Irish Penal Reform Trust

Progress in Ireland’s prison system hindered by lack of effective independent oversight – IPRT

25th October 2019

IPRT also calls for urgent action on imprisonment as last resort, mental health and complaints system

Without the introduction of strong internal and external oversight mechanisms, there can only be limited meaningful progress in Ireland’s penal system. The regular publication of data and statistics; timely independent reports from prison inspection and monitoring bodies; and an effective independent complaints procedure are crucial to minimising harms of detention and achieving a more humane, just, and equal penal system. That’s according to Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), Fíona Ní Chinnéide, who was speaking today (25.10.19) at the launch of a new report that examines progress in Ireland’s penal system.

“We have placed a strong focus in our report on accountability in the penal system, as the thread of accountability runs through all penal policy areas – from sentencing and community sanctions to prison conditions, regimes, oversight mechanisms and reintegration. Our report shows that there is an urgent need to accelerate the publication of independent prison inspection reports. It has now been five years since the last inspection report of a closed prison, for example, and the last tranche of annual reports on prison conditions from Prison Visiting Committees is from 2017.

“We also need to see improved transparency through the regular publication of data relating to the welfare of prisoners, such as the length of time spent in solitary confinement; and the introduction of a new, independent complaints system that encourages people to speak up. Holding the penal system to account means asking whether it is achieving justice and contributing to safer communities,” said Ms Ní Chinnéide.   

Entitled ‘Progress in the Penal System 2019’ (PIPS 2019), the report published by IPRT today is the third in a series of three annual reports benchmarking progress in Ireland’s prison system. It provides a comprehensive analysis of progress within the last 12 months in meeting human rights, and includes examples of ‘progressive practice’, both domestically and internationally. IPRT’s first report, PIPS 2017, was published in October 2017 and details 35 standards against which the prevailing situation has been independently tracked, monitored and assessed over a three-year period.

Commenting on the report, Ms Ní Chinnéide said:

“The purpose of PIPS is to act as an accountability mechanism, evaluating the State’s progress on reducing its over-reliance on imprisonment and on addressing issues affecting people in prisons in Ireland. Since 2017, we have been measuring progress against 35 standards year-on-year, so the reports provide a comprehensive picture of the current context and state of Ireland’s penal system. This year’s report shows that there has been more progress identified than in 2018, however, there has also been regress in several key areas, including the most fundamental principle of penal reform: imprisonment as a last resort.”

Of the 35 standards assessed, seven were classified as having progressed; six as having regressed; no change was registered in 10 cases; ten standards were classified as ‘mixed’, indicating that there has been progress towards the standard in some areas and regress away from it in others; while in two cases sufficient or adequate data to make a reliable assessment of progress towards the standard was unavailable. Standards assessed in PIPS 2019 include:

  • Regress: Imprisonment as last resort. Ireland’s imprisonment rate in July 2019 stood at 82 per 100,000. In 2018, there was an increase in the number of committals for short sentences and in the daily average number of persons in custody. There has been no progress towards IPRT’s goal of 50 per 100,000.
  • No change: Mental healthcare. 29 prisoners were awaiting transfer to the Central Mental Hospital at the end of April 2019. There continues to be waiting lists for prison psychology services.
  • No change: Independent complaints and appeal mechanism / complaints system. Prisoners still do not have access to a fully independent external complaints mechanism or access to the Office of the Ombudsman. A new internal complaints system is due to be introduced in 2019.
  • Mixed: Women who offend. While the number of female committals has decreased, there was an increase in the daily female population, and women’s prisons have been consistently overcrowded in 2018 and 2019. A step-down facility for women leaving prison opened in 2019.
  • Progress: Community engagement and involvement. There have been positive community projects within the prison estate throughout the year, including the Red Cross Programme, Bohemian Foundation and Progression Park Run.
  • Progress: Staff Training. Human rights is embedded in recruit prison officer training, and the Irish Prison Service has taken action towards meeting its public sector equality and human rights obligations.   

Ms Ní Chinnéide commented:

“While there has been consistent progress over the last three years in some areas, including community engagement projects and the training of prison staff in human rights and oversight, the fact that the number of prisoners is still increasing threatens to undermine much of the positive work and progress achieved. Approximately 70% of sentences handed down in 2018 were sentences of less than 12 months, which means that overcrowding remains a common feature in the prison system in 2019. This impacts on both prison conditions and regimes. A core recommendation of the Strategic Review on Penal Policy (2014) was to enshrine the principle of imprisonment as last resort in sentencing law and practice, however, this has still not happened.

“It is also disappointing that there hasn’t been a reduction in the numbers of people in prison with acute mental illness awaiting transfer to the Central Mental Hospital (CMH) over the last three years. People with severe mental health issues cannot wait for the opening of the new facility at Portrane in 2020, so it is important that there is a declared commitment, as well as clear accountability in terms of reducing waiting lists for the CMH, and for diverting people experiencing mental illness from the prison system.”

She added:

“We welcome the recently announced increase in funding for the Office of the Inspector of Prisons, and we look forward to the publication of its first inspection reports. While this development will go some way towards increasing accountability in the penal system, it is important that other oversight initiatives, such as the implementation of a fully functioning and effective internal complaints and appeals system and the establishment of an independent board for the Irish Prison Service, are also progressed and properly resourced.

“The serious issues of prisoner numbers and access to mental health services while in prison can’t be solved by the Department of Justice and Equality or any one organisation alone. What is needed is a cross-agency partnership approach including the judiciary, legislators, the departments of Justice, Health and Housing, the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service, the HSE and An Garda Síochana. We have been working closely with many of these organisations since the publication of the first PIPS report in 2017 and hope that the short-term actions identified in today’s report will be considered and progressed by the relevant stakeholders. We all have the same vision: that of Ireland having a world-class penal system and becoming a leading model of international best practice.”


Contact: Sebastian Enke / Stephen Moloney, DHR Communications, Tel: 01-4200580 / 087-3239496 / 087-7858522

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