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Some prisoners had no access to a shower for 14 days while quarantining

The Irish Prison Service has “poor adherence” with laws on handling prisoner complaints, report finds.

PUBLIC HEALTH MEASURES had a “disproportionate impact” on prisoners last year, a new report has identified.

The Covid-19 pandemic meant that prisoners often lacked human interaction, had reduced access to education or exercise, and when in quarantine or isolation, sometimes could not have a shower for two weeks.

The Office of the Inspector of Prisons published its annual report today for 2020, led by Inspector Patricia Gilheaney.

The report found that some quarantine or isolation cells had no showers, which meant that prisoners had no access to a shower, generally for 14 days.

Instead, they were given a sponge and basin.

Anyone committed to prison, returning to prison from court, or returning after an interview at a garda station were placed in quarantine for two weeks.

People who tested positive for Covid-19 were placed in isolation, as well as those who showed symptoms or were close contacts while waiting for a test result.

“While it is acknowledged that measures taken by the IPS, such as cocooning, quarantine and isolation were introduced to prevent transmission of the virus and to preserve life, it is the Inspectorate’s view that some measures had a disproportionate impact on prisoners,” the report said.

Those prisoners subjected to quarantine and isolation were held in solitary confinement, as they had less than two hours of daily out of-cell time, with no access to education, work or training, and did not have meaningful human contact. Research has shown that solitary confinement can have a damaging effect on mental and social health.”

There was limited or no meaningful human contact for prisoners in quarantine and there were no provisions for prisoners to get replacement clothes from family members while visits were cancelled.

Although virtual talks with family members were facilitated through video links – which, in a positive, allowed prisoners from other countries to see family abroad – there were ongoing technical difficulties, insufficient video link locations, and difficulties with securing a time slot.

School and workshops were cancelled except for open university and yard time was curtailed.

In the Dóchas Centre for women at Mountjoy, more than half of the prisoners were cocooning or in isolation in April and May.

Two rules were added into the Prison Rules, which are set out in legislation, in July to allow the Governor to suspend or change prisoners’ entitlement to physical recreation, exercise and training (rule 32a) and to suspend or change entitlement to visits (rule 36a).

The inspector is concerned that neither of the rules indicated that restrictions should be assessed to make sure they are proportionate, lawful, accountable, necessary, and non-discriminatory as recommended by European guidance, and that the rules are “ambiguous”.

Some initiatives the inspector identified as positives were arrangements that allowed family to lodge money in a prisoner’s account through An Post; an in-cell phone for prisoners to ring support services like Samaritans or a chaplain; and the roll out of Netflix.

‘Inadequate and unreliable’ complaints system

The inspector found that the Irish Prison Service showed a “poor adherence” with the law in relation to prisoner complaints last year.

Compliance with most of prisons’ requirements around the reporting of complaints fell well short.

Prison complaints compliance 2020 Office of the Inspector of Prisons Annual Report 2020 / Department of Justice Office of the Inspector of Prisons Annual Report 2020 / Department of Justice / Department of Justice

“The poor adherence by the IPS to the law in relation to prisoner complaints is concerning. Noncompliance by the IPS render the present operation of the existing system inadequate and unreliable,” the inspector wrote.

It is critically important that prisoners, prison staff and the public can have confidence that there exists a robust and fair prisoner complaints system in operation. Regrettably this is not the case, and it is the Inspectorate’s view, as expressed in a number of previous Reports, that the current Prison Complaints system is not fit for purpose.”

Work on a new complaints system has been delayed, partly due to the impact of the pandemic.

Responding to the report, the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) said it is “imperative that the final necessary steps are taken without any further delay and that adequate funding is allocated to the new prison complaints system”.

IPRT Executive Director Fíona Ní Chinnéide said that the “Inspectorate’s finding that the current complaints system is ‘inadequate and unreliable’ should be a matter of concern for us all”.

“This government must now take urgent action to rectify the situation”.

The number of complaints made by prisoners remained largely in line with 2019 levels. 

67 complaints alleged serious ill treatment, use of excessive force, serious intimidation, racial abuse, serious discrimination, or threats by a member of staff.

There were 149 complaints of discrimination, verbal abuse from staff, or inappropriate searches, while 113 complaints were made against professionals such as dentists or doctors.

595 complaints related to problems with visits, phone calls, reception issues, missing clothes, not receiving post on time, or not having appropriate exercise.

Visitors to prisons made five complaints and there were four complaints against decisions by the prison service relating to temporary release or transfers.

Two open centres – Loughlan House and Shelton Abbey – recorded no complaints in 2020. 

Prison population

Prison population 2020 Office of the Inspector of Prisons Annual Report 2020 / Department of Justice Office of the Inspector of Prisons Annual Report 2020 / Department of Justice / Department of Justice

The prison population was reduced in 2020 but needs to further decline to effectively protect against virus transmission, the inspector advised.

“In 2020, the overall prison population fluctuated in response to efforts made by the IPS to reduce the prison population as a Covid-19 transmission prevention measure,” the report detailed.

On 1 January 2020, there were 3,950 people in custody, which rose to 4,214 by 12 March.

However, two weeks later on 27 March, around the time the first lockdown started, there were 3,868 people in custody – a decline of 9%.

By the end of the year, the number had fallen to 3,650.

In comparison, 2019 started with 3,904 prisoners in custody, reached a high of 4,068 in August and declined at to 3,950 in December.

“In prisons which accommodated women, the population was decreased by more than one quarter in the initial period of Covid-19 restrictions,” the report said.

On 12 March, there were 185 people accommodated in the Dóchas Centre (Mountjoy Women’s Prison) and the women’s wing of Limerick Prison, which dropped to 135 by 29 June, but increased again to 146 by the end of the year.

“The reduction in the number of persons in custody in Irish prisons is reflective of measures taken to prevent and reduce transmission of Covid-19.

The decline was made possible by applying early and temporary release to low-risk prisoners.

“While the Inspectorate welcomes the overall reduction of the prison population, the total number of persons in custody would need to be below 3,000 to ensure single-cell occupancy in Irish prisons; a measure which would aid in transmission prevention.

The inspector urges the prison service to “consider the need to further decrease the prison population as a measure to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission in Irish prisons”.

13 prisoner deaths that occurred between 1 January and 31 December 2020 were notified, all of which were among men.

Five of the deaths occurred while the person was on temporary release.

Two were in Arbour Hill, two in Limerick, one in Wheatfield, one in Castlerea, one in Cloverhill and one in Cork prison.

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