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'Prisoners have a very basic human need for contact'

A change in prison rules looks at the “meaningful human contact” prisoners get when out of their cells.

shutterstock_316477850 Source: Shutterstock/sakhorn

A RECENT AMENDMENT to legislation on prison rules deals with the amount of time prisoners spend outside their cells and the “meaningful human contact” they have during this time.

The amendment states that, subject to certain restrictions, each prisoner shall be allowed to “spend a minimum period of two hours out of his or her cell or room with an opportunity during that time for meaningful human contact, including, at the discretion of the Governor, contact with other prisoners” and to “spend as much time each day out of his or her cell or room as is practicable and, at the discretion of the Governor, to associate with other prisoners in the prison”.

How much time a prisoner spends in and out of their cell is a topic that often comes up when discussing reform in the sector.

Prisoners are separated from other inmates for a number of reasons, including mental health issues and protection concerns – sometimes an inmate may request to be removed from interaction with other prisoners due to fears over their own safety.

Solitary confinement refers to a prisoner being locked in their cell for 22 to 23 hours a day. A restricted regime is where a prisoner spends a minimum of 19 hours a day in their cell.

The number of people in Irish prisons on solitary confinement has decreased in recent years – from 211 in July 2013 to 44 in April 2017 (of a prison population of about 3,750).

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has long been vocal about the impact of solitary confinement. Fíona Ní Chinnéide, the IPRT’s acting executive director, says the decrease in the number of prisoners in solitary confinement is to be welcomed, but more needs to be done in this area.

She also welcomed the amendment to prison rules, but noted that its phrasing is somewhat “flexible”. Ideally, the IPRT would like prisoners to spend about 12 hours a day out of their cell, with the opportunity to gain education or training and have interaction with other prisoners.

Ní Chinnéide told TheJournal.ie: “What’s important to note is that the reasons inmates are locked up for 22 to 23 hours in their cells are irrelevant because the consequences are the same.

“It has a negative, damaging effect on both physical and mental health, whether it’s for punishment or protection or for mental health reasons.

“Protecting the physical integrity of a person should not come at the expense of psychological integrity,” she says.

Mental health issues

Ní Chinnéide says she’s “particularly concerned” about people with mental health issues being in solitary confinement.

“People in solitary confinement for mental health reasons should not be there, they should be removed from the prison system.”

Ní Chinnéide says there is “a huge problem with capacity”, saying there are in the region of 10 or fewer beds in the Central Mental Hospital for prisoners.

“At any time there are 20 to 30 people in the prison system awaiting transfer to the Central Mental Hospital, the capacity needs to be trebled.”

Ní Chinnéide says the negative effects of isolation can affect any person but are “intensified and exacerbated in a prison environment”.

Irrespective of the reason for putting someone in isolation, they have a very basic human need for contact.

Aside from spending almost their entire day in a cell, Ní Chinnéide says what they do when they’re out of the cell also has to be looked at.

“What do they do when they’re out of their cell for an hour … The key is that it doesn’t mean thanking a guard for your dinner and then walking around a yard alone.”

ips map Map of Irish Prisons Source: IPS Annual Report 2016

Ní Chinnéide is glad “meaningful human contact” has been named in legislation, but says more works needs to be done to define what this means.

“There should be the opportunity to engage in education with other prisoners. Generally on the prison estate, schools are the calmest centres. There’s a definite link with providing meaningful activities, education, work or training and a better environment and a decrease in violence,” she says.

Ní Chinnéide also welcomes the fact the Irish Prison Service (IPS) is developing policy on this issue. She says the challenges the IPS faces are “significant”, adding: “We wouldn’t want to underestimate them.”

The Mandela Rules 

The UN Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisons, also known as the Mandela Rules, set out guidelines regarding solitary confinement, noting it should only be used in “exceptional cases as a last resort”. The rules are not mandatory, but, as outlined by the Department of Justice here, many of them are reflected in prison rules here.

In its Annual Report 2016, the IPS states that it is ”committed to reducing the use of solitary confinement to only extreme cases and where absolutely necessary for security, safety or good order reasons and for the shortest possible time”.

We ensure that in such cases prison management has in place an individual management plan for each prisoner and access to appropriate services is provided as far as possible and that the mental health of the prisoner is regularly reviewed.

“We ensure that we provide prisoners with access to the same quality and range of healthcare services as that available to those entitled to General Medical Scheme (GMS) health services in the community.”

Michael Donnellan, Director General of the IPS, elaborated on why some prisoners are placed in solitary confinement at a sitting of the Oireachtas Justice Committee in March.

“They would mostly be people who have mental health problems and may be awaiting a place at the Central Mental Hospital, CMH. They may be people who fear for their lives and that they are going to be attacked because of the crimes they have committed.

We also have other people there for a whole range of reasons, including debt, money and drugs, who say to us that they cannot come out onto the landing, cannot associate with others and that we need to protect them. We have to work with that group because we know the psychological damage that that does to people. We are working to eliminate that practice.

Separately, John Clinton, General Secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), told the committee that solitary confinement “is not widely used in the Irish prison system”.

“In our view, there appears to be some confusion between a person who has asked to go on protection and a person in solitary confinement. If one checks the numbers with the Prison Service, I am sure they will show that the vast majority of people on restricted regimes are on them because they requested to go on them for their own protection.

“There will be a small number of prisoners the governor may have decided to put on restricted regimes after they have been risk-assessed and found to be a danger to other prisoners or staff or even themselves to the extent that they must be watched constantly.

However, the vast majority of people on restricted regimes have gone on them at their own request for protection and, to us, this is very different from the use of solitary confinement as a tool within a prison system.

“We do not support solitary confinement as a tool within a prison system. This is a very practical approach. Solitary confinement poses resource issues. It is not the best way for a prison officer to deal with a person with whom they work every day of the week. This is the context in which we are talking about it,” Clinton said.

Single cell occupancy

Ní Chinnéide says the longer a person spends in solitary confinement, the harder it is for them to reintegrate into the wider prison community and, latterly, life outside prison.

In terms of making prisons a safer environment overall, the IPRT wants single cell accommodation to be standard, noting how this is now the case in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.

90350248 Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

She says the IPRT was “very disappointed” that the new Cork Prison was primarily designed for double occupancy, describing this as a missed opportunity.

As of April, the latest figures available, about 54% of prisoners in Ireland (2,040 of 3,750) were accommodated in single cells.

Ní Chinnéide noted that the overall prison population has reduced in recent years, from a peak of about 4,600 in 2011. She thinks this figure can be reduced further, stating that some people serving 12 months or less or serving time for more minor crimes don’t need to be behind bars.

She says some of these people are dealing with “complex issues” such as substance misuse and homelessness and their incarceration “points to a wider gap in community- based settings”.

“Prison should not be used to fill gaps existing in community services,” she said.

Ní Chinnéide says the State has a duty of care to all people, including prisoners, and she believes looking after their well-being is beneficial to society as a whole.

“Almost all prisoners are going to be released at some time. In the event that they spent a lot of time in solitary confinement, that does impact on reintegration into community once they get out.”

Read: ‘Dealing with a loved one’s death always difficult, but a murder poses special problems’

Read: Nine prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for over 12 months

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Órla Ryan

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