Irish Penal Reform Trust

IPRT and COVID-19 in Irish prisons

7th April 2020

Prisons and prison populations are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks. People in prisons live in close proximity to each other, have higher rates of poor health and chronic conditions, and access to cleaning supplies and sanitary facilities can be limited. In recent weeks, IPRT and other stakeholders have been working to ensure that the rights and health of the prison community are protected during this crisis. A statement outlining IPRT's concerns and priorities (15th March) is available here.

Our approach

Our chief concern during this emergency situation is to support an environment where Government and its agencies do the right thing to protect the life and health of prisoners and prison staff, and where frontline services and community-based services receive the resourcing and the supports they need.

It remains of paramount importance that human rights standards are met during times of an emergency and that all men, women and children in detention are protected against ill-treatment. We echo the Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović when she says:

“The absolute nature of the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment should never be compromised by measures taken in prisons including in the case of isolation for health reasons.”

What we have done

IPRT’s approach is always one of constructive engagement in the first instance. Where we are concerned that insufficient action is being taken, we escalate our activities. In the current emergency, we recognise that all stakeholders are working together around the clock to minimise the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on prisons and the people who live or who work there. We also recognise that Ireland - and in particular the Irish Prison Service - acted earlier than nearby jurisdictions in taking preventative and protective action. We welcome this.

In March, IPRT wrote to the Minister for Justice & Equality, the Department of Justice & Equality and the Director General of the Irish Prison Service underlining the urgent need to reduce prisoner numbers, proposals for how this can be achieved, and requesting specific measures for prisoners and their families. In response, the Irish Prison Service has proactively communicated information about certain measures being taken to IPRT. We welcome this.

Following the publication of relevant international guidance, IPRT made a further submission to all key stakeholders, which is solution-focused and draws on standards, recommendations and best practice of the WHO, the UN Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture (SPT), the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and PRILA. This submission was also disseminated to members of the Oireachtas. We have also communicated our issues of concern with the Inspector of Prisons.

IPRT has written directly to the Probation Service and the Parole Board to request information on plans to maintain services and processes during the period. We are seeking information on how access to the Prison Visiting Committees will be maintained for prisoners during a period when systems of oversight are limited.

We have been in direct contact with many community-based organisations working in the area of prisoner release for updates on the current situation, including IASIOPACECare After PrisonCork AlliancePathways and Solas Project. We are sharing approaches and concerns with fellow advocacy organisations including the Jesuit Centre for Faith & Justice, the Travellers in Prison Initiative, and with wider umbrella organisations such as Mental Health Reform.

Regarding children in detention, IPRT communicated our concerns about ongoing remand committals and the need for continued education provision on the Campus to inform the Children’s Rights Alliance letter to An Taoiseach. We have written to the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission to request that the particular situation of prisons and children detention schools is considered within their important work at this time.

At an international level, we sought guidance from the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) on 16th March, which was subsequently published. We have also been collaborating on best practice developments with Penal Reform International and the Criminal Justice Alliance in the UK.

General communications

We continue to update the IPRT website with the most current information available, including the curation of useful international resources. We are engaging via Twitter, directly with our members, and also responding to prisoners and prisoner family members who are highly concerned about the current situation. Our comment has featured in articles in The Irish Times, the Irish Examiner, thejournal.ie and RTÉ Drivetime, Newstalk and local radio. If you have a family member in prison and are seeking support, there are services that can offer assistance here.

What we will do next

IPRT will continue to monitor the situation as it evolves. We will seek specific assurances from relevant agencies and bodies to ensure that restrictions remain proportionate to the risk presented and in the best interests of people detained.

We remain highly concerned that the numbers of people in prison remain too high, and need to be further reduced. We are particularly concerned about those men and women in prison who are vulnerable to COVID-19 complications due to age or ill-health. Poor prison conditions such as overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and poor ventilation will increase the speed of infection in the event of any COVID-19 outbreak in prisons. Public health guidelines such as social distancing cannot be fully implemented unless we see a further reduction in prison numbers.

IPRT will continue to raise the urgency of these issues for the prison population at governmental level and continue ongoing dialogue on these issues with policymakers and at various forums.

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

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