20th December 2021
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has welcomed the publication of the Office of the Inspector of Prisons’ COVID-19 Thematic Inspection reports, following submission to the Minister in July and September of this year. The reports are based on short visits by the Inspectorate to Arbour Hill Prison, Cork Prison, Portlaoise Prison and Shelton Abbey Open Centre between late April and early June 2021.
While the reports note some positives throughout the past year, including the introduction of in-cell phones in some prisons, it is clear that the effect of COVID-related restrictions on people in prison has continued to be incredibly harsh.
While out-of-cell time for prisoners subjected to COVID restrictions was of concern in all four of the reports, a small number of prisoners in Cork Prison who spoke to the Inspectorate noted that they had only received 30 minutes of fresh air. One prisoner stated that he “felt like an animal” during the quarantine period. The reports detail how prisoners expressed feelings of frustration, anxiety and anger when reflecting on their time in quarantine/isolation. Regarding those with symptoms of COVID-19, one prisoner in Shelton Abbey stated, “a lot of people won’t complain [about their symptoms] because they don’t want to go to quarantine”.
Earlier this year, the first four COVID-19 Thematic Inspection Reports were published. At the time, IPRT expressed concern that the Irish Prison Service (IPS) 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.
The IPS has not accepted similar recommendations made in these reports regarding meaningful human contact and access to open air, the justification being that these restrictions are a critical infection control measure. IPRT has criticised this approach to quarantine/isolation throughout the pandemic. If minimum rights standards cannot be met, even in a pandemic, then alternative measures must be adopted. The Inspectorate’s recommendations for facilitating human contact through other creative methods, such as lifting limits on telephone calls and providing people in quarantine/isolation with tablets to access video calls and education, should be given due consideration.
Several of the reports note that the ‘Principle of Equivalence’ was not being adhered to with regards to vaccination. For example, at the time of inspection (31st May – 1st June), only one prisoner in Cork Prison had received his COVID-19 vaccination and one prisoner had refused the vaccine. This was despite the fact that there were 31 prisoners eligible for the vaccine in line with community eligibility (and specifically as members of Groups 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the Provisional Vaccine Allocation Group). A number of prisoners reported a sense of feeling “left behind”. Older prisoners particularly spoke about how they would have been vaccinated if they were not in prison, with one prisoner describing the Principle of Equivalence as “tough shit is what they call it here.”
While vaccination on a prison-wide basis has since been rolled out, the IPS and the HSE must accelerate roll-out of the booster vaccine to people in prison, in order to avoid a repeat of this damning situation where people in prison are not treated with the same level of priority as others living and working in congregated settings.
The severe impact on family contact is detailed in all four of these reports. One prison officer in Shelton Abbey described COVID-19 restrictions as “a disaster” for families, with many prisoners not seeing their children for more than a year as a result of restrictions. Many prisoners deemed the short duration of the visit for families travelling far distances as “pointless”. A number of prisoners spoke about how the video calls did not compensate for in-person visits from family, with comments including: “A visit is an embrace; a touch; it’s not just a visual experience”; “People have lost people since being in here”; and “I have never seen my son in person”. IPRT has previously called for the blanket limit on one child per visit to be removed and reiterates that call now. All restrictions on visits should be necessary and proportionate in each individual case. (See the results of a small-scale survey of people with a family member in prison conducted by IPRT in July/August 2020 here for context on the situation for families.)
The report for Cork Prison notes that a number of prisoners reported having their video calls cancelled, and not being able to access the school and other services, because they were not clean shaven. While the rationale for this appears to have been that individuals with a beard may not be able to properly wear the FFP2 masks provided, prisoners expressed confusion over the timing of this policy, which had only been commenced in the weeks leading up to the inspection, as well as the logic behind it. One prisoner is quoted as stating “Why is the country unwinding, but we’re tightening?” People in prison further reported feeling frustrated with inconsistencies in the rationale behind many of the restrictions in place. IPRT has highlighted the importance of clear and consistent communication with people in prison throughout the pandemic. IPRT supports the OIP’s recommendation that the IPS provide prisoners with a written copy of the Framework for Living with COVID-19 and/or the Framework for Unwinding of Prison Restrictions (as applicable), in order to promote confidence in the measures in place.
