Prison Service Covid-19 effort praised – but fears prison numbers set to rise 

Irish Penal Reform Trust said health measures taken to protect the prison population now at risk as courts begin to clear backlog of cases
Prison Service Covid-19 effort praised – but fears prison numbers set to rise 

Irish Penal Reform Trust Executive director Fíona Ní Chinnéide: 'The number of those held ‘on remand’ in our prisons is rising at a concerning level.' Picture: Derek Speirs/IPRT/PA Wire

Penal reformers have commended the Irish Prison Service for its “significant success” in keeping the prison population largely safe from Covid-19.

But the Irish Penal Reform Trust said the measures taken by the IPS, including a reduction in prisoner numbers, are now at risk as the courts begin to “clear a backlog of cases”.

In its Progress in the Penal System (PIPS) report, the IPRT flagged concerns at the unknown mental health impact of Covid-19 restrictions on prisoners and expressed its alarm at the welfare of inmates who have severe psychiatric illnesses.

“Compared with neighbouring jurisdictions, the Irish Prison Service did exceptionally well in keeping Covid-19 out of Ireland’s prisons,” said the report.

It commended the IPS on its “significant success” in keeping the prison population largely safe from Covid-19, notwithstanding a small number of confirmed cases among prisoners and among staff.

IPRT executive director Fíona Ní Chinnéide said: “At the outset of the pandemic, there were more than 4,200 prisoners in custody in Ireland. However, within one month of the pandemic being declared, the Irish Prison Service and the Department of Justice took action to reduce the prison population by 10% to 3,807. 

A reduced prison population saw a near-end to prisoners sleeping on mattresses on floors and a move towards single-cell occupancy.” 

She also praised the introduction of video-calls and in-cell phone provision.

But she warned: “These positive developments are already at risk of reversal as an oversubscribed courts system prepares to clear a backlog of cases. Furthermore, in recent years, the number of those held ‘on remand’ in our prisons is rising at a concerning level.” 

Of the almost 9,000 committals to prison in 2019, more than a third (nearly 3,700) were on remand awaiting trial.

In terms of the average daily population, remand figures have grown annually, from 584 in 2017, to 677 in 2018 and to 707 in 2019.

The figures are more stark among female prisoners, tripling from 43 in 2013 to 125 in 2019.

Irish Penal Reform Trust commended the Irish Prison Service on its 'significant success' in keeping the prison population largely safe from Covid-19/

Irish Penal Reform Trust commended the Irish Prison Service on its 'significant success' in keeping the prison population largely safe from Covid-19/

In relation to mental health, the report said between 2015 and 2019 the Prison In-Reach and Court Liaison Service diverted 47 prisoners to the Central Mental Hospital (CMH) and 191 to general psychiatric hospitals.

The report said the CMH currently has two secure forensic beds per 100,000, compared to 10 per 100,000 in other European states.

It said the development of intensive care rehabilitation units (ICRUs) has been deemed as urgent. 

“Provision of four ICRUs was an unfulfilled recommendation in the previous national mental health policy, A Vision for Change,” it said.

The new national mental health policy says an ICRU will be built, which will have dual registration as an approved centre under the Mental Health Act and the Criminal Law Insanity Act.

“This will accept persons found not guilty by reason of insanity who do not require the level of care provided in the Central Mental Hospital,” it said. "However, the development of three other ICRUs is not contained in current capital plans.” 

Last year the Mental Health Commission criticised an “almost total absence” of community supports such as crisis houses, intensive care high-support units, rehabilitation high support units and specialist rehabilitation units in each mental health area.

Ms Ní Chinnéide said: “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. In any given month through 2020, there were anything from 21-33 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.”

IPRT welcomed the additional resourcing of the Office of the Inspector of Prisons in 2020, which, it said, has not been in a position to publish a prison inspection report since 2017.

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