Irish Penal Reform Trust

COVID-19 experience highlights positive and timely change is possible in Ireland’s prison system - IPRT

25th January 2021

Improvements made during pandemic threatened by risk of return to ‘old normal’ according to PIPS 2020 report

Report highlights concerns over mental health of prisoners and sentencing of women

From a reduction in prisoner numbers and cell sharing, to the introduction of video-calls and in-cell phone provision in prisons, COVID-19 has demonstrated how rapidly positive changes can be made to Ireland’s prison system.

However, these physical improvements in the prison system now risk being reversed. That’s according to Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), Fíona Ní Chinnéide, who was speaking today (26.01.21) at the launch of a new report that examines progress in Ireland’s penal system.

The report – entitled ‘Progress in the Penal System: Assessing progress during a pandemic (2020)’ – is the fourth annual review of standards in Irish prisons conducted by IPRT.

Ms Chinnéide said: “At the outset of the pandemic, there were more than 4,200 prisoners in custody in Ireland.  However, within one month of the pandemic being declared, the Irish Prison Service and the Department of Justice took action to reduce the prison population by 10% to 3,807. A reduced prison population saw a near-end to prisoners sleeping on mattresses on floors and a move towards single-cell occupancy.  Single-cell occupancy is a key measure in supporting men’s and women's dignity in prisons.    

“The COVID response demonstrates that the majority of closed prisons across the State were overcrowded and unsafe in the first instance.  It also suggests that prison was not a necessary sanction for all of those imprisoned before the pandemic hit.”

The IPRT report also welcomed the COVID-induced introduction of video-calls and in-cell phone provision to enable prisoners engage with their families. However, it has warned that wider positive changes introduced in response to the pandemic risk being dismantled.

According to Ms Chinnéide: “These positive developments are already at risk of reversal as an oversubscribed courts system prepares to clear a backlog of cases. Furthermore, in recent years, the number of those held ‘on remand’ in our prisons is rising at a concerning level. Imprisonment is not the only sentence option in the criminal justice system.  It should not act as shelter for people charged with low level offences.  It should not be a waiting room for those who need treatment in our Central Mental Hospital.  COVID has offered us a brown-field site for a more humane penal system.  There should be no reversal of that.”

IPRT noted that, as prison numbers increased, so did the risk of COVID outbreaks, putting more staff and prisoners at risk. 

Mental Health

A key-finding of ‘PIPS 2020’ was that little progress was made in addressing mental health in prison.

“One of the biggest failures of the State in terms of caring for the most vulnerable is the continued practice of incarcerating people with severe mental illness in prison because of a lack of access to community hospitals or space in the Central Mental Hospital.  In any given month through the first half of 2020, there were anything from 21-33 very unwell people incarcerated.

“If we are to learn anything from Ireland’s history of inappropriate institutionalisation of our citizens, incarceration as an alternative to healthcare must end.  The solution is one that requires leadership at all levels in the State, but operationally, the Department of Health must work hand-in-hand with the Department of Justice to end this practice.

“Minding the physical health of the prison population and staff was prioritised during COVID, but disease containment is only one side of public health care.  Health indicators and outcomes from the prison population, in general, are low. Mental health and the provision of mental health supports in the prison system is paramount at all times, but especially now as the isolation of the pandemic becomes aggravated for those in prison. The lack of in-person contact between children and their parents in prison since last March is particularly hard.”


The IPRT report identified that a very significant proportion of those imprisoned for one year or less were women.

“Short sentencing is particularly prevalent across the female prison population, with up to a third of those in prison in 2019 and 2020 serving sentences of 12 months or less.  During the COVID crisis, we have learned that more than half of the female population in the Dóchas Centre were cocooning in the early stages of the pandemic because they were suffering underlying health conditions.

“Questions must be asked about the types of offences for which women are committed to prison for; and what are the risks imprisonment exposes for the health and welfare of these women? Ireland needs to learn from progressive penal polices, such as the gender-specific women’s supported bail service in Scotland.  This programme helps keep women out of prison through addressing issues that contribute to offending behaviour such as addiction, mental health, housing and homelessness."


In addition to positive impacts of COVID on prison numbers and prison communications, the IPRT said that the investment earmarked for the Prison Inspectorate, coupled with policy and legislative changes, provided for new conditions in which to progress reform of Ireland’s prison system into one which respects human rights and dignity, and follows international best practice.



Contact: Stephen Moloney / Catherine Heaney, DHR Communications, Tel: 087-7858522 / 087-2309835.


Note to Editors

About PIPS

The ‘Progress in the Penal System 2020’ (PIPS 2020) report marks the start of a new cycle of annual reporting of progress in Ireland’s prison system.  It follows on from the first three-year cycle of PIPS (2017-2019), which showed that progress in Ireland’s penal system is under way, albeit at a slower pace than envisaged by IPRT. While the previous cycle of PIPS examined 35 standards against which the prevailing situation was independently tracked, monitored and assessed, PIPS 2020 focuses on 12 of 35 standards that a best practice penal system must meet, grouped into four interconnected thematic areas. These are:

  1. Reducing the use of imprisonment
  2. Prison Conditions and Regimes
  3. Health & Mental Health 
  4. Oversight, Accountability, and Complaints

Of the 12 standards assessed, two were classified as having progressed; four as having regressed; no change was registered in two cases, while four standards were classified as ‘mixed’, indicating that there has been progress towards the standard in some areas and regress away from it in others. Standards assessed in PIPS 2021 include:

  • Regress: Pre-trial detention as a last resort: There has been a 21% increase in the daily average number of people held on remand in Ireland since 2017.
  • Regress: Solitary confinement: Limited out-of-cell time has been a feature of the Covid-19 restrictions, with the general prison population locked up for an average of 19 or more hours a day in some prisons.
  • Mixed: Family contact: The roll-out of video-calls and in-cell phone provision in parts of the prison estate are positive features that emerged from the crisis, and should be maintained as supplementary to prison visits.
  • Mixed: Mental health: Measures introduced to protect the prison population from the threat to physical health that Covid-19 presents must be examined in terms of the wider impact on the mental health of those in prisons. The restrictive measures introduced for people who have already been deprived of their liberty, and their associated impact on mental health, is much greater than for the general population.
  • Progress: Progressive Penal Policy: Several penal reform commitments are contained in the Programme for Government. The PIPS standards informed the new Framework for the Inspection of Prisons in Ireland.  


The PIPS report is available for download here.  


About the IPRT: Established in 1994, the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) is Ireland's leading non-governmental organisation campaigning for rights in the penal system and the progressive reform of Irish penal policy. Its vision is one of respect for rights in the penal system, with prison as a last resort. IPRT is committed to respecting the rights of everyone in the penal system and to reducing imprisonment. It is working towards progressive reform of the penal system based on evidence-led policies and on a commitment to combating social injustice. IPRT publishes a wide range of policy positions and research documents; it campaigns vigorously across a wide range of penal policy issues; and has established itself as the leading independent voice in public debate on the Irish penal system.

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