Prisoners subjected to 22 and 23 hour lock-up are at greater risk of mental health, campaigners have said.
With more than 200 convicts limited to one or two hours a day outside a cell, the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has claimed that the practice should only ever be used as a temporary arrangement.
It claimed that prisoners on lock up for 15 days or more are at risk of irreversible harmful psychological effects from insomnia and confusion to hallucinations and mental illness.
Liam Herrick, IPRT executive director, said maximum lock-up should be a fortnight at a time.
“The potential harm to prisoners’ mental health that can be caused by extended periods of isolation means that the practice of holding any category of prisoner on 22- or 23-hour lock up must only ever be a temporary measure,” he said.
“Meaningful rehabilitation is simply impossible in such conditions, and this damaging practice will have long term negative consequences for the prisoner and for society.”
The Irish Prison Service said that it is actively considering using the St Patrick’s Institution – which is to be closed as a young offenders’ centre – as a single unit for prisoners on lock up.
As of yesterday 150 inmates were on 23 hour lock up – 114 for their own protection or the protection of others; 32 for discipline reasons; and four for medical care.
Another 61 are on 22 hour lock up – 57 for their own protection or the protection of others; one for discipline reasons; and three for medical care.
The IPS said 4,100 people are in custody in the country’s prisons and about one third of those on lock up are not being held in single cells.
“Our primary responsibility is to protect the safety of our prisoners in our care. Prisoners on restricted regime are under review and this could involve transfer to another prison where they might not be required to be on the regime,” a spokesman said.
The IPRT claimed that on March 20 this year there were 193 prisoners on 23-hour lock up.
It said isolation cells or solitary confinement should never be used for remand prisoners, mentally disabled prisoners, or under 18s.
Prisoners on lock up are treated on a case-by-case basis and their one or two hours of free time will be split between shower and exercise, free association and time with probation officers or psychologists.
Mr Herrick rejected the argument that prisoners safety was paramount and described any longer than 15 day lock-up as prolonged solitary confinement.
“It is a challenge for any prison service to balance prisoner safety while at the same time providing prisoners with a reasonable and humane regime,” he said.
“However, locking up prisoners for more than 22 hours a day cannot be a solution in itself to prisoner safety concerns. In developing much needed policy and procedures in relation to protection, the Irish Prison Service must ensure that current high levels of isolation and restricted regimes are significantly reduced.”
The IPRT said the United Nations special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez has proposed a ban on prolonged solitary confinement – more than 15 days – as well as solitary confinement used as a penalty, in pre-trial detention, for persons with mental disabilities, and for juveniles.