29.html

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) www.iprt.ie 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.

Factual Update with Reference to the HRC List of Issues

Overcrowding [13(a)]

The numbers provided by the State at Table 3 of their Reply demonstrate that in January 2014, 8 out of 14 prisons were operating well beyond their bed capacity as defined by the Inspector of Prisons (IoP). If one analyses the Prisoner Population figures which were published by IPS on 8 July 2014 with reference to the IoP’s maximum capacity figures (rather than the bed capacity estimates provided by the Irish Prison Service), one can see that 8 out of our 14 prisons were also overcrowded on that date. In response to a Parliamentary Question posed, IPRT received information that the situation in Cork prison on 2 July 2013 was as set out here:

Where cell size was 7.5 m squared, the number of cells used for single occupancy totaled 25 and the number of cells with 2 or more prisoners totaled 59.

Where cell size was 9 m squared, the number of cells used for single occupancy totaled 22 and the number of cells with 2 or more prisoners totaled 20.

Slopping out [13(b)]

The numbers of prisoners without in-call sanitation has dropped from 540 to 334. While the Irish Prison Service Three Year Strategic Plan 2012-2015 contains a public commitment to provide in-cell sanitation in all cells and radically improve prison conditions in the older parts of the prison estate, IPRT notes that in respect of Portlaoise Prison (where a large cohort do not have in-cell sanitation) the Irish Prison Service has publicly said that a final decision on these works has not yet been taken. The Director General of the Irish Prison Service is also reported as saying that the installation of in-cell sanitation is capital dependent. There is significant concern that these remarks represent a move away from commitment to complete abolition of the degrading practice of slopping out.

Number of Victims harmed by Inter Prisoner Violence [13(c)]

While the reply demonstrates a drop in inter-prisoner violence from 2011-2012, updated information secured by IPRT for 2013 reveals that there was a concentration of violent incidents in certain prisons including Mountjoy (107 incidents) and Castlerea (103 incidents) in 2013, while in contrast, other prisons report very low or no levels of inter-prisoner violence.

Ending the use of St. Patrick’s for detention of minors [13(d)]

On 8th July 2014 IPS figures indicate that 7 individuals were detained in St. Patrick’s. It is understood that this cohort is made up of 17 year old remand prisoners. While the Programme for Government contains a commitment to end the practice of detaining children in adult prisons, the fact remains that children continue to be detained in St. Patrick’s (which was described by the IoP in 2012 as having a culture which results in the human rights of some prisoners being either ignored or violated) and in a dedicated unit at Wheatfield, also an adult prison.

Complaints of torture and ill treatment filed against prison officers/ complaints mechanism [14]

Table 7 of the Reply shows that only 4 out of 79 or 5% of Category A complaints were upheld. We note, in contrast, the Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland published his Annual Report on 2 July 2014 which recorded that in the Northern Irish system, 46% of prisoners complaints were upheld in 2013. It remains the case that Cat B, C & D complaints which include complaints of verbal abuse, discrimination and inappropriate searches, continue to be investigated within the IPS system itself (or professional body in the case of complaints relating to medical treatment), an arrangement which does not meet the objective requirements of independence or transparency.

Imprisonment for failure to fulfil a contractual obligation [21]

The Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill has not yet been enacted and so has had no impact on the levels of imprisonment for court ordered fines. There were 8,121 committals (1,894 female and 6,227 male) to prison for the non-payment of a court ordered fine in 2013. There was a 12.3% increase in female committals for fines and debt default in 2013 (1,894 in 2013 up from 1,687 in 2012). The imprisonment of women for fines default is particularly damaging on communities, as they are more likely to be the primary carers of children and elderly family members.

IPRT is also disappointed that a number of proposed amendments to the 2013 Bill, including the recommendation to allow fines of less than 100 euro to be paid by instalment, in order to ease the burden on families were not accepted. IPRT strongly believes that even 100 euro can be a significant amount of money for families in the current economic climate.

The impact of the recession on the ability to pay fines is evidenced by the figures. Committals to prison for fines default increased sharply from 1,335 in 2007 to 8,121 in 2013. In 2013, there were 411 committals to prison for non-payment of a fine relating to a TV license, up from 75 in 2009.

The soaring numbers of women imprisoned for non-payment of fines is a particular concern, with female committals for fines default rising from 163 in 2007 to 1,894 in 2013.

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