3rd August 2021
Prison inspection reports published today (03.08.2021) warn that while restrictions in Irish prisons have limited the spread of COVID-19, a “sense of complacency” could be setting in across prisons, with the Office of the Inspector of Prisons voicing concerns that increased restrictions risk becoming “the new norm”.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has welcomed the publication of the Inspectorate’s COVID-19 Thematic Inspection reports following submission to the Minister in May and June of this year. The reports are based on short visits by the Inspectorate to Mountjoy, Cloverhill, Wheatfield and Limerick Prisons in early 2021, and are the first prison inspection reports published since the start of the pandemic. IPRT is now calling for the implementation of all recommendations made by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons.
Commenting on the reports, IPRT Legal and Public Affairs Manager, Molly Joyce, said:
“These reports shine a much-needed light on the impact of COVID-19 in Irish prisons. The lack of published inspection reports to date has left people in prison exposed, with the findings in these reports underscoring the need for sustained and regular oversight of Irish prisons.
“The effect of COVID-related restrictions on people in prison has been particularly harsh. Some prisoners placed in isolation and/or quarantine as part of infection control measures reported having less than 20 minutes of interaction with other people in an entire day; being denied access to shower facilities for up to 14 days; and having no access to post or fresh clothing during the quarantine period. It is no surprise that some prisoners have described this experience of quarantine as ‘hell’ and as being ‘two of the worst weeks’ of their time in prison.
“The Inspectorate’s views are clear: solitary confinement should not be used as a means to prevent transmission of COVID-19 in prisons. It is therefore of particular concern to IPRT that the Irish Prison Service did not accept the Inspectorate’s recommendations to the effect that all people in quarantine or isolation must be facilitated with at least two hours of meaningful human contact, and at least one hour in the open air, each day. Human rights are not optional and holding people on long lock-up must not become normalised.”
The Inspectorate details its concern around the level of information provided by the Irish Prison Service (IPS) to newly committed prisoners. The reports note that some prisoners entering prison during the pandemic were uncertain as to what they could expect during their time in quarantine, with one prisoner commenting “I didn’t know it (quarantine) wasn’t the real jail” and another stating that he only knew the COVID-19 testing days in quarantine because a former cell occupant had etched the days and information into the cell wall.
The Inspectorate’s findings in these Thematic Inspection reports echo many of the issues already highlighted in the Inspectorate’s 2020 Annual Report, as well as in prison Chaplaincy Service reports published last month. IPRT particularly shares the Inspectorate’s concerns regarding amendments made to the Irish Prison Rules during the pandemic, which allow a Governor or the Director General to suspend, restrict or modify entitlements to physical exercise, recreation, training and visits, and the lack of a sunset clause for these new provisions.
IPRT supports the Inspectorate in calling for adequate contact between prisoners and their families to be a “primary focus” of the Prison Service. Ms. Joyce continued:
“It comes as no surprise to IPRT, having received calls and emails from concerned family members since March 2020, that the number one concern raised by prisoners in conversation with the Inspection Team in Mountjoy Prison was the return of in-person visits. Amid debates around the return of services and events in the community, the return of in-person prison visits for children and families, many of whom haven’t seen their loved one in prison in months, has been markedly overlooked.”
In the reports published today, the Inspectorate recommends that the IPS engage with the Department of Justice to “maximise all opportunities for reducing the prison population”. The reduction in prison numbers would reduce the number of people cell-sharing, minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission, and enable prisoners to practice social distancing.
IPRT has had continued engagement with all stakeholders throughout the past 18 months of the pandemic, urging the safe reduction of the prison population and easing of restrictions in prisons to provide a meaningful regime, support rehabilitation and maintain family contact. IPRT eagerly awaits the timely publication of the eight remaining COVID-19 Thematic Inspection reports, following their completion and submission to the Minister for Justice.
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NOTES TO EDITORS
Mountjoy: The Inspectorate notes that people are not able to fulfil Parole Board requirements. People who had previously been engaged in day release schemes have not been able to avail of these schemes under the current restrictions, and as a result are now serving more time in prison than previously required.
Cloverhill: The Inspectorate has recognised the efforts by the Prison Service and the psychiatric team to care for those mentally ill prisoners currently detained in Cloverhill Prison, but notes that the prison cannot and should not be used as a holding facility for people in need of treatment at the Central Mental Hospital (CMH). At the time of the inspection, one man had been waiting 305 days for admission to the CMH. The Inspection Team also spoke with men who had been on remand (unsentenced) for up to, and including, two years.
Limerick: The practice of “slopping out” continued for prisoners accommodated on the A wing of the men’s prison. The Inspectorate states that this ongoing practice constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment and that the practice of “slopping out” should have “no place in any Irish Prison and should be eradicated”.
Wheatfield: The Inspectorate noted inconsistency in the application of NPHET advice within this prison, particularly emphasising that the situation of exercise and interaction in prisons is not equivalent to that of the general community, and as such there is a need to consider how NPHET guidelines do, and do not, apply in the prison context.
Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.