5th July 2021
The Prison Chaplain Annual Reports for 2020 have been published by the Irish Prison Service. All of these reports relate to the 2020 calendar year.
Details of several of the reports are featured in media coverage by the Irish Examiner.
Chaplains play an important role in the lives of people in prison and have historically offered balanced and fair critique of conditions in prisons. Before 2010, these reports were regularly published and played a vital role in highlighting key issues in prisons. There was a significant period where these reports were no longer published, but publication recommenced in 2020 (Annual Reports 2019 here). We welcome that publication has continued, within a reasonable timeline.
These reports by Prison Chaplains are even more essential in the absence of published independent prison inspection reports, however, they should not be a replacement for regular reports published by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons. The impact of COVID-19 dominates most of these reports. We look forward to assessing further detail of this impact following the publication by the Minister of the Inspectorate’s completed COVID-19 thematic reports.
Several common concerns were raised across many of the Prison Chaplain Annual Reports. These concerns were related primarily to COVID-19 and related restrictions, the numbers and treatment of people with mental health issues being held in prison, and insufficient staffing/resourcing of the Chaplaincy Service.
COVID-19 and related restrictions: It is clear, from the details in these reports, that the weight of the COVID-19 restrictions was felt in every prison. The impact of the lack of exercise and access to showers was raised in several reports (incl Loughan House, Midlands, Mountjoy, Wheatfield). The impact on families was also noted in the majority of reports.
The reports also note the responsiveness of the Irish Prison Service in the face of COVID-19 and their ability to innovate. This ability to “fast-track change” when the willingness is there from IPS management was acknowledged (Midlands). The introduction of video calls following the suspension of physical visits was welcomed in nearly every report. However, persistent technical issues, especially during the start of lockdown had “an enormously negative effect on some prisoners and a devastating effect on their children”, with some men “giving up on video visits altogether as they cannot cope with the disappointment” (Mountjoy). With regard to technology, telechaplaincy was also praised as an innovative solution, which allowed the Chaplaincy service to continue to provide support, particularly to those in isolation (Arbour Hill, Cloverhill, Mountjoy, Wheatfield, Dóchas Centre).
Specific concerns regarding visitation were raised by the Chaplaincy Service in both open centres – Loughan House and Shelton Abbey. Despite the unique designation of these centres, their rural locations, and space afforded to them, the same policy applied here as for the rest of the closed prison estate when visitation re-commenced. This approach was queried by the Chaplaincy, who felt that some "special consideration" should have been afforded (Shelton Abbey).
The impact of restrictions on life-sentenced prisoners was detailed in several reports. Chaplains note that prisoners fear that when things eventually do return to normal, their progression plan will commence from March 2020 rather than in the present day a year or two will essentially be added onto their sentences (Loughan House). For those who are being released during the pandemic, reports note they are “suffering from extreme anxiety and need considerable support” (Shelton Abbey).
Mental health: This was among the most common and urgent of concerns raised across the reports. While many of the reports note the care and professionalism offered by staff and services, the majority of the reports repeat the concern that prison is not a suitable environment for these men and women. Many of the reports look beyond the role of prison, noting that not only do many of these people deserve better care while in prison, but “the courts must have an alternative to sending men with serious mental-health issues into prison” (Midlands) this, as pointed out, “is an issue of broader national concern” (Mountjoy).
The report for the Dóchas Centre in particular raised serious concerns regarding the suitability of prison for many of the women held there, many of whom have pre-existing mental health conditions. A troubling picture is painted of the realities of life for these women, and for the staff who should not have to “accept these extreme situations as part of their duty” (Dóchas Centre).
Again, specific concerns were raised relating to Loughan House and Shelton Abbey. The absence of a psychologist continues to be felt. When people voice their emotional needs, sometimes, the only option is to move them to a closed prison where they can access the Psychology Service, which “appears to defeat the purpose of inmates being moved to an Open Centre to further their rehabilitation” (Loughan House).
Resourcing: While the reports welcome the appointment of a new Head Chaplain and the sense of direction and support this offers to the Chaplaincy Service, the reports raise a concern about the continued omission of the Chaplaincy Service in the Irish Prison Service Strategic Plan, despite the vital role they play in the rehabilitation of people in prison. Many of the reports call for increased staffing in order to meet the demand, with reports stating the current provision is “not in any way an adequate” (Midlands) or “extremely limited” (Castlerea).
Other issues raised in the reports include the impact of overcrowding, life sentence management, access to palliative care, sentencing and community alternatives, and waiting lists for services. However, the work of Governors and staff in supporting the Chaplaincy Service and people in prison, despite the often tough conditions, was highly regarded in these reports.
Prison Chaplain Annual Reports for 2020 can be read on the Irish Prison Service website here.