21st June 2023
Irish Penal Reform Trust notes the publication on 21 June 2023 by the Department of Justice of the 2021 Annual Reports from the Visiting Committees for each of Ireland’s prisons.
These are the second published Visiting Committee reports that relate to the pandemic period.
Common issues echoed across various Visiting Committee Annual Reports for 2021 include:
Visiting Committees (VCs) being greatly limited in carrying out their role due to not being able to visit the prisons due to Covid-19 health advice. Restrictions curtailed their ability to carry out announced and unannounced visits to the prison and to meet face to face with prisoners, both formally and in passing.
Many people in prison were not aware of the visiting committees or in particular, how they could contact them while pandemic restrictions were in place or when a visit was due to take place.
Many reports by the VCs describe severe and enduring mental health issues for many inmates, sometimes exacerbated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and aligned with other issues such as the prevalence of drugs and the risk of homelessness on release.
Lots of rehabilitative activities for prisoners were curtailed by the pandemic including education, training and access to exercise.
Staffing issues were very acute – there were shortages of staffing from officers to healthcare. In addition, staff were re-deployed from areas such as support/rehabilitation roles to cover responsibilities connected to the Covid-19 response. There was note of single remand escort duties traditionally carried out by Gardaí before COVID-19, becoming the responsibility of the IPS.
Below, IPRT summarises some of the key concerns/recommendations of Visiting Committees (VC) in several of the reports.
Castlerea: Concerns that having no General Practice doctor available (just a locum service) could result in lack of clinical governance and oversight of prisoner care. Staffing issues include being short one half time Probation Service position and other staff shortages, especially in work and training Dept. Covid-19 restrictions also impacted education and training. There are also issues with prison officers being taken away from the workshops because of escort duties.
Visits remained a difficult issue throughout 2021 in line with Covid protocols within prisons and were restricted to 15 mins and eventually moved to 20 minutes. Concerning mental health issues include a suicide attempt and multiple instances of self-harm. Other issues raised included: difficulties contesting P19 offences; mail and clothes missing; difficulties with transfers out; a clear plastic bags for people leaving prison to hold their belongs considered very degrading for the prisoner.
Cloverhill: The impact of redeployment of staff due to Covid-19 and subsequent disruption of services and facilities that have arisen as a result of the pandemic was raised. High rate of committals was raised alongside issues with transfers (within Cloverhill, and to other prisons). People in prison described the overcrowded conditions of sharing a cell with three or four other persons and toileting in presence of others. The issue of bail not being taken up as people are faced with re-entering homelessness and resettlement efforts for remand prisoners needing to be strengthened. Other issues rasied include: lost property; issues in receiving post; issues with bedding; bullying issues; assaults (between prisoners and from staff); incidents in the yard; and unfair punishments arising from P19s. Serious deficiencies in the current complaints system were flagged including issues of accessibility, the timelines for complaint resolution, confidentiality, and the possibility of external appeal as areas of concern.
Serious concerns about prisoner’s wellbeing including mental health issues (including depression, stress, worry about deterioration of mental health, lack of sleep) and long wait time for transfer to Central Mental Hospital for those who need it. Medical health issues (including physical pain, or feelings that health concerns were not being addressed by medical staff). Medical issues external to the prison (including frustration regarding waiting times for appointments, Xrays, scans, dentistry). Access to medication (medications used in the community not being prescribed in prison; dissatisfaction with the substitutes administered). Issues concerning addiction services (delay in receiving services; lack of available detoxification facilities, especially for those coming off Methadone) and issues of substance abuse due to the amount of drugs entering the prison.
Many people in the prison experienced long periods of isolation. The lack of direct family visits, some issues with video calls (including delays in arranging calls, or delays in adding names to one’s phone list), the lack of availability of the school and gym due to COVID-19 and boredom due to lack of facilities, all adding to this.
Dochás: The continuous change at leadership level may have an unsettling effect on the organisation as a whole and have a knock-on impact for the women.
Repeated concern raised of the imprisonment of women with mental ill-health, who would be better treated and cared for elsewhere. In addition, the current lack of resources within the prison in the medical unit and the consequent negative impact on providing health care, and, in particular mental health care to prisoners was raised. The need for the creation of a clear, fair and supportive transgender policy is urgent and essential. The difficulties of being pregnant in prison, including one person who have birth results in a difficult experience trying to deal with the complications of giving birth while imprisoned, coupled with the restrictions placed on her partner and on in-person visits due to Covid restrictions. The need for a clear policy to be implemented in relation to termination of pregnancy also arose.
The absence of a remand facility for women means that sentenced and remand prisoners are on the same campus. The issue of a lack of any open prison for women and a limited availability of stepdown facilities was also noted.
Some other issues that were mentioned included the provision of food and lack of access to communal dining under Covid response; high level and frequency of complaints about pricing and stock availability in the tuck shop was a cause of concern coupled with rates of gratuity; and access to facilities such as gym, library and education restricted.
Read the full set of 2021 Annual Reports from the Visiting Committees.