An article in today's (24 Oct) Irish Times has revealed that on January 1st 2016, 51 people in Irish prisons were being held in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day. 24 of these had been held in solitary confinement for more than 100 days, and 9 had been held for more than a year. This presents the first occasion on which information has been released as to the length of time people in Irish prisons spend in solitary confinement, and the information seriously concerns IPRT.
Solitary confinement constitutes the practice of isolating people in closed cells for 22-24 hours per day with virtually no human contact, for often indeterminate periods. The term 'solitary confinement' is not used in Irish prisons, with the practice instead being framed as 'segregation', 'on protection' or as a 'loss of privileges'. The practice denies one the right to work or participate in prison programmes, and it can have severely damaging psychological implications. International bodies, including the United Nations and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, have recommended that the duration for which one can be held in solitary confinement be capped at 14 days, as after this point the psychological damage inflicted by isolation may become irreversible.
Ireland is due to be examined by the UN Committee on Torture in July 2017. Speaking with regards to the released information, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez stated, 'Clearly the figures show Ireland has violated the emerging standard that we have established in terms of how long people should be spending in solitary confinement. The Irish Government should be aware that this issue will be raised when the UN committee hears evidence. So they should come prepared to say how they are dealing with this problem', while he also stated that existing solitary confinement regimes in Ireland 'constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and perhaps, depending on the gravity of their suffering – even torture' and recommended that the State develop an alternative to solitary confinement to deal with prisoners requiring protection.
IPRT's Acting Executive Director Fíona Ní Chinnéide stated;
"For years, there has been a lack of clarity around the lengths of time that individual prisoners are being held on 22- or 23-hour lock-up. Finally, we have the information, but the figures give cause for serious concern.
"Balancing prisoner safety with humane prison regimes is a difficult challenge for all prison systems – but locking up individuals for long periods of time cannot be the answer. We believe the practice can and should be abolished in Irish prisons."
IPRT will publish research next year on solutions towards the end of solitary confinement in Irish prisons.
For more on this issue:
- Read Niall McCracken's article in The Irish Times here, and Juan Mendez' comments here.
- Read our Solitary Confinement: What is it and what are its effects?, with a link to The Guardian's virtual reality solitary confinement experience.