Many more could have been released in 2020 to combat Covid - Inspector of Prisons

Report highlights positive initiatives but also hardships endured due to pandemic

In her report, the the Inspector of Prisons, Patricia Gilheaney, found that the Irish Prison Service’s system for investigating prisoner complaints was not fit for purpose. File photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

Conor Lally

Security and Crime Editor

More than 1,200 prisoners, of the Republic’s 4,200 prisoner population, could have been released early last year to reduce the threat of Covid-19 outbreaks, the Inspector of Prisons has said.

Patricia Gilheaney has also found the system within the Irish Prison Service (IPS) for investigating prisoner complaints was not fit for purpose.


There were often delays, sometimes over many months, with properly processing complaints and acting on them, despite the prison service being legally obliged to adhere to set timeframes.

“Of 63 cases not completed within the specified three months, the Inspectorate only received nine interim reports. This is a low level of compliance with the law,” Ms Gilheaney said of the legal obligation to provide such reports in cases not dealt with within the specified time.

“The poor adherence by the IPS to the law in relation to prisoner complaints is concerning,” the inspector’s annual report for 2020, published on Friday, added.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice Hildegarde Naughton TD (FG) said she was "eager to see" the complaints system being reformed. While work was progressing in that regard, she acknowledged there had been delays.

Ms Gilheaney has also concluded some of the restrictions put in place during the pandemic “had a disproportionate impact on prisoners”, even though they were intended to combat the spread of the virus.

For example, for those prisoners who were in their 70s and cocooning such isolation was arduous for long periods in a prison setting, especially because of the way cocooning was done.

“Those prisoners subjected to quarantine and isolation were held in solitary confinement, as they had less than two hours of daily out-of-cell time, with no access to education, work or training, and did not have meaningful human contact. Research has shown that solitary confinement can have a damaging effect on mental and social health.”

Ms Gilheaney said while the Irish Prison Service's record on combating the virus had rightly been commended, including by the World Health Organisation, the prison population could have been reduced to below 3,000 last year in response to the virus.

If numbers were reduced to that level, single cell occupancy could have been possible, which was “a measure which would aid in transmission prevention”.

There were just over 4,200 prisoners in the system when the pandemic began in March, 2020. In a bid to create scope to segregate prisoners and to isolate newly committed prisoners, early releases were granted. Those freed were nonviolent criminals or considered to be low risk and coming to the end of sentences.

When those releases were granted, the prison population fell to 3,839 within one month, though Ms Gilheaney said it could have been reduced to below 3,000.

That would have required the early release of over 1,200 prisoners rather than the near 400 that were released early.

The Inspector of Prisons office was established in 2008 and is responsible for inspecting prisons in the Republic. It also carries out investigations into deaths in prisons.

In her report for 2020 Ms Gilheaney said her office found a large number of "positive initiatives" had been rolled out for the pandemic. These included Netflix being made available in prison cells, education courses being provided via TVs in cells and phones being supplied in cells so prisoners could receive support, including from the Samaritans.

Video link visits were also established as physical visiting was curtailed. This meant prisoners could keep in touch with their families and foreign prisoners could see their families, which the Inspector’s report said was positive.

However, the report also found that prisoners quarantining in a cell for up to 14 days had no access to a shower and had had to use “a sponge and basin”.

Furthermore, yard time was curtailed and workshops were closed. Prisoners arrested and taken to Garda stations for questioning, as part of criminal investigations, were forced to quarantine for up to 14 days on their return.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times