The inspection reports also found that a number of foreign national prisoners in Cork Prison were unable to readily communicate in English and were subsequently not being provided with sufficient support. A non-English speaking prisoner in Cork Prison had been unable to make telephone calls since his committal, a period of 5 months. This was not unique to Cork Prison; several of the reports note that information provision for non-English speakers was lacking.
Several of the reports also detailed alleged instances of racial discrimination by a small number of officers. Instances of racial discrimination are wholly unacceptable.*
The Inspectorate noted an unusually high number of reports from prisoners that they feared reprisal, such as transfer to another prison, if they were to engage with the Inspectorate. Quotes from prisoners in Cork prison are damning: “They don’t write to you (Office of Inspector of Prisons) because they’re afraid”; “They tolerate a lot of stuff here so they don’t get transferred”; and “They’re scared for their lives to write to anyone.”
In response to these reported fears about engaging with the Inspectorate, the IPS stated in its response that the Equality and Diversity Lead has been asked to conduct a survey of prisoners, in association with the Red Cross volunteers, on prisoner experiences and perceptions of making a complaint or raising issues of concern. This internal review is well past-due and IPRT is concerned that it is unlikely to solve the issues at hand. We repeat our calls for the introduction of the new internal complaints system as soon as possible. Timelines have repeatedly not been met. Access to a robust complaints mechanism is a critical safeguard for the protection of human rights of prisoners at all times, but especially during a pandemic.
As with all oversight and accountability reports, the value of these Thematic Inspection Reports is undermined if they are not published in a timely manner. Many of the issues discussed in the reports, such as access to vaccination, were time-sensitive and opportunities to respond to, or act on, the reports’ findings are now limited. The reports on Midlands Prisons and Loughan House Open Centre, submitted to the Department of Justice in November, should be published without delay. (To our knowledge, the reports on Castlerea Prisons and the Dóchas Centre have not yet been submitted to the Department.)
Other areas to note –
Arbour Hill: The Inspectorate noted concerns regarding the cell size of double occupancy cells, which did not meet minimum standards set by the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Degrading Treatment (CPT). While troubling at any time, this is of particular concern during a pandemic.
Many prisoners in Arbour Hill Prison reported positive relationships with prison staff. However, a few prisoners expressed concern about discrimination and abusive language being used in the prison by a small number of prison officers. It was alleged that some prisoners were at times verbally abused in relation to their nationality/ race/ ethnicity, and for the nature of their crime.
Cork: Many prisoners expressed to the Inspection Team their opinion that video-link court attendance reduced capacity to participate in the legal process and to engage fully with legal teams - “You can’t really speak on video – you need to be down there in person to be engaged.”
The ‘family call-in initiative’ (a pilot project which allowed each prisoner to receive two family/personal contact phone calls per day, directly through the in-cell phone and in addition to their outbound phone calls) was welcomed by the Inspectorate. The Inspectorate noted that it would like to see this initiative continue, and to be rolled out across the prison estate.
Portlaoise: Prisoners accommodated on E Block continue to slop out.
The Inspection Team also spoke with a small number of prisoners who expressed the view that there was a general “lack of communication” and “mixed messages’” between prisoners and prison staff. Prisoners across various landings expressed dissatisfaction with what they perceived to be a delay in receiving information on COVID-19 vaccinations.
A letter from the “Lifer’s Group” in Portlaoise Prison outlined a number of issues that the group wished to bring to the attention of the Inspectorate. The Lifers’ Group stated that, due to COVID-19, prisoners’ “mental health has declined drastically (…) Many attempted suicides have gone unreported as fellow prisoners have intervened.” The Lifers’ Group captured the impact of COVID-19 related restrictions in this statement: “It’s when the door closes that this hell, that is COVID in prisons, becomes ever more real, and that is when we succumb to the horrors that is our thoughts.”
Shelton Abbey: Due to certain activities being unavailable as a result of COVID, prisoners experienced a delay in sentence progression. A number of prisoners expressed frustration at the lack of structure and progress which has been exacerbated by COVID-19. The prisoners’ own words capture this frustration: “[I’m] more unprepared going out then [sic] I was coming in.” “No idea, no plan.” “I’m not able to achieve anything.” “You do fall through the cracks.” “Nobody is communicating with you.”
* In early 2022, IPRT will publish a report on the experiences of migrants, foreign nationals, and ethnic minorities in the penal system. The report was commissioned by IPRT and carried out by researchers from the Maynooth University Department of Law. More on this report launch will be announced in the coming weeks.