Ombudsman hopeful of power to investigate prisoner complaints

Inspector of Prisons recommended external investigator after internal procedure exhausted

Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, has recommended, to Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, that the Ombudsman be given powers to investigate prisoners’ complaints. Similar recommendations have been made for more than 10 years. File Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, has recommended, to Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, that the Ombudsman be given powers to investigate prisoners’ complaints. Similar recommendations have been made for more than 10 years. File Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Ombudsman Peter Tyndall has said he is hopeful the new Government will give him powers to investigate complaints from prisoners.

Speaking following a conference in Dublin on Thursday on the role of the Ombudsman in prisons, Mr Tyndall said he has had initial discussions with officials at the Department of Justice, and with the Prison Service and some non-governmental organisations.

“I think people understand there is something missing and they know there is a need to put it right,” he said.

Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, has recommended, to Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, that the Ombudsman be given powers to investigate prisoners’ complaints. Similar recommendations have been made for more than 10 years.

Prisoner complaints, for example about access to healthcare or protection against bullying, are currently investigated by the Prison Service.

This puts Ireland in breach of international treaties and UN rules, including the “Mandela Rules”, which require an independent prisoners’ complaints process.

Mr Tyndall said if a prisoner took litigation at present, Ireland’s lack of compliance could be taken into account.

He said he is hoping, “this time”, that the recommendations will lead to a positive conclusion.

‘Clear way forward’

“There is a clear way forward and it is probably the first time that the issue has crystallised in quite such a straightforward way,” he said.

“It’s not a big challenge for Government, it deals with our obligations under international best practice, and I’m hopeful that they will take the steps necessary.”

He said he had not yet looked at the cost of the scheme, but believed “an additional number of investigators” would be needed for his office.

Judge Reilly, who spoke at Thursday’s conference, entitled The Ombudsman behind Bars, said he had recommended prisoners be entitled to bring complaints to the Ombudsman, having exhausted the internal prison complaints mechanism.

“Prisoners have the same rights as people living freely in our communities, apart from those rights which they forfeit by reason of their imprisonment,” the judge said.

He added there must be an external element in all prisoner complaints procedures, so prisoners, prison staff and the general public can have confidence in the complaints process as a whole.

Also speaking at the event were Dr Niall Muldoon, Ombudsman for Children, Niki Maclean, director of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and Howard Sapers, correctional investigator of Canada.

Mr Sapers said when improvements lead to conditions of confinement being more humane and dignified, it is not only safer for those incarcerated, the facilities involved also become better work environments.