Irish prisons are using solitary confinement to help prevent Covid-19 transmission and those serving sentences are not getting “sufficient meaningful human contact” due to pandemic restrictions, a series of reports has warned.
The overview of four major facilities by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons (OIP) also found that prisoners in quarantine and isolation are being denied their right to shower.
Although the inspections of Mountjoy, Cloverhill, Wheatfield and Limerick note a positive attitude among staff and prisoners towards Covid-related regimes and responses, they highlight concerns that "complacency" now threatened to make such restrictions a "new norm".
The Irish Prison Service has adopted a number of practices in response to the virus including restrictions on family contact, quarantine, isolation and restrictions on access to exercise and activities. In response, the OIP prepared a programme of inspections “to provide a human-rights-informed assessment of the treatment and care of prisoners”.
There were broadly similar findings in each of the four prisons, according to the reports which were published on Tuesday. Measures to mitigate the impact of restrictions across the prisons included video link visits, Netflix streaming, exercise videos and other additional in-cell activities.
The report on Mountjoy, which accommodated the first such inspection last March, said it was successful in managing outbreaks and identified “a common effort” among prisoners and staff to prevent transmission.
However, it also found that prisoners in quarantine or isolation were denied their right to a shower, and were not being provided with sufficient meaningful human contact. Solitary confinement was being used as a measure to prevent transmission and prisoners were not being afforded opportunities to prepare for their release.
Those placed in quarantine generally included all committals to prison; prisoners returning from court; returning from external medical appointments; and those returned to custody by An Garda Síochána under warrant.
“The Office of the Inspector of Prisons is concerned that Covid-19 has allowed for a sense of complacency to set in across the prison; increased restriction is the new norm,” it said.
Cloverhill Prison in Dublin was also criticised for triple-occupancy cells which, it said, do not meet minimum standards for size “and this has a detrimental impact for prisoners in quarantine”.
“Many prisoners in Wheatfield Prison [in Dublin] expressed feelings of being disheartened at the curtailment of services,” an inspection report noted.
Limerick Prison’s environment “appears calm” with those inside aware of the necessity of, and fully co-operating with, Covid-19 measures. However, as well as similar concerns to the other prisons, it noted slopping out of cells continues as a practice there.
The OIP framed three central questions around its visits:how will prisons come out of their restrictions; what are the implications of the “normalisation” of such measures; and how will the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on prisoners be redressed?
Responding to the reports' publication, the Irish Penal Reform Trust said the lack of published inspection material during the pandemic had left those in prison "exposed".
"The effect of Covid-related restrictions on people in prison has been particularly harsh," said its legal and public affairs manager, Molly Joyce.
“Some prisoners placed in isolation and/or quarantine as part of infection control measures reported having less than 20 minutes of interaction with other people in an entire day; being denied access to shower facilities for up to 14 days; and having no access to post or fresh clothing during the quarantine period.”
The trust said human rights were not optional and that the practice of “long lock-up” adopted as a pandemic response must not become normal.