Irish Penal Reform Trust

Security at Irish prisons during Covid-19

7th July 2021

[Updated 9th July 2021]

IPRT notes the media reporting of significant concerns relating to prisons security in Ireland, and the comments of Taoiseach Micheál Martin in the Dáil.

In July 2020, in a letter to the Irish Prison Service, IPRT sought assurance that any changes to prisons security screening made in response to Covid-19 would respect the individual dignity of prisoners, prison staff and visitors to prison. This was one of a number of areas of concern that we raised relating to the Covid-19 response in prisons.

We acknowledged the necessity of prison security, in which searches should be “conducted in a manner that is respectful of the inherent human dignity and privacy, as well as the principles of proportionality, legality and necessity” (Rule 50, UN Mandela Rules). We articulated our concerns that any policy decisions against the use of handheld scanners, for example, had the potential to impact on the human dignity of women and girls in particular. For visitors, who may have travelled a long distance at their own expense, the option to reschedule a visit is not acceptable.

IPRT requested assurance from the IPS that adaptations to security screening in response to Covid-19 would not impact on the dignity of visitors to the prison. We stated that this would help ensure the IPS is compliant with relevant human rights standards, including the UN Mandela Rules, which state “search and entry procedures for visitors shall not be degrading” (Rule 60.2). This is extended in the UN Bangkok Rules, which state “Prison staff shall demonstrate competence, professionalism and sensitivity and shall preserve respect and dignity when searching both children in prison with their mother and children visiting prisoners“ (Rule 21). The European Prison Rules (2020) also state “the obligation to protect security and safety shall be balanced against the privacy of visitors” (Rule 54.9).

IPRT’s position remains that prison security should be safely maintained in line with similar high risk and high volume security settings, for example, airports. Prison security can and should be achieved in the same manner, particularly where respect of the inherent human dignity and privacy of visitors is at stake.

In its response to IPRT, which dealt with a number of different aspects of prison regimes during Covid-19, the Irish Prison Service stated that it implements security measures and procedures while maintaining the dignity and respect of all those seeking to enter the prison, and in line with its mandate to maintain good order, safety and security. The IPS noted that it had produced a video outlining what visitors may expect, which was available on the website. The potential use of a hand held metal detector was among the security measures mentioned.

We welcome that the IPS has committed to conducting a review of current Security Screening operating procedures and that customer service training is in progress. However, in the interest of transparency and public scrutiny, data on complaints lodged by visitors to all Irish prisons ('Category E' complaints) should be published. This would allow for more accurate and timely monitoring of any improvements or disimprovements in conditions for prison visitors.

Research conducted by IPRT and others has previously reported on visitors’ negative experiences of the search areas within Irish prisons, including unsympathetic treatment from prison officers and intrusive personal searches. These concerns, along with others relating to the visiting procedures and access to visits in Irish prisons, are among the areas that will be addressed at IPRT's forthcoming launch event here.

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

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