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Opinion: Ireland is tarnished by its use of prisons to house the unwanted and mentally ill

Professor Kathleen Lynch says our prison system has too long been used to incarcerate those who have additional needs.

Professor Kathleen Lynch

IRELAND HAS A long history of incarcerating those who are social outsiders. Nowadays prisons are often used to incarcerate the unwanted for very minor offences, including those who are mentally ill, are suffering severe addictions, and/or are intellectually disabled. 

The recent Report by the Mental Health Commission on Access to Mental Health Services for People in the Criminal Justice System, 2021, is the latest in a long line of reports that raises profound questions about how Ireland treats people who are mentally ill or are otherwise disabled, who come in contact with the criminal justice system. Many of these people are also homeless. 

While prisons do house those who have committed serious offences, most of those who are in prison are neither people who have committed serious offences nor people who are especially harmful to society.

The majority of people in Irish prisons are sent there for minor transgressions, such as petty theft, public order offences, minor drugs offences, non-payment of court fines, traffic offences, so-called ‘aggressive’ begging, disobeying a guard, failure to turn up in court, etc.  

Who reaches prison?

While it is long-known that prisons are places that are overwhelmingly populated by people who are poorly educated, unemployed and living in poverty, what has not been fully highlighted in public debate (though well documented for politicians and policymakers) is that Irish prisons are housing disproportionately high numbers of people with significant mental health issues.

That includes depression and psychotic disorders, addiction-related disabilities, intellectual disabilities, autism-spectrum disorders and ADHD.

The unnecessary suffering and harm imprisonment imposes on vulnerable people is an abuse of their basic human rights. It is not inevitable, and it is within the remit of the State to intervene and resolve that this does not happen. 

The shocking statistics from the Mental Health Commission (MHC) report show how bad the situation is: over half the prison population have substance-addiction-related illnesses while a further 28% misuse alcohol; in addition almost one in ten people in prison is mentally ill.  

I think that many people would be as shocked as I was to read that in Castlerea prison Approximately 90% of those coming into the prison (including those with mental health issues) have addiction issues.

Intellectual disability, autism, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are also present in the prison population according to the report. Equally shocking were the figures from Limerick prison where ‘Approximately 10% of the prison population have a mental illness and 29% have an intellectual disability’. 

Endless cycle

What these figures suggest is that instead of being the sanction of last resort, as recommended in the government’s Strategic Review of Prison Policy (2014), a prison sentence is the punishment of first resort, including for many people with mental illness and other addiction-related illnesses, and people with intellectual disabilities.

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This is contemptible, especially in light of the fact that most of those imprisoned in any given year (78% in 2020) are imprisoned for less than 12 months and could be given community service rather than custodial sentences as enabled under the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011.

Not only are community service sanctions known to be more effective in reducing reoffending, but they are also much cheaper, and cause less harm to individuals, families and communities, especially to those who are mentally ill and suffering from the compounding illnesses related to addiction. 

While there are initiatives within the prisons to attempt to treat those with mental health-related disabilities with care, these are seriously under-resourced, and, as the MHC report shows, far from universal. 

Prisons were never designed to care for and rehabilitate the mentally ill or those with intellectual disabilities, no matter what their transgressions. Using prisons as a dumping ground for the unwanted and mentally vulnerable who are poor and homeless, and engaged in minor offences, is a shame on Irish society and reflects deep cruelty and carelessness at the heart of the State.  

While redress schemes for past abuses are welcome, it is time to address the institutional harms being created in the present. The High Level Taskforce on mental health and addiction challenges of persons interacting with the criminal justice system, due to report on a change plan by the end of 2021, urgently needs to address these matters. Otherwise, Ireland will carry another litany of shame into the future. 

Kathleen Lynch is Professor of Equality Studies (Emerita) at UCD and a member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC). Her new book, Care and Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press) is out now. 

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Professor Kathleen Lynch

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