Irish Penal Reform Trust

Findings on ‘cocooning’ in prisons must be acted on now to protect mental health and dignity of men and women in prison – IPRT

29th July 2020

A briefing detailing the experiences of people cocooning in Irish prisons published today (29.07.2020) by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons demonstrates the need for enhanced prison oversight and the longer-term ineffectiveness of COVID-19 responses that rely on prolonged confinement in prisons.

The briefing, published by the Inspector of Prisons and Maynooth University Department of Law, presents findings of an analysis of journals distributed among the cocooning population in Irish prisons in April 2020.

Issues reported by the men and women in prison include: long hours locked up in cells, with reports of 30 hours with no out-of-cell time; lack of social connection, including having to communicate through prison doors; feelings of being punished for reasons of age and ill-health; and deteriorating mental and physical health.

In response, the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) is calling for: implementation of the findings of the report; publication of data on the lengths of time prisoners are held in confinement; strengthening of the Office of the Inspector of Prisons through resources and legislation; and increased emphasis by the Courts on alternatives to prison custody.

Welcoming the publication of the briefing, IPRT Executive Director Fíona Ní Chinnéide said:

“Until now we have had no independent insight into conditions in prisons during the pandemic. This snapshot of isolation in a prison cell highlights the feelings of despair and dehumanisation experienced by men and women cocooning in prison, and the impact on their mental and physical health.

“Keeping the prisoner population free from COVID-19 is a significant success of prison management and staff, working in co-operation with prisoners, and in very challenging circumstances. However, months into the pandemic, measures to protect physical health have impacted on the mental health, wellbeing, and dignity of people in their care.

“This report tells us that cocooning, in its current form, is unsustainable in the case of a second wave of COVID-19. It is important now that the recommendations are acted on, and that measures are taken to ensure prisoner numbers do not rise again. Importantly, the report recognises that many of the recommendations have wider application to the hundreds of men held in restricted regimes for reasons not related to the pandemic.”

While the process of cocooning ended in recent weeks, the learnings from this briefing must now be acted on in the case of a second wave of COVID-19, and must be applied more generally to the hundreds of people subject to restricted regimes and solitary confinement for reasons unrelated to COVID-19. Ms. Ní Chinnéide continued:

“Cocooning is new to prisons but the damaging practice of holding people in solitary confinement is not. Worryingly, there have been no figures published on the overall numbers of people on restricted regimes since the start of this pandemic, and there is still no transparency around the lengths of time prisoners are held in observation cells or in solitary confinement. It should not take a journaling project designed to capture the experience of cocooning to bring these issues to public attention.”

While welcoming the publication of this briefing, IPRT highlights that there has been no published inspection of a closed prison in Ireland for almost six years. Concerns at the lack of published inspection reports have been raised with the State by the UN Committee against Torture and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, among others.

“It is simply unacceptable that there have been no published prison inspection reports in almost 6 years. The Office of the Inspector of Prisons must be strengthened in resources and legislation, including the power to publish reports directly and not through the Minister responsible for the prisons under inspection.”

IPRT welcomes the Irish Prison Service’s openness to engage in the journaling process, and its recognition of the importance of consultation with the people in its custody. It is important now that there is action on all of the findings and recommendations of the briefing, including meaningful consultation with prisoners on policies and practice going forward.

In order to protect the human rights of those in custody and minimise harm, IPRT is calling for:

  • Implementation of the recommendations in the report;
  • Improved transparency, through publication of data on the lengths of time prisoners are held in restricted regimes, including solitary confinement;
  • Renewed focus on keeping the numbers of people in prison custody low, through emphasis on alternatives to custody, in order to minimise the need for restrictive practices within the prisons; and
  • Strengthening of the Office of the Inspector of Prisons through resources and legislation.

For further comment or to arrange interview, please contact Pamela or Fíona at: +353 87 181 2990

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NOTES TO EDITORS:

  • The Irish Penal Reform Trust (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. See www.iprt.ie  
  • IPRT was one of the participants invited by the Inspector of Prisons and Maynooth University School of Law to the workshop at which findings of the project and measures were discussed.
  • IPRT was responding to ‘Ameliorating the impact of cocooning on people in custody – A briefing’, a project by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons (OiP) and Maynooth University Law Department. The briefing is available on the OiP’s website: https://www.oip.ie/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Ameliorating-the-impact-of-cocooning-on-people-in-custody-a-briefing.pdf

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.

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