High number of prisoners with mental health issues raised as State faces exam over human rights record

Almost one third of prison population were on waiting list for in-prison psychology service in July 2021

High numbers of people in prison with mental health issues and without adequate supports, is among the issues being raised as Ireland appears this week before a UN committee to be quizzed over its human rights record.

Almost one third of the prison population were on the waiting list for in-prison psychology service in July 2021, others were waiting for places in the Central Mental Hospital and there is concern that Covid-19 restrictions, including no prison visits for periods and long periods in isolation, has exacerbated mental health issues, according to the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT).

There was an 80 per cent fall — from 11,079 to 2,238 — in the number of children who physically visited an adult in prison between 2020 and 2021 and the visiting restrictions, including limiting how many children could be brought, had a detrimental impact on the mental health of children and parents.

The continuing failure to ratify a key international human rights treaty; increased prisoner numbers, currently some 4,100 as community service orders are underutilised; prison conditions including the use of solitary confinement and lack of private toilet facilities; no open prison for women and the over-representation of Travellers in the Irish prison population are among several other concerns of the IPRT.

It will ask the UN Human Rights Committee to question State officials about these issues as part of the State’s fifth review under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

IPRT Executive Director Saoirse Brady and representatives of other civil society organisations will meet the committee in a formal private session in Geneva on Monday before the review.

‘Urgent investment’ needed

Speaking in advance, Ms Brady said the prevalence of people in prison with severe mental illness is estimated to be four times that of the general population.

“Prison is not the appropriate place for someone with a severe mental illness,” she said. “We need urgent investment in community mental health supports and a robust diversion system.”

A high-level taskforce set up in 2021 to consider the mental health and addiction challenges of persons interacting with the criminal justice system should publish its findings and implementation plan “without delay”, she urged.

In its submission to the committee, the IPRT said Ireland, with one psychologist per 257 people in prison, is “nowhere near” the human rights standard of one psychologist per 150 prisoners.

The IPRT criticised the “glacial” rate at which Ireland has moved to ratify an international human rights treaty, (the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture — OPCAT) which would provide an independent and transparent oversight mechanism for people in all forms of detention. The treaty, which Ireland signed in 2007, must be ratified without delay, it urged.

Other concerns include that almost half of prisoners have to use the toilet in the presence of another prisoner and are sharing cells.

The need for speedier reports of investigations into deaths in custody and ensuring the publication of those is highlighted. Of 100 deaths in custody between 2010 and October 1st 2020, 17 were deaths by suicide and there were inquests pending into 35 deaths, including deaths dating back to 2013.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times