Young prisoners in daily 23-hour lock-up

Almost one in 10 of the country’s youngest inmates are in “restricted” regimes which see them in lock-up for up to 23 hours daily.

Department of Justice figures showed there were 212 prisoners under the age of 21 in jails as of April 30. Of those, 47 were 18 or younger.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald was asked by Labour TD Ciarán Lynch how many offenders under 21 were on “restricted” regimes, as well as the number of hours each day they were in lock-up. She said 19 of the 212 were on a regime, including one 17-year-old and two 18-year-olds.

Ms Fitzgerald said there were three prisoners in lock-up for 23 hours a day, another three in for 22 hours a day, and a further three in for 20 hours. Nine were segregated for 20 hours, and one for 19 hours.

She said the restriction of a prisoner’s regime could occur due to a number of factors including the protection of vulnerable prisoners.

“A prisoner may, either at his/her own request or when the governor considers it necessary — in so far as is practicable and subject to the maintenance and good order and safe and secure custody — be kept separate from other prisoners who are reasonably likely to cause significant harm to him/her,” said Ms Fitzgerald.

“There were 15 prisoners under the age of 21 who had their regime restricted for this reason.”

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She also revealed that two young prisoners were in a lock-up regime because of their effect on other inmates.

“The governor may decide, for the maintenance of good order in the prison, to remove a prisoner from general association or structured activity to reduce the negative effect that a prisoner or prisoners may have on the general population,” said Ms Fitzgerald.

A further two prisoners were on restricted regimes due to discipline reasons.

Ms Fitzgerald said that, in 2013, the director general of the Irish Prison Service established a group to look at measures which could be introduced to reduce the number of inmates on restricted regimes with a view to ensuring that all receive, as a minimum standard, out- of-cell time of three hours per day to engage in exercise or activity.

“Since April 2015, prison governors have implemented individual case management plans for all prisoners who are accommodated on a 22- or 23-hour lock-up regime,” she added.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) regularly takes a census of the numbers of prisoners on restricted regimes. In the last count, taken in April, there were 259 inmates in a regime of which 253 were there at their own request — representing 6.9% of the prison population of 3,748 at that point. There were 43 prisoners on 22- and 23-hour lock-up. That constituted a decrease of 168, or 80%, on the number in lock-up for that long.

IPRT recently said that it acknowledged the difficult challenge for any prison service in balancing prisoner safety on one hand while, on the other, providing prisoners with a reasonable and humane regime.

“However, when drawing this balance, it is IPRT’s position that 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 23-hour lock-up must only ever be a temporary measure; that this cannot be a solution in itself to prisoner safety concerns; and that robust safeguards must be in place in relation to the use of such regimes.”

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