Prisoner loses case over removal of ‘modesty screen’ in jail cell

Jail policies cannot be trumped by inmate’s preferences, prison authorities said


A prisoner has lost a High Court action claiming his human right to privacy was breached because a makeshift “modesty screen” around the toilet and shower in his cell was removed.

The man, who cannot be named, was sentenced at the Central Criminal Court some years ago to 14 years, with four suspended, for a number of offences.

Up to 2018, he shared a cell in the Midlands Prison with another man and they put up a duvet cover sheet around the toilet/shower to provide a curtain or screen. Following a routine search of the cell a year ago, the prison authorities told him in January 2017 they were removing the duvet cover and would do the same in all other cells where such screens had been put up.

The man claimed the refusal to allow the screen caused considerable embarrassment and distress and made using the toilet a humiliating and embarrassing experience infringing the right to dignity and other basic rights.

His lawyers wrote to the authorities seeking confirmation the curtain would not be removed. When that was not forthcoming, he brought High Court proceedings against the governor and the Irish Prison Service alleging the refusal to allow the screen amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment contrary to the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Among the prison governor’s arguments against the screen were that concealing an area in a cell from view would place the prisoner at risk. If the prisoner collapsed or was being assaulted, an officer would be unable to see him during routine inspections and other concerns included about suicide, self-harm and the possibility the duvet cover and string used to hold it up could be used as a ligature, they said.

Shortly after the legal action was initiated, the prison authorities provided the man with single cell accommodation but, after three days in the single cell, he sought the return of his cellmate. In his action, the prisoner argued allowing a “modesty screen” would not impose a disproportionate demand, was not unreasonable and did not amount to effective micro-managing of the prison governor’s functions.

The prison authorities argued, while he had a right to privacy, it was not absolute and the removal of such screens from all cells meant there was no arbitrary or discriminatory action against this prisoner.

Prison policies cannot be trumped by an individual prisoner’s preferences or demands, they said. The policy was a fair, reasonable and proportionate balance between privacy and the duty to keep prisoners safe. It was also argued the prisoner preferred companionship to privacy.

Ms Justice Miriam O’Regan refused the application in a judgment published this week. She said inhuman or degrading treatment or a breach of the ECHR “requires a minimum level of severity” but, within the context of the circumstances of this complaint, “such level of severity is not engaged”. The authorities had provided a rational explanation for the measures taken which did not fly in the face of reason or fundamental common sense, she held.