9th March 2022
The Irish Penal Reform Trust notes the publication on 8 March 2022 by the Department of Justice of the 2020 Annual Reports from the Visiting Committees for each of Ireland’s prisons.
These are the first published Visiting Committee reports that relate to the pandemic period.
Common issues echoed across various Visiting Committee Annual Reports for 2020 include: the “frightful” (Cloverhill) experience of quarantine; high levels of drug dependency; limited access to showers; poor and deteriorating mental health; insufficient healthcare/psychology staffing numbers; lack of adequate beds in a secure specialised forensic psychiatric setting to meet the needs of prisoners with a diagnosis of severe mental illness; and limited access to education, to workshops or other rehabilitative activities.
Below, IPRT summarises some of the key concerns of Visiting Committees (VC) in several of the reports.
The VC for the Dóchas Centre expressed “concern around the significant amount of women with mental health needs coming into custody, with limited appropriate facilities in healthcare to meet their needs.” This echoes the findings of the report on access to mental health services in the criminal justice system by the Inspector of Mental Health Services, published in late 2021. The VC notes that in 2018 six women required inpatient treatment and were referred to the CMH, but this number increased to twenty-nine in 2019.
The VC for Cloverhill Prison urged that measures introduced during the pandemic “do not become the new norm”, specifically an amendment to the Prison Rules made in July 2020 which has the effect of allowing a Governor or the Director General to restrict or suspend entitlements to physical recreation and exercise and family visits, with respect to public health advice. The VC “strongly recommend a comprehensive, high level investigative analysis of the immediate and long term effects brought about by the constraints and restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 crises.” The VC also highlights the number of prisoners “without toileting privacy remains relatively high”. While the report relates to 2020, the most recent published Census reports (January 2022) indicate that as of the date of the Census, 83% of people in custody in Cloverhill were toileting in the presence of others.
Echoing the 2020 report of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) following its 2019 visit to Ireland, the VC notes that many of the men on D landing, who are awaiting admission to the CMH, come from poorer backgrounds and “over half the men are homeless”. The VC reiterate their previous concern about the number of men “who courts are willing to grant bail to, are left in a limbo situation in D2 landing” because of their homeless status.
The VC for Cork Prison highlighted issues with overcrowding, whereby some prisoners had to sleep on floors during the earlier part of the year. The VC also highlighted issues with some prisoners being released on short notice, noting that the good work done with people in prison “will count for little” in the absence of a policy-driven aftercare plan.
The VC for Midlands Prison noted that, of those seen by a Psychologist in 2020, the average wait time for initial assessment was 227 days. The average wait time for intervention was 411 days. The VC also notes that the availability of two addiction counsellors in the largest prison in the country is “totally inadequate”. For more on access to mental healthcare in prison, mental healthcare was one of the key standards (Standard 13) reviewed by IPRT in Progress in the Penal System: The need for transparency ('PIPS 2021'), launched in February 2022.
The VC for Mountjoy Prison states that the care of those who are segregated from others “needs monitoring, review and consideration of how best their health and welfare can be safeguarded in the context of single cell isolation.” The VC notes that prisoners held in special units, Challenging Behaviour, High Support, or Detoxification Unit have raised concerns with them about isolation, lack of therapy and educational input. The VC also reports the main visitor issues reported by staff at the Visitors Centre to members of the VC, including difficulty in booking visits (with many visitors to the centre advising that it took nearly a month to book a video visit), challenges with phone calls at the end of 2020 and the impact of long periods of no visits on people in prison, particularly the older generation. The VC recommends a range of changes to the visiting regime, including an increase in the daily timetable allocated to visits, that consideration is given to evening visits. (A range of recommendations relating to improving prison visiting procedures and conditions were made by IPRT in 2021 in Piecing it Together: Supporting Children and Families with a Family Member in Prison in Ireland.) The VC notes that prisoners who apply for education, training or work, but are denied the opportunity due to a shortage of facilities or a security consideration, should have such applications taken into consideration when undergoing sentence review. The report notes that while therapeutic, educational and workshop activities for prisoners were reduced during the 2020-21 COVID-19 lockdown, there were issues with access to services before this, with the VC stating that “prior to March 2020 many workshops had to remain closed due to staffing.”
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.” The important role of Visiting Committees and the need for their reform was recently outlined by IPRT in PIPS 2021.
All Prison Visiting Committee Annual Reports for 2020 are available here.