22nd March 2021
IPRT notes the publication by the Minister for Justice of the Office of the Inspector of Prisons (OIP) Annual Report 2019 (18 March 2021). Critical issues outlined in the report include: the treatment of mentally ill prisoners; conditions for ‘protection’ prisons; waiting times for access to services; and the prisoner complaints system.
The publication of this report was significantly delayed, as the Inspectorate did not submit the report to the Minister within the specified timeframe. Therefore, the information therein relates to a period before COVID-19 related restrictions were imposed in Irish prisons and does not detail the challenges the pandemic has posed in prisons over the past year.
As well as detail on individual prisons following visits to prisons during 2019 and an overview of issues across the prison estate (common themes grouped below), the report dedicates specific sections to issues of concern to the Inspectorate.
One such issue is the “not fit for purpose” prisoner complaints system (outlined p. 42 - 49).
Worrying details of the Irish Prison Service’s compliance with its legal obligations relating to complaints are highlighted in the report. The Inspectorate notes the Irish Prison Service’s “disregard for the requirements in law” to provide specific information to the Inspectorate in relation to prisoner complaints, stating that “adherence to the relevant Prison Rules appears to be considered discretionary rather than obligatory”.
The failing prisoner complaints system is of the utmost concern to IPRT. An effective prisoner complaints system is essential to the protection of prisoners’ human rights, yet deficiencies in the prisoner complaints process have been flagged by the Inspectorate over many years, with little action implemented to date to rectify the situation.
The introduction of a revised prison complaints system in the Irish prison system is long overdue. Timelines – and revised timelines – have not been met. As of March 2021, prisoners are still without access to a fully independent complaints mechanism. March 2021 marks one year of COVID-19 related restrictions in prisons, which have been experienced by men and women in prison in the absence of a functioning complaints system. Calls to introduce a robust and effective complaints system have been repeatedly made by IPRT over many years, and have been a recurring action in our annual PIPS reports (Standard 22). In the context of the pandemic, where the rights of people in prison have been impeded and where fewer external eyes are on prisons, these calls have never been more urgent than they are today. The State must, as a matter of priority, complete the drafting of the statutory Instrument required to give effect to the new prisoner complaints system. This must also be supported with appropriate resources.
For another year, no formal prison inspection reports were published by the Inspectorate during 2019. The absence of published reports on recent inspections means that current prison conditions are not subjected to public scrutiny and we cannot assess whether minimum human rights standards have been met during the pandemic. IPRT welcomed the publication of the new Inspection Framework for Prisons in Ireland in September 2020 and urged that prison inspections be commenced. In response to a recent parliamentary question, the Minister for Justice confirmed that the 2021 general inspection programme has been suspended, with Thematic Inspections being complemented with telephone calls with each prison.
IPRT notes that the Annual Report for 2020 was submitted to the Minister for Justice on 16th March 2021, and calls for it to be published by the Minister without delay. This should be coupled with the timely publication of any other Thematic Inspection reports submitted by the Inspectorate. Timely publication of inspection reports is even more important now than ever, given the severe restrictions in place in prisons due to the pandemic and the lack of in-person visits.
Read the Office of the Inspector of Prisons Annual Report 2019 here.
While there were no formal prison inspection reports published in 2019, the Inspectorate highlights a number of systemic issues in its Annual Report for 2019: