Irish Penal Reform Trust

Irish Examiner reports on unpublished prison chaplain reports

8th September 2020

The Irish Examiner has today reported on an unpublished prison chaplain report on Dóchas Centre for 2019, which is reported to find that women in the Dóchas Centre are subject to chronic overcrowding, decreasing out-of-cell time, xenophobic abuse, and find it "next to impossible" for the women to book family visits, including with their children.

A short article and a longer opinion on the issues were both written by Michael Clifford.

IPRT’s comments in this post are in response to the above media around the unpublished report, which was released to the Irish Examiner through a Freedom of Information request. While IPRT has not seen a copy of these reports, many of the reported findings chime with IPRT's existing concerns about overcrowding and regimes in the Dóchas Centre.

While we have seen numbers in custody exceeding maximum bed capacities across most of the closed prison estate, female prisons continue to be the most persistently overcrowded in the state, with bed capacities exceeded on most days. This is despite the fact that at any given time across 2019, approx. 35% of women in prison under sentence were serving short sentences of less than 12 months, which could be more appropriately responded to in the community. Over a third of female committals under sentence in 2019 were for theft and related offences. Continuing to imprison these women places strain on limited resources and minimises opportunities for meaningful rehabilitation for the few women for whom prison is a more appropriate response.

The articles report of out-of-cell time decreasing from over 11 hrs to 7 hrs and 35 mins, a decrease of 32%. Out-of-cell time is crucial to support normalisation. Limited out-of-cell time can also have a serious impact on mental health. You can read more about benefits of out-of-cell time, as well as more on the current context in Ireland in PIPS 2019 here. While two open prisons exist in Ireland for males, there continues to be no open provision for women within the prison estate. It is concerning that Dochás Centre has been reported to be moving towards a more closed regime than existed previously. One of the actions IPRT proposed in PIPS 2019 was the establishment of an open prison for women, in particular for the small number of women who are serving long sentences.

The articles also report complaints made to the chaplain from women about verbal abuse, xenophobic remarks, threatening language, and pointed exclusion. The prison chaplains note that “the women involved did not feel safe to make complaints in writing to the governor for fear of further penalisation from the staff involved”. This is extremely concerning, and echoes previous Dóchas Visiting Committee reports. Prisoners need to have confidence in the complaints system and feel able to raise complaints and have those complaints resolved, if necessary, at the earliest opportunity without fear of adverse consequences. We detailed a number of recommendations on how the complaints process in Irish prisons could be strengthened here.

Annual reports by prison chaplains were regularly published until 2010. These reports played a vital role in highlighting key issues in prisons, including raising serious concerns about the former St Patrick's Institution. Chaplains play an important role in the lives of people in prison, but historically they have offered balanced and fair critique of conditions in prisons. These prison chaplains’ reports are even more essential in the absence of published independent prison inspection reports, however, these prison chaplains' reports should not be a replacement for regular reports published by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons.

The issues reported by the Irish Examiner are extremely concerning, but what this now demands is publication of the full prison chaplain annual reports for 2019, so that the contents of the reports can be duly considered. 

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

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