Irish Penal Reform Trust

MEDIA ADVISORY: Prisoner Ombudsman would address gaps in accountability structures in Ireland's prison system

30th March 2012

Prisoners do not lose their basic human rights when they are committed to prison, and the State has an obligation to ensure that these rights are protected through the provision of effective and fully independent complaints and investigations mechanisms, such as a Prisoner Ombudsman. Ireland is currently falling short of its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, and IPRT is now calling on the Government to address glaring gaps in accountability structures in the Irish prison system by establishing an independent Office of Prisoner Ombudsman as soon as is practicable.

This was the core message delivered at the launch of a new prisoners rights information pack, Know Your Rights – Your Rights as a Prisoner, at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle on Friday 30th March 2012. Produced jointly by the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the pack clearly lays out prisoners rights from committal to release, including the areas of physical conditions, healthcare, education and training, safety and discipline, and contact with the outside world.

Speaking at the event, Liam Herrick, Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust said:

“One of the core tenets of IPRT's work is that you don't lose your basic human rights when you are committed to prison, and the first step in protecting these rights is to make sure that people are fully informed of the State's obligations towards them. The next step is put in place effective and independent mechanisms to monitor that these rights are being respected; such independent oversight is particularly important in places of detention that are away from public view – and in this regard, Ireland is not meeting international standards."

“The continuing lack of an independent complaints system for prisoners is a glaring gap in Irish law that presents an obstacle to the Government's commitments to ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture (OP-CAT). Moreover, the lack of an effective and independent mechanism of investigation into deaths in prison custody in Ireland is in clear breach of the European Convention on Human Rights."

“While IPRT has previously welcomed commitments to strengthen the independence and effectiveness of prisons' oversight, we have not yet seen any proposals from Government on prisoner complaints that would meet the standards of independence required by international law."

“Robust and effective independent complaints mechanisms manage tensions and build confidence in prison systems which are often operating under intense crowding and resource pressures. They are not something to be feared.”

Northern Ireland Prisoner Ombudsman, Pauline McCabe, was keynote speaker at the event. Underlining that the Prisoner Ombudsman is not a prisoner advocacy role, she said: 

"My job is to carry out independent, fair, impartial investigations and to make recommendations for change where I believe this to be appropriate. In carrying out this role the Prisoner Ombudsman, as has been demonstrated many times, also brings openness and transparency to the relatively closed world of prisons.

On the current process of reform in the Northern Irish prison system, she said:

“The emphasis on a rehabilitative regime is not a liberal view that sets out to give prisoners a soft landing and undermine the rights of victims. A system that offers redress, while moving to reduce reoffending through preparing prisoners with the skills to reintegrate and meaningfully contribute to society on release, will ultimately instil confidence in victims and the general public that crimes will not be repeated. It is imperative that the prevention of re-offending is at the heart of a victim centred approach and the development of a safer society and moves to reduce reoffending must, therefore, be at the heart of prison reform.”

She also outlined how independent complaints and investigations mechanisms can support prison staff:

“It is part of my job as Prisoner Ombudsman to encourage staff to see that complaints can be helpful and provide important opportunities for addressing difficulties, encouraging constructive behaviour and attitudes and helping to keep prison safe. There are as well many instances where our reports and recommendations are very helpful to members of staff trying to do a good job in circumstances where prison policy or custom and practice is not fit for purpose.”

On the launch of Know Your Rights – Your Rights as a Prisoner, IPRT has issued the following calls on Government:

  • IPRT calls on the Government to establish an independent Office of Prisoner Ombudsman as soon as is practicable. The remit of the proposed Office of Prisoner Ombudsman in Ireland should include the duty to investigate all deaths in the custody of the Irish Prison Service.
  • IPRT calls on the Government to extend the remit of the Ombudsman for Children’s Office to provide the power to receive and consider individual complaints from those children who are held in St. Patrick’s Institution.
  • IPRT calls on the Government to ratify without delay the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, and to establish effective National Preventative Mechanisms (NPM) under the Protocol, in which the proposed Prisoner Ombudsman should play a vital role, together with the Inspector of Prisons and reformed and strengthened Prison Visiting Committees.

For all media enquiries, interviews and images, please contact:

Fíona Ní Chinnéide on 087 181 2990 or email:  


1. Strengthening Accountability Behind Bars: Prisoner Rights and Prisoner Complaints

This seminar and launch focusing on took place on Friday 30th March 2012 in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle, Dublin 2. A new publication, Know Your Rights – Your Rights as a Prisoner, produced jointly by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and the Irish Penal Reform Trust, was launched at the event.

The Keynote speaker was Northern Ireland Prisoner Ombudsman, Pauline McCabe. The event was chaired by Gráinne McMorrow SC. Panel respondents included: Mr Jimmy Martin, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Justice and Equality; Brian Murphy, Deputy Director, Operations, Irish Prison Service; and Mr John Clinton, General Secretary, Prison Officers Association.

2. Know Your Rights: Your Rights as a Prisoner

Produced jointly by the ICCL and IPRT, the Your Rights as a Prisoner pack aims to help prisoners understand the rights they have while in prison. It is written in everyday language and is informative and easy to use. The booklet is available online here and from; it is also available in print on request from IPRT (01-8741400 or Your Rights as a Prisoner will be available in audio format and in translation from summer 2012.

3. NI Prisoner Ombudsman |

The Prisoner Ombudsman investigates complaints from prisoners held in Northern Ireland who remain unhappy with how their complaint has been responded to by the Prison Service. The Prisoner Ombudsman also investigates all deaths in Prison Service custody in Northern Ireland. The current Prisoner Ombudsman is Pauline McCabe.

4. IPRT: Complaints, Monitoring and Inspection in Prisons

This Position Paper assesses the current complaints and investigation structures in Ireland against international human rights standards and obligations, and makes a series of recommendations for the improvement of current mechanisms, including a call for the establishment of an Office of Prisoner Ombudsman to deal with individual complaints. 

  • Download IPRT Briefing (2-page summary) here.
  • Download IPRT Position Paper here.

5. Know Your Rights |

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties' Know Your Rights public information project is designed to inform people in clear and accessible language about their rights under various key areas of the law in Ireland. Topics covered in Know Your Rights booklets include: Criminal Justice and Garda Powers, Privacy and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

6. Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) | 

IPRT is Ireland's leading non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of everyone in prison and the progressive reform of Irish penal policy, with prison as a last resort.

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



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