Irish Penal Reform Trust

Guest article: Making Rights Real for People with Disabilities in Detention

2nd July 2019

Guest article: Researchers from the Centre for Disability Law and Policy (NUIG) write about the context for their work on IPRT's upcoming 'Making Rights Real for People with Disabilities in Detention' project. 


The Centre for Disability Law and Policy (NUIG) in collaboration with IPRT has launched a short-term research project on the situation of prisoners with disabilities in Ireland. Prisoners’ rights are guaranteed by numerous international and European treaties and Irish legislation. Despite this, international research demonstrates that prisoners with disabilities are often discriminated against and still encounter inaccessible spaces and a lack of support within prison. This project will explore the experience of disabled prisoners through interviews with prisoners, prison staff and other stakeholders in Ireland.

The World Health Organisation estimates that around 15% of the world’s population has some kind of disability. In prison, this figure is proportionally higher. Studies (mainly from UK, Australia and USA) focusing on prisoners with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities found a range of prevalence of between 7% and 40%. Further, a person may develop a disability within prison due to lack of appropriate support and access to healthcare.  The European Court of Human Rights has found that the lack of physical accessibility or a restricted access to appropriate health care constitutes a violation of the prohibition of torture (article 3 European Convention on Human Rights in cases such as Semikhvostov v Russia and Murray v The Netherlands).

Studies on the conditions of detention of prisoners with disabilities show that prisoners with physical disabilities often have to rely on peers to shower, use the restroom or move around prison, exposing them to a risk of violence and dependence. Prisoners with disabilities are also exposed to a higher risk of physical, emotional and sexual violence, particularly female prisoners with disabilities.

Further, international research shows that information and services within prisons are also not accessible. This particularly affects access to training or mandatory courses that may have practical implications including shortening sentences (through earned early release) or giving access to certain benefits (through incentivised regimes). In addition, other studies on prison staff have found that they often lack adequate training, which exposes prisoners with disabilities to further barriers and misunderstandings, particularly when considering difficulties in communication or need for support to adapt to the prison environment and prison rules. A prisoner’s non-understanding of a prison rule may be interpreted as non-compliant behaviour and be punished.

Prisoners with disabilities often face various challenges when leaving prison, such as homelessness, unemployment and lack of access to education.  Accessible programmes to support persons with disabilities leaving prison are practically non-existent, with a tendency to divert persons with disabilities into institutions or hospital wherever possible. This is contrary to human rights standards, as expressed by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified recently by Ireland. Equally important, female prisoners with disabilities face intersectional discrimination, as services are often not adapted either for women or for disabled women. Given Ireland’s recent ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities it is an opportune time to reflect on and explore the denial of opportunities and barriers facing prisoners with disabilities in Ireland.

Prof. Eilionóir Flynn and María Goméz

This project is supported by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, under the Human Rights and Equality Grants Scheme 2018

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