Commitments made four years ago to reform how prisoner complaints are managed must be delivered on this year and greater oversight of prisons is needed during the pandemic, the Irish Penal Reform Trust has said.
The Trust was commenting on figures furnished in the Dáil showing that 24 serious or ’Category A’ complaints were made by prisoners in the first half of this year. Two complaints were not upheld and 21 remain under investigation as investigators could not access prisons during Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.
‘Category A’ complaints include allegations of assault or use of excessive force against a prisoner, ill-treatment, racial abuse, discrimination, intimidation, or threats.
Last year 60 ‘Category A’ complaints were made, of which three were upheld and 26 were outstanding by the end of the year.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee said reforming the complaints system was a “priority” for the prison service, which hoped to roll out a new system this year. Changes to prison rules are also being finalised.
IPRT Executive Director Fíona Ní Chinnéide, however, said commitments made in 2016 to overhaul the complaints system must be delivered in full.
“Currently prisoners do not have access to an independent complaints mechanism. Effectively complaints are investigated internally,” she said, adding that a low number of complaints was “not a benchmark of success”.
“We welcome confirmation that this is a priority but we need to see this brought to completion in 2020,” she said.
It is even more important now, she said, given there were “fewer eyes” on prisons during the pandemic as families, teachers, investigators, and visiting committee members were restricted access during the lockdown period.
“A robust internal complaints system has never been more important than during the Covid-19 period,” Ms Ní Chinnéide said.
“There are fewer eyes on the prison system at the moment and in these times it makes the need for external independent oversight more critical,” she added.
While welcoming a commitment in the programme for government to review how prison visiting committees function, delays of one to two years in publishing reports "completely undermined the importance of oversight", she said.