Justice Minister Michael McDowell said on a visit to Cloverhill Prison yesterday that the €4 million programme to refurbish the prison system’s 33 padded cells was almost complete.
Old padded cells that contained only a mattress and four bare walls had been condemned under the UN covenant against torture and degrading and inhumane treatment.
Mr McDowell yesterday saw the new safety observation cells that have been refitted at a cost of €110,000. They include a window for natural light, a small toilet and TV behind a protective glass screen. It also contains a door with two large glass panels which allows prison officers to observe inmates.
The close observation cells have been installed at a cost of €130,000 and contain another protective material and similar fittings.
The new padded cells have been installed in Mountjoy prison despite the fact that it is due to be demolished within the next three years. In all, 10 prisons will have the new cells fitted when work is completed by February 2006.
Prisoners were kept in padded cells or in solitary confinement 1,168 times last year and 558 times in the first six months of this year, mostly at Mountjoy and St Patrick’s Institute.
In Mountjoy, five new padded cells have already been installed with another two on the way, while the women’s prison will get two of the new cells. St Patrick’s Institute will have two of the new cells, one of each type.
The minister said the new facilities were “humane, hygienic and meet with international best practice” and added that there was no reason for psychiatrically ill prisoners to be treated any less favourably than other prisoners.
Meanwhile, the Government has been urged to publish the findings of a report into mental illness in Irish prisoners.
Sinn Féin TD Aengus O’Snodaigh said the details of a report entitled Mental Illness in Irish Prisoners and part-funded by the Irish Prison Service should be published as soon as possible to facilitate better standards for prisoners.
The study is the result of a survey undertaken by a team from the national forensic mental health service at the Central Mental Hospital under the supervision of the clinical director of the hospital.
Mr O’Snodaigh asked the minister two weeks ago about the progress of the report and was told that the Irish Prison Service would, subject to the agreement of the authors, be willing to place the report on the IPS website.
“The research needs to be published so that people can move on and deal with the whole aspect of mental illness in Irish prisons, especially considering that the minister is planning to move the Central Mental Hospital,” Mr O’Snodaigh said yesterday. “If the report is there it needs to inform the whole design [of the new facility].”
Prison chaplains and other groups have expressed frustration at the high number of people with mental illnesses who are being sent to prison instead of psychiatric hospitals.
Spokespeople for the CMH and the Prison Service were unavailable for comment yesterday.