A different insight into life in Irish prisons

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Mollie Breen reflects on the impact of Covid-19 within the Irish prison system.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) launched their fourth instalment of Progress in the Penal System (PIPS) in 2020. PIPS 2020 assesses progress during the pandemic, acting as a framework for penal reform. PIPS noted that the Irish Prison Service’s first priority when dealing with Covid was “to establish physical distancing among prisoners.”  The Department of Justice and the Irish Prison Service acted early. Temporary release resulted in a 10% decrease in prison population within a month of the pandemic being declared. Those released were serving a sentence of less than 12 months or had fewer than six months left on their sentence. However, Irish prisons may have been able to reduce numbers further as other countries reduced their prison population by a greater percentage. Turkey reduced its prisoner numbers by 35%, Cyprus by 16% and Portugal by 15%. The IPRT welcomes the decline in prison numbers but highlights such a reduction has been recommended for many years. The reduction has not been implemented through policy reform which the IPRT advocates for, it was instead a result of a health emergency.

The IPRT finds that the reduction in prison numbers did not compromise public safety. Of 852 prisoners released from March to June 2020, only 6% returned to prison. The IPRT advocates for imprisonment as a last resort in legislation and sentencing principles. This comes from the need to keep prison numbers low to ensure the human rights of prisoners are protected. The small percentage of offenders who returned to prison outline the need to rethink responses to less serious offending. The IPRT believes less serious offending should result in community service, as opposed to imprisonment. 

Reduction in prison numbers was necessary to eradicate overcrowding and to prevent the arrival of Covid. The IPRT finds that overcrowding was present prior to the declaration of the pandemic with 75 prisoners sleeping on mattresses in March 2020. This was reduced to nine within a month. By the 1st of June, there was only one prisoner on a mattress. Overcrowding was alleviated as a result of Covid. The IPRT recognises that the pandemic provided an opportunity for the Irish Prison Service to implement necessary positive changes in Irish prisons. The reality seems to be that without the threat of a virus, prisons would still be overcrowded, and less serious offenders would still be imprisoned. The IPRT stresses the need for these changes to be implemented through policy reform. 

The Covid pandemic has caused three national lockdowns to date, with severe restrictions placed on the whole population. Life in Irish prisons is no different. Restrictions have been implemented; family visits have been restricted, out-of-cell time has been reduced, there is limited access to education and training, prisoners are cocooning, and there are increased levels of anxiety and depression among prisoners. Children’s rights to direct contact with their parents who are in prison have been severely impacted by the pandemic. As a result, challenges over the reduction in prison visits have been brought to the High Court.

Some measures have been brought in to try and make lockdown in prison more tolerable. Video calls have been introduced and prisoners quarantining have access to in-cell telephones. Cork Prison has installed phones in cells. Such positive developments help prisoners combat loneliness.

The pandemic has exacerbated the harshness already associated with prison life. PIPS records that prisoners feel “doubly punished” as the current restrictions placed on prisoners could not have been predicted in their initial sentencing. The Inspector of Prisons and Maynooth University have carried out research on individuals cocooning in prisons. One cocooner said: “this virus has sucked the life out of everything, even prison.” Another reported: “I have become so depressed since being cocooned: I feel that I am isolated and solitary.” This cocooner felt suicidal as a result of the imposing restrictions. 

PIPS describe the assessment of mental healthcare as “mixed.” A Taskforce has been established between the Department of Health and the Department of Justice to address the prison population’s mental health needs. The IPRT sees this as positive. It hopes that the Taskforce addresses the mental health impact of Covid on prisoners and their families.

The IPRT believes further restrictions should be considered on initial sentencing. Recent court cases in England, Wales and Scotland have shown the courts’ consideration of the impact of Covid restrictions as a relevant factor in sentencing. The IPRT notes, however, there has been no debate in Irish courts on this issue. 

Irish prisons have been faced with the difficult task of keeping Covid out of prisons. The IPRT commends their ability to do just this. Nonetheless, it is clear that the negative effects of Covid have been exacerbated in prisons. The pandemic has brought about positive changes for Irish prisons and long-sought achievements for the IPRT. The question remains as to whether these positive changes will continue after the pandemic.