16th December 2019
IPRT welcomes the publication by the Minister for Justice & Equality of the Office of the Inspector of Prisons, Annual Report 2018 (13th December 2019) - the first annual report published since the appointment of the new Inspector, Ms Patricia Gilheaney (May 2018).
In the report, the Inspector sets outs her vision of ‘world-class’ Inspectorate of Prisons. Following the publication of an Inspection Framework, the first prison inspection is now expected to take place in 2020, and will set "a new quality standard and tone" as part of the rejuvenation of the Office.
The report outlines current deficits in the operation of the Office of the Inspector of Prisons. For example, inspection reports on only three prisons have been published over the past five years, and half of prisons in Ireland have had no formal inspection since the establishment of the Office in 2007. An external review commissioned by the Office in 2018 found that the current inspection regime was “not fit for purpose”.
IPRT has consistently highlighted our concerns that the resourcing of the Office has not kept pace with its increasing remit. The absence of published reports on recent inspections means that current prison conditions are not subjected to public scrutiny. The Inspector of Prisons is responsible for the independent inspection of the 12 prisons in Ireland, as set out under the Prisons Act 2007. In 2012, the Inspector of Prisons' remit was extended to include investigations into deaths occurring in custody (either in prison or on temporary release). The Inspector also has an oversight role in investigations into category A (serious) complaints; however, it is unclear how effectively this operates in practice.
In order to strengthen the independence of the Office, IPRT has called for current legislation to be amended to allow the Inspector of Prisons to publish reports directly, and for the Office to be adequately resourced to carry out an annual programme of independent inspections. (For further information on ‘Inspections and Monitoring’ see Standard 24 of Progress in the Penal System: 2019)
IPRT also restates its calls on the State to progress the Inspection of Places of Detention Bill and to ratify OPCAT, which will provide greater transparency within the closed world of prisons, and all other places where people can be deprived of their liberty. (For more on this, see OPCAT Ireland: http://opcat-ireland.com)
While again, there has been no formal prison inspections published in 2018 and in 2019, the Inspector of Prisons highlights a number of systemic issues based on visits to prisons during the period:
- Protection: The number of people seeking protection in prisons and the logistical challenges it creates within prisons.
- Solitary Confinement/Restricted Regimes: The practice of restrictive regimes, in particular where people are being held in solitary confinement (22+ hour lock up) and the need for procedural safeguards. The Office of the Inspector of Prisons has analysed data on this issue, with findings and a report due to be shared with the Irish Prison Service once finalised.
- Prison conditions: Overcrowding is highlighted as a particular issue. The Inspector of Prisons highlights her support for increased use of alternatives to custody, and notes that prisons cannot operate a ‘closed door’ policy. IPRT has previously recommended that a high-level group should be established by the Department of Justice and Equality to take a shared responsibility in identifying solutions and assigning actions to address the issue of overcrowding in Irish prisons. Representation should comprise legislators, the judiciary, the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service, community-based organisations and other government departments, including the Department of Health and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (Action 2.1, PIPS 2019).
- Mental Health: Access to mental healthcare services is also highlighted as a current issue. IPRT recommends the establishment of a high-level Task Force on Prisons and Mental Health comprising the Department of Health, Department of Justice & Equality, Irish Prison Service, the HSE, the National Forensic Mental Health Service and An Garda Síochana, with focus on short-, medium- and long-term solutions (Action 13.1, PIPS 2019).
- Healthcare: The report outlines in detail the need for a whole of government approach to prison healthcare provision; equivalence of healthcare in prisons to that in the community; and the need for both psychosocial and pharmacological support to be available to prisoners. IPRT recommends that the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Health should consider the transfer of prison healthcare to the Department of Health as part of the current healthcare assessment (Action 12.2, PIPS 2019).
- Complaints system: There were 79 ‘category A’ complaints made in 2018. The Inspector notes the current revision of the internal complaints system by the Irish Prison Service. IPRT previously recommended that the Irish Prison Service meet its timeline of Quarter 3 2019 for the introduction of the new internal complaints system (Action 22.1, PIPS 2019). This timeline has been missed.
- Access to services: The lack of available prison officers to escort professionals such as psychologists and teachers to meet with prisoners is identified as particularly problematic at the end of each quarter.
- Family contact: A number of issues were raised including: phone calls from families not being answered; insufficient availability of visits; and delays in escorting prisoners to their visits.
IPRT looks forward to the publication of the Inspection Framework and Strategic Plan for the Office of the Inspector of Prisons. Both of these documents will play a key role in standard setting, and facilitate progress towards meeting the Inspector’s vision of a ‘world class’ Inspectorate of Prisons.