30th July 2021
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) is calling for the Minister for Justice to publish all completed COVID-19 Thematic Prison Inspection reports and for the Irish Prison Service to publish prison census data. These calls come in response to today’s (30.07.2021) publication of the Irish Prison Service Annual Report 2020 by the Minister of State for Civil and Criminal Justice, Hildegarde Naughton TD, which shows that worrying trends in prisons, including an overreliance on remand, persisted during 2020.
IPRT welcomes that the Minister of State met with prisoners and staff in Castlerea Prison for the launch of the report, as well as her specific acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by prisoners’ families due to restrictions on contact.
Responding to the publication of the Irish Prison Service (IPS) Annual Report 2020, IPRT Legal and Public Affairs Manager, Molly Joyce, said:
“This report gives a clear insight into the hard work by the IPS to keep people in prison safe from COVID-19 infection. It is imperative that the innovative measures detailed in the report, including video calls and in-cell teleservice, continue past the current crisis, alongside the resumption of in-person family visits and services. Robust action must also now be taken to mitigate against the negative effects of long-term restrictions in prisons.
“Mental health was one of the most pressing issues in Irish prisons before the pandemic, and the pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated this need. The ratio of psychologists to prisoners in 2020 (1:220) remained far off the recommended target of 1:150, despite the additional need brought about by the pandemic. We welcome the continued focus of the IPS on improving this ratio, but progress has been too slow.”
While the Annual Report published today gives an overview of the operation of prisons during the pandemic, the lack of published prison inspection or monitoring reports during the pandemic has been a major gap in accountability. Several COVID-19 Thematic Inspection reports have been submitted to the Minister for Justice by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons. These reports should be published by the Minister without delay.
Annual reports published by Prison Chaplains and the Office of the Inspector of Prisons have suggested that certain prisoners have been held in conditions akin to solitary confinement as a response to COVID-19. However, the public has had no oversight of the number of people being held on restricted regimes (19+ hours in a cell per day) to date this year. Quarterly Prison Population Census Reports for January 2021, April 2021 and July 2021, have not been published by the IPS. An absence of reporting on this vulnerable group is concerning at any time, but this data gap during a pandemic is particularly alarming. Ms. Joyce continued:
“The timely and accurate publication of data is essential for the effective monitoring of conditions in the Irish prison system. The opportunity to address and respond to any issues arising from the data is undermined when it is not published promptly. Published data on the number of people being held on restricted regimes is crucial to support transparency on the use and proportionality of both non-pandemic and pandemic restrictions."
The pandemic offered an opportunity to reduce Ireland’s overreliance on custodial remand, however, the Annual Report published today shows a 4.4% increase in the average number of people being held on remand. In December 2020, 11.5% of all remand prisoners had been on remand a year or more, compared with 6% in December 2019. Pre-trial detention should be used as an exceptional measure but it appears that it risks becoming a default response. During the pandemic, those on remand were the most likely to have experienced harsher conditions within Irish prisons.
The proportion of people committed to prison on short sentences has also increased once again. In 2020, 78% of all sentenced committals were for 12 months or less. Effectively, four out of every five people sentenced to Irish prisons in 2020 were sentenced to less than 12 months, with a third of this group sentenced to less than 3 months.
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NOTES TO EDITORS
Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.