Irish Penal Reform Trust

Guest article: Exploring the rights and experiences of migrant and minority ethnic groups in the penal system in Ireland

25th March 2021

In this guest article, researchers from The Department of Law at Maynooth University write about the context for their research as part of IPRT’s upcoming ‘Access to Rights and Justice’ project.

The Department of Law at Maynooth University in collaboration with IPRT has launched a short-term research project exploring the rights and experiences of migrant and minority ethnic groups in the penal system in Ireland.  

The fair treatment of all persons is a core tenet of justice systems in democratic societies. Indeed, non-discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, religion, national or social origin or other status is a fundamental human right that originates from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (UDHR). The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination 1965 (CERD) defines racial discrimination as ‘any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life’ (Art. 1). Moreover, all persons are entitled to equal protection of the law.

Discrimination against migrants and minority ethnic groups in the penal system infringes the individual’s right to ‘full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him’ (UDHR, Art.10). As such, the question of whether the criminal justice system discriminates based on ethnic, cultural, or social groups of those involved is a pressing issue internationally. The impact of ethnicity and nationality across various stages of the penal justice system has been well documented in international literature (e.g. Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018Hunt, 2017; Lynch and Haney, 2011The Sentencing Project, 2016). However, despite these findings, limited research has explored this issue within an Irish context.  

The most recent census data estimates that 11.6 per cent of the population in Ireland are of foreign nationality, of which approximately 4.9 per cent are of non-White ethnicity (Census 2016). This ethnic and cultural diversity is also reflected in the profile of those processed by the Irish penal system. Since 2001, the Irish Prison Service statistics have charted a marked and rapid increase in the proportion of foreign nationals committed to Irish prisons. The most recent data available reports that 25.34 per cent of committals were of foreign nationality in 2019 (Irish Prison Service, 2020). The first quantitative examination of sentencing trends observed that sentencing differences existed between committals based on nativity (Brandon & Connell, 2018). The researchers found that both male and female foreign nationals received longer sentences than their Irish counterparts for certain offences, and that differences remained when previous custodial sentences were controlled. In no offence category did Irish males or females receive a longer sentence than their foreign national counterpart. 

The Irish Travelling community remain largely invisible in data published by the Irish Prison Service; however, census data notes that the Irish Travelling community comprise approximately 0.7 per cent of the total population, but 5.93 per cent of those in adult prison. This points to a significant overrepresentation. Additionally, previous research suggests that Travellers may receive harsher sentences than their settled-Irish majority counterparts (e.g. Irish Penal Reform Trust, 2014Travellers in Prison Initiative, 2017).  

International human rights instruments recognise that migrants and minority ethnic communities constitute vulnerable groups within prisons, experiencing unique ‘pains’ of imprisonment. These pains are often due to language barriers, limited or no contact with family or friends, difficulties in accessing services, instances of racism or abuse on the grounds of ethnicity and degrading discrimination (Croux et al., 2020Fekete and Webber, 2010Till et al., 2019Warr, 2016). In its Concluding Observations on Ireland’s most recent periodic report under CERD, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination commented on ‘the disproportionately high representation of [...] ethnic minority groups in the prison system’ (2020). Despite these findings, significant lacunas remain in our understanding of the lived experiences of migrant and minority ethnic groups in the Irish penal system. This timely research projects aims to fill some of these gaps.  

Dr Avril Brandon, Dr Amina Adanan, Dr Joe Garrihy, Dr David Doyle & Professor Denis Bracken

This project is supported by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, under the Human Rights and Equality Grants Scheme 2020.

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



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