7th February 2022
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has said the penal system – in some key areas of practice – has regressed over the last five years. It has called for reforms in custodial sentencing policy so that prison is used as a last resort.
Since 2017, IPRT has been reporting on progress in standards across the Irish penal system. Through its annual report series – entitled Progress in the Penal System (PIPS) – IPRT has measured progress in the penal system against international human rights standards and best practice, covering areas such as prison conditions, regimes, accountability and reintegration.
Publishing its PIPS report for 2021, today (07.02.22), IPRT has provided a close-up examination of 13 standards, while also reflecting on recurring themes identified in previous reports.
IPRT reported that, over the last five years, too many people have continued to be sentenced to short terms of imprisonment rather than being diverted to alternative sanctions in the community. The lack of any publicly-available data that might help explain why the courts are choosing not to use alternative sanctions is a particular concern for IPRT.
According to Molly Joyce, IPRT’s Deputy Director: "It is clear that Ireland is still nowhere near the PIPS target, established in 2017, of reducing the prison population to 50 per 100,000. Indeed, the data available to us worryingly demonstrates that imprisonment has prevailed as a default response to less-serious offending. While there has been some progress in reducing prison numbers in reaction to the COVID crisis, overall, the slow progress over the last five years has demonstrated that more needs to be done to ensure prison is being used as a sanction of last resort.”
IPRT has called on the Department of Justice, without delay, to pursue its planned review of the impact of the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011, particularly as this relates to the use of short custodial sentences. “The high number of people continually being sentenced to short terms of imprisonment, and the lack of information as to why this is happening, acts as a huge barrier to achieving the long-term goal of reduced prison numbers,” said Ms Joyce.
IPRT also identified cell sharing and solitary confinement as areas of regress in the operation of the prison system. According to Ms Joyce: “We know that access to single-cell accommodation can reduce violence and protect the dignity of people in prison. Despite this knowledge, and the Irish Prison Service objective of moving towards single-cell occupancy, however, cell sharing remains common practice in the prison system. The amount of time that people spend out-of-cell is inadequate and, in many cases, the hours out-of-cell have reduced during the five-year reporting period. Critically, despite a 2017 commitment by the IPS to effectively eliminate solitary confinement in prison, its use remains common practice across the prison estate.”
Ms Joyce noted: “In 2021, the average out-of-cell time for prisoners in closed prisons was less than six hours per day. This is just one hour more than those on restricted regimes and 50 per cent less than the PIPS standard of 12 hours per day. Such unacceptably low levels of out-of-cell time, coupled with a continued use of solitary confinement in the prison system, is unsafe and causes harm to the prison community.”
The impact of such limited out-of-cell time on people’s mental health is particularly concerning given the high rates of mental illness seen in the prison population. As is noted in PIPS 2021, the “prison environment itself can both create and exacerbate existing mental health issues.” There is no doubt that being locked in a cell for long parts of the day – a situation that has continued and worsened during COVID-19 – has the potential to compound the health concerns of many of those in our prisons.
In addition to significant regress across key areas of concern, IPRT has identified a lack of transparency associated with important decisions and practice in the penal system. The IPRT noted data gaps across a raft of areas, including sentencing decisions; access and referrals to mental health services; and access to education. IPRT is especially concerned about the impact of limited information in the penal sphere: “Prisons are – by definition – a closed environment and so not easily open to scrutiny. Transparency in reporting is essential in making the penal system accountable,” said Ms Joyce.
In reference to the standards specifically reviewed in 2021, IPRT expressed some concern over COVID impacts on the prison population and their families.
According to Ms Joyce: “In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Irish Prison System moved swiftly to comply with public health policy in relation to social distancing: a 10 per cent reduction in the prison population was achieved in a relatively short period of time; and cell-sharing was reduced, including a near-end to the practice of prisoners sleeping on mattresses on the floor. With restrictions on family visits, video-calls and in-cell phone provision in prisons were significant and welcome developments. However, as the pandemic persisted into 2021, the situation in regards cell-sharing remained static, and the prison population and their families suffered greatly as a result of reduced in-person contact.
“Prior to the pandemic, there were over 50,000 child visits to prison per year. As of November 2021, only 2,238 children had physically visited an adult in prison. This was an almost 80 per cent decrease from 2020 when there were 11,079 physical visits. This drop in child visits took place despite the availability of vaccines in 2021 and the high uptake of vaccination among those in prison. Family contact is essential for the wellbeing of prisoners and their families. The scale in the reduction of visits is a matter of considerable concern.”
A consistent lack of routine information on education participation rates across the prison estate was identified across the five years of PIPS. The absence of such data makes it difficult to understand the rate of participation in education among the prison population. This is all the more concerning given the reduced access people in prison have had to education as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While IPRT recognises the significant efforts made by prison and teaching staff to offer alternative education during periods of lockdown, it is concerning that a number of school closures in 2021 arose as a result of staff shortages.
IPRT noted that a particular area of progress within the penal system has been in reintegration. “The policy and research backdrops in relation to reintegration after a penal sentence have continued to improve. The progression of the Criminal Justice (Rehabilitative Periods) Bill 2018 through the Oireachtas should enhance the opportunities for people with spent convictions to secure new pathways in employment, education and training,” added Molly Joyce.
The 2021 report, Progress in the Penal System (PIPS): The Need for Transparency (2021), is available for download here.
Contact: Thelma Harris DHR Communications, Tel: 083-0517622.