Call for prisoner complaints to come under Ombudsman remit

Absence of such a system puts State in breach of United Nations ‘Nelson Mandela rules’

Inspector of Prisons Judge Michael Reilly has urged the Government to radically reform the Republic's prison system by bringing prisoner complaints under the remit of the Ombudsman and Information Commissioner.

This would allow such complaints to be independently investigated.

Currently, a panel of lawyers, appointed by the Irish Prison Service, is in place to investigate more serious complaints, with individual investigators assigned to each case as it arises.

More minor complaints are dealt with internally by the prison service.


Judge Reilly can also interview prisoners with grievances to inform his inspections of prisons.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture 10 years ago called on the Irish Government to introduce independent prisoner complaints oversight.

The absence of such a system has put Ireland in breach of the United Nations "Nelson Mandela rules", which set out the minimum standard of treatment prisoners are entitled to.

If the Ombudsman was charged with investigating complaints it would probe a wide range of cases from allegations of sexual and physical assault to claims of abuse of authority by prison staff or more minor matters around, for example, visiting hours and other privileges.

Under consideration

Judge Reilly has recommended the move in an as yet unpublished report on prisoner complaints procedures. The report is currently being considered by Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald.

According to justice sources, the Ombudsman may also be given the power to examine any aspect of the prison system it deems fit, as is the case with the Garda Ombudsman’s public interest inquiries into any areas of policing it deems fit.

Some of the areas that have proven controversial down the years and have not been independently examined include cuts to rehabilitative or educational services, the operation of parole and early release schemes and the use of solitary confinement.

However, the detail of how the Ombudsman might initiate what would effectively be public interest inquiries into the treatment of prisoners is not immediately clear.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust has long campaigned for an ombudsman for the prison setting, say only such a body would be truly independent of the Irish Prison Service.

However, the Prison Officers’ Association has complained that the procedures for the investigation of prison complaints were too lax in that no action was taken against those who lodged vexatious complaints about staff.

Between 2012 and 2015, there were 318 serious, or category A, complaints made by prisoners. Of those, 164 related to assaults, 62 to racial incidents and 26 to sexual assaults.

Of the total complaints lodge since the current system was put in place, just 18 were upheld.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times