Without "radical restructuring", new observation cells scheduled to replace the use of padded cells for holding mentally ill prisoners will continue to fail to meet human rights standards, according to a new report being released by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT).
Past reports from the IPRT and the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) have criticised the Government for confining mentally ill prisoners in padded isolation cells in contravention of various human rights standards. In December 2002, Justice Minister Michael McDowell agreed that padded cells were "unacceptable" and committed to replacing them with "safety observation cells".
"Having closely monitored the implementation of Minister's decision, we are very concerned that unless the prison medical system is radically restructured, these new observation cells will be but a cleaner version of the padded cells that went before," said Dr. Valerie Bresnihan, author of the new report. "Fundamentally, the new cells will essentially remain places of solitary confinement and therefore places of further psychological damage. "Despite the good intentions of many in the Prison Service, Ireland is likely to again fall far short of accepted international standards. This is not acceptable."
Among the report's findings are
- the absence of a medical ethos underpinning the structure of the new observation cells
- a lack of accessible services in prisons and the community for people suffering mental illness
- the over-drugging of mentally ill prisoners returning from CMH
- a shortage of appropriately qualified prison medical staff
- a lack of official recognition that suicidal prisoners should never be placed in isolation of any sort.
"The situation as it is emerging does not fundamentally address the problems with padded cells identified by the IPRT, the CPT, or indeed the concerns raised by the Minister himself," said Rick Lines, IPRT Executive Director. "If the safety of society is to be paramount, and the human dignity of this very vulnerable group of people is to be respected, the issues we raise must be addressed as a matter of urgency."