Irish Penal Reform Trust

Prison is being used to warehouse the effects of social policy failures, and that has to stop.

7th December 2019

[Note: Correction made to the remand figures 13 Dec 2019]

The case of a homeless man, suffering from brain damage, who has been held on remand for over a year in Mountjoy prison has received widespread national media attention. His lawyers told the Court that the man had effectively spent longer in prison than if he had been sentenced for the offence had he been fit to plead. Although his condition had improved while in the High Support Unit of the prison, it was reported that the man’s feet had not been washed in over a year, he had rare nail disease, and his bed linen had not been changed for months. It was also reported that a residential care plan for the man, drafted by the Health Service Executive (HSE), had been cancelled due to resource issues; it was proposed to discharge the man to homeless services instead.

In response to the case, the Minister for Justice and Equality has sought an urgent report from the Irish Prison Service and outlined that the case will be discussed with the Minister for Health. IPRT welcomes this. In Progress in the Penal System 2019, published Oct 2019, IPRT identifies the clear need for cross-departmental action in this area (PIPS 2019, Action 13.1). Failure to provide appropriate care and accommodation in the community for people with disabilities and mental health issues cannot be resolved by justice alone.

The case raises a number of systemic issues that IPRT draws attention to here:

Imprisonment as a Last Resort  

Ireland continues to be over-reliant on imprisonment, both as punishment and as a response for the effects of social policy failures. People should only be detained in prison where the offence was of sufficient gravity that prison is the only appropriate response. There has consistently been over 4,000 people detained in custody in 2019 and 2018, as compared to under 3,600 in August 2017. Against this backdrop, the majority of people being sent to prison are committed on short sentences, indicating the less serious nature of the offences. For example, more than 70% of prison committals under sentence last year were for sentences of less than 12 months. The largest increase in sentenced committals from 2017 to 2018 was for sentences of less than 3 months, with a 34.3% increase (IPS Annual Report 2018, p. 25). 

Remand Detention

Increasing numbers of people are being held on remand (pre-trial) in prisons. In 2014, the percentage of the prison population held on remand was 15%. In October 2019, this has been as high as 20%. In numbers, this is an increase from a monthly average of 475 in January 2016 to a monthly average of 725 in October 2018. While monthly figures have not been published for 2019, there were 809 people on remand in prison on 8th Oct 2019. IPRT has called for a detailed analysis of remand figures to identify the reasons for the growing numbers to be conducted by the Department of Justice and Equality, the Courts Service, and the Irish Prison Service. Such analysis should examine: the categories of offence for which people are being detained on remand; the lengths of time people are being held on remand; and the percentage who go on to receive a sentence of imprisonment (PIPS 2019, Action 10.1). There should also be provision of bail hostels and supported bail schemes for adults, as previously proposed by IPRT.     

Mental Health and Prisons

Prison is an inappropriate environment for people with specific mental health needs. IPRT has consistently highlighted issues related to mental health in Irish prisons, with prison psychology services under-resourced and the waiting list for transfer to the Central Mental Hospital being over 18 months in some cases (PIPS 2019, pp. 59-62). Research has repeatedly demonstrated that the prison environment exacerbates existing mental health issues.

The High Support Unit (HSU) in Mountjoy prison was set up as a short term intervention for people who are in acutely disturbed phase of mental illness; the unit, in operation since 2010, has received positive reports. However, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) found that it was not properly resourced during its 2014 visit (CPT 2015, paras 58-64). The CPT also iterated that the HSU should be a short-term intervention for prisoners, and recommended that regular psychiatric hospitals be in a position to facilitate mentally-ill prisoners. The report from the Committee’s 2019 visit to inspect places of detention in Ireland is under preparation.

IPRT recommends some essential actions to address mental health issues in the criminal justice system:     

  1. The establishment of a high level Task Force – comprising the Department of Health, the Department of Justice and Equality, the Irish Prison Service, the Health Service Executive, the National Forensic Mental Health Service, the Courts Service, and An Garda Síochána – led by the Department of the Taoiseach, to develop short, medium, and long-term solutions to mental health issues in the criminal justice system.
  2. Diversion must be promoted at all stages of the criminal justice system.
  3. Investment in community-based mental health services including the full implementation of recommendations in the Report of the Expert Group on Mental Health Policy, A Vision for Change.
  4. Investment in mental health services across the prison estate, including non-psychiatric and non-pharmacological treatments.
  5. Elimination of the waiting lists of people in prison who are awaiting transfer to the Central Mental Hospital. The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) highlights the importance of safeguards, obtaining consent, and ensuring due process when transferring people with disabilities to a mental health setting. This will be especially relevant when the Assisted Decision-Making Act 2015 is fully commenced.

Healthcare in Prison

IPRT welcomes that a broad Prison Healthcare Review and Health Needs Assessment has commenced involving the Irish Prison Service, the Department of Health, and the Department for Justice and Equality. Emerging best practice internationally is for the national health service to govern prison health, and not prison services. The World Health Organisation and the Inspector of Prisons in Ireland both endorse this view. IPRT similarly advocates for responsibility for prisoner healthcare to be held by the HSE, with independent inspections conducted by the Health Information and Quality Authority. 

Homelessness, housing and supports upon release 

Homelessness is another feature of this case which has wider policy implications. No one should be in prison due to a lack of a safe place to sleep and live. Along with analysis of the use of remand detention to identify whether people are being imprisoned due to lack of housing and supported housing in the community, people leaving prison must be supported with pre-release planning, throughcare and acommodation on release. This will facilitate reintegration, reduce the likelihood of re-offending and thus enhance public safety. This requires increased co-operation across relevant agencies and departments. The Inter-Agency Group for a Fairer and Safer Ireland reported its concerns about the impact of the current housing crisis on people coming out of prison. The Department of Housing, Planning and the Environment has a key role to play here. IPRT has previously called for inter-agency protocols and legislation to oblige inter-agency co-operation around prisoner release (see, for example, PIPS 2017, Action 34.1)

People with Disabilities in Prison

IPRT will launch a new research report on Making Rights Real for People with Disabilities in Detention on 15th January 2020. Register your interest now by emailing Lorraine at

Read more:

Listen Back:

Morning Ireland: Detention of brain-damaged man in prison a ‘social policy failure’

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



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