Irish Penal Reform Trust

Penal Reform International: Short Guide to the European Prison Rules

27th September 2021

The European Prison Rules are developed by the Council of Europe and “set out standards on the management of prisons and the treatment of people in prison.” They are applicable in all Council of Europe countries – including Ireland – and were revised in 2020. In this short guide, the key requirements of the European Prison Rules are highlighted by Penal Reform International, with an asterisk (*) placed next to any rule that was brought in after the 2020 revision. The guide is aimed at those who work in the prison service, and ensures that staff know how to comply with the rules on a day-to-day basis. A brief overview of some of the 2020 amendments is provided below. 

Record Keeping 

Rules 15 and 16A address the need for meticulous record-keeping when inmates are admitted and beyond. Rule 16A.3 confirms that any information gathered regarding an inmate must be confidential in order to ensure privacy. Effective record-keeping in Irish prisons has been recently criticised by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons (2020 Annual Report). 

Separation and Solitary Confinement

The updated rules contain many provisions aimed at reducing and improving the conditions of solitary confinement.  Notably, the revised rules state that it should only be used in exceptional circumstances and only where security cannot be maintained through alternative means (53.2). They also state that solitary confinement cannot be used on children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, or parents with infants. (60.6). The rules also address the conditions to be achieved if using solitary confinement, which importantly note that each prisoner should have access to “at least two hours of meaningful human contact a day.” (53A(a)) 

During Covid, IPRT noted an unfortunate increase in the use of solitary confinement. In Progress in the Penal System 2020 (PIPS 2020), IPRT maintained that “there is evidence that isolation and solitary confinement not only causes psychological difficulties but also affects physical health.” 

Women and Foreign Nationals 

Rule 34 introduces a recommendation for gender-sensitive penal policies to be introduced, including taking into account women’s “physical, vocational, social and psychological needs, as well as caregiving responsibilities.” (34.2) This is in line with one of IPRT’s key standards outlined in PIPS 2020, which states that “[a] gender-sensitive approach should be adopted across the criminal justice system to respond to the distinct needs of women who offend."

Rule 37 applies to foreign nationals, and recognises the extra needs they may have when it comes to family visitation and diplomatic concerns. The updated rules place positive obligations on prison administrations to support these distinct needs. The rights of migrants and ethnic minorities in the penal system is an area of particular concern for IPRT, with a host of challenges to accessing rights raised as a concern as part of IPRT’s ongoing research. 

Access the guide here

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.



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