A reduction in prisoner numbers and cell-sharing to the introduction of video calls in prisons led to a better standard in Ireland’s prisons, a report has found.
The Covid-19 measures revealed how rapidly positive changes can be made to Ireland’s prison system, the report also said.
The report – Progress in the Penal System: Assessing progress during a pandemic – is the fourth annual review of standards in Irish prisons.
Carried out by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), it found that the Covid response revealed that the majority of closed prisons across the State were “overcrowded and unsafe”.
At the outset of Covid-19, there were more than 4,200 prisoners in custody in Ireland.
Following the outbreak of the pandemic, the Irish Prison Service and the Department of Justice reduced the prison population by 10% to 3,807.
Executive director of the IPRT, Fiona Ni Chinneide, said the physical improvements in the prison system are at risk of being reversed.
“A reduced prison population saw a near-end to prisoners sleeping on mattresses on floors and a move towards single-cell occupancy,” Ms Ni Chinneide said.
“Single-cell occupancy is a key measure in supporting men’s and women’s dignity in prisons.
“The Covid response demonstrates that the majority of closed prisons across the State were overcrowded and unsafe in the first instance. It also suggests that prison was not a necessary sanction for all of those imprisoned before the pandemic hit.”
The IPRT report also welcomed the introduction of video calls and in-cell phone provisions to enable prisoners to speak to their families
Ms Ni Chinneide said the changes are at risk of being reversed as the courts prepare to clear the backlog of cases.
“Furthermore, in recent years, the number of those held on remand in our prisons is rising at a concerning level. Imprisonment is not the only sentence option in the criminal justice system,” Ms Ni Chinneide added.
“It should not act as shelter for people charged with low level offences. It should not be a waiting room for those who need treatment in our Central Mental Hospital.
“Covid has offered us a brown-field site for a more humane penal system. There should be no reversal of that.”
The report also stated that as prison numbers increased, so did the risk of Covid outbreaks, putting more staff and prisoners at risk.
Among the key findings was that little progress was made to address mental health in prison.
“One of the biggest failures of the State in terms of caring for the most vulnerable is the continued practice of incarcerating people with severe mental illness in prison because of a lack of access to community hospitals or space in the Central Mental Hospital,” she added.
“In any given month through the first half of 2020, there were anything from 21 to 33 very unwell people incarcerated.
“If we are to learn anything from Ireland’s history of inappropriate institutionalisation of our citizens, incarceration as an alternative to healthcare must end.
“The solution is one that requires leadership at all levels in the State, but operationally, the Department of Health must work hand in hand with the Department of Justice to end this practice.
“Minding the physical health of the prison population and staff was prioritised during Covid but disease containment is only one side of public healthcare.”