18th January 2021
The Irish Penal Reform Trust notes the publication on 15th January 2021 by the Department of Justice of the 2019 annual reports from the Visiting Committees for each of Ireland’s prisons.
Common issues echoed across various Visiting Committee annual reports for 2019 include: overcrowding, the use and impact of restricted regimes, family contact and visiting, the closure of schools/workshops due to staffing levels, and concerning levels of unmet mental health needs across the prison estate.
For another year, staffing shortfalls and the impact on out-of-cell activities were noted as a key concern in many of the reports (Mountjoy, Castlerea, Cork, Midlands, Limerick, Cloverhill). These shortages continued to have impacts on work, education, and training opportunities in 2019. This undermines the rehabilitative purpose of prison.
Serious concerns around the unmet mental health needs of the prison population are raised in several of the Visiting Committee reports. The Cloverhill Prison Visiting Committee reports that prisoners in D2 area of the prison are “urgently in need of appropriate treatment in a safe, secure community setting”. The Committee writes that “the area of mental health is a societal problem and needs to be addressed at the highest government department level.” It is vital that the cross-departmental taskforce on mental health, addictions and imprisonment (as committed to in the Programme for Government) is progressed with urgency. This taskforce must be action-driven and prioritise diversion away from the criminal justice system.
It is important to highlight that the Committee notes the “care and concern” of prison staff in the face of this challenging situation. However, prison is an inappropriate place for people who are suffering from severe mental illness. Continuing to hold these people in prison places unreasonable demands on prison staff.
The Cloverhill Prison Visiting Committee report also raises concerns about cell occupancy and in-cell sanitation. The Committee recommends “urgent consideration to be given to the discontinuation” of the practice of prisoners toileting in the presence of others, with the provision of single-cell accommodation be addressed as a matter of urgency. (For info, see IPRT PIPS 2019 Standard 8: In-cell sanitation, and Standard 9: Single-cell accommodation)
Ongoing issues with addiction and access to drugs are also raised in almost all of the Visiting Committee reports for 2019. The Mountjoy Prison Visiting Committee highlighted a “culture of fear” in the prison because of the level of drug abuse. The Committee notes the “lack of sufficient drug treatment programmes, insufficient capacity in staffing resources in therapeutic services and safe drug free accommodation while in prison and on release” are hindering those who might otherwise wish to avail of drug treatment programmes. This is a further issue for the cross-departmental taskforce to consider and progress action on.
The Mountjoy Prison Visiting Committee repeats its concern about the high proportion of prisoners who are ‘on protection’, which can be up to 1 in 3 prisoners in Mountjoy at any given time. While protection prisoners are generally afforded “2 or 3 hours out-of-cell time”, the Committee details its worry around a small number of prisoners who “remain in their cells and on occasion do not avail of time-out for recreation/phone calls/showers”. The Committee notes that this may present health risks for the prisoner. IPRT reiterates, in a similar note to our response to the publication of the Visiting Committee Annual Reports 2016 in 2018, that if a prisoner requests to be kept on protection for an extended period, this should be kept under constant review. The IPS in conjunction with the Prison Psychology Service should develop programmes to assist and encourage prisoners to transition from solitary confinement back into the general prison population, where deemed safe to do so.
While IPRT remains concerned that there is no systematic approach to the production of the reports by each of the Visiting Committees, we welcomed a commitment in the Programme for Government, published Summer 2020, to “review the existing functions, powers, appointment procedures and reporting processes for prison visiting committees”. IPRT outlined the need for these reforms in ‘Progress in the Penal System 2019’ here.
These reports relate to 2019, and therefore do not include information on how Prison Visiting Committees in Ireland continued their duties during the initial COVID-19 lockdown, or any subsequent periods of heightened restrictions over the course of the year. By contrast, Independent Monitoring Boards (the equivalent to Prison Visiting Committees) in the UK published information on alternative remote working arrangements due to the pandemic.
IPRT has consistently highlighted that delays in the publication of Visiting Committee Annual Reports do not allow for real-time responses to both the good practice and the issues identified by the committees. Publication of the 2020 reports should take place within 3 months of submission, and during 2021, while the information is current.
Various recommended actions relating to the role and function of Prison Visiting Committees are outlined in IPRT’s upcoming PIPS 2020, which will be launched later this month. More information here.
Prison Visiting Committee Annual Reports for 2019 are available on the Department of Justice website here.