Irish Penal Reform Trust

Reform of Prison Visiting Committees is urgently needed

27th May 2020

The Irish Penal Reform Trust notes the publication on 25th May 2020 by the Department of Justice and Equality of the 2018 annual reports from the Visiting Committees for each of Ireland’s prisons.

Over many years, IPRT has consistently highlighted that delays in the publication of the Visiting Committee Annual Reports do not allow for real-time responses to both the good practice and the issues identified by the committees. Delays in the publication of prison reports undermine public scrutiny and accountability – a theme of Progress in the Penal System 2019.

Issues echoed throughout various Visiting Committee annual reports for 2018 include: access to healthcare services, the use and impact of restricted regimes, family contact, the closure of schools/workshops due to staffing levels, and preparation for release. These issues, among others, are repeated on a yearly basis. While there has been some progress made, many of the issues are “frustratingly unresolved”, as articulated by the Dóchas Centre Visiting Committee.

There is a reported varying degree of access to healthcare services across the prison estate, with many Committees noting long waiting lists for prisoners to engage with the Psychology Service. IPRT is particularly concerned that in Arbour Hill, which accommodates a cohort of prisoners with particular medical needs due to their age, there was no access to healthcare at weekends at the time of the report’s writing.

Staffing shortfalls and the impact on out-of-cell activities were noted in many of the reports. These shortages continued to have impacts on work, education, and training opportunities in 2018 and 2019, and undermines the rehabilitative purpose of prison. In order to meet the rehabilitative needs of both the offender and society, numbers in prison need to be reduced so that prison resources can be effectively directed towards more serious offending.

The reliance on the use of restricted regimes and the impact of limited out-of-cell time on the mental health of prisoners is a prevalent theme in many of the reports. It is reported that in Mountjoy, some prisoners develop “disrupted sleeping patterns” from restricted regimes. It is reported that some prisoners then decline to leave their cells for out-of-cell time and “become disoriented and confused”. This is a serious concern. There continues to be no published data on the length of time individual prisoners are held on restricted regimes. Collation and publication of this data should be prioritised as a matter of urgency.

The experience of the families of those in custody, and of access to family visits across the estate, varied in 2018. In particular, the Mountjoy Visiting Committee report an environment that can be hostile for visitors and can include comments of a personal nature by some staff. The Committee has raised this demeaning behaviour on previous occasions as unacceptable. IPRT believes these concerns should be investigated at the highest level, with appropriate action taken.

While very concerning where it does arise, it should be noted that complaints about poor staff behaviour are not common through all reports of the Visiting Committees. Many of the reports noted the dedication of staff to providing high-quality care to those in custody. The concern and humanity of the majority of officers working in an often-challenging environment is to be commended.

Ultimately, lack of timely publication of these reports limits our ability to actively engage with what has been reported. Conditions now could vary drastically from what was reported in 2018. Additionally, inconsistencies in the length, quality and format of the reports mean it is challenging to monitor changes and assess the prevailing situation across the prison system.

In order to ensure the system is effective, reform of Ireland’s prison Visiting Committees is urgently needed. Although some Visiting Committees function well, there is a lack of independence in the appointment of committee members. In addition, there is no standardisation of Visiting Committee reports in terms of structure and quality of content. As Ireland moves to strengthen independent oversight and accountability by ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Contention against Torture (OPCAT), Prison Visiting Committee reform should be central to this process.

IPRT has previously called on the Department of Justice and Equality to review the existing functions and powers of Visiting Committees and progress their reform as part of the work on ratifying the OPCAT. Appointment of members, training and the standard of reporting should be reviewed, followed by a recruitment campaign by the Public Appointments Service. Visiting Committees should comprise multi-disciplinary expertise, including proficiency of relevant human rights standards. As part of this reform, a monitoring framework should also be established in order to achieve consistency of approach by all Prison Visiting Committees.

 

More on IPRT's work on Visiting Committees:

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