Prisoners near death housed in ‘unsuitable’ environment

Chaplins’ reports reveal harsh reality of jail life and death for prison inmates and staff

In one case a prisoner was refused temporary release from Loughan House open prison in Co Cavan to see the remains of his brother. File photograph: Getty

In one case a prisoner was refused temporary release from Loughan House open prison in Co Cavan to see the remains of his brother. File photograph: Getty


Some prisoners in Irish jails were so fragile and close to death they were unable to use a telephone yet little or no palliative care was being provided to them, a prison chaplain’s report reveals.

It details how “many” prisoners in the Midlands Prison in Portlaoise, Co Laois, – the largest jail in the Republic – were “elderly men” who “need specialist palliative care and at some stage may need end of life care”.

And while the medical staff and carers working in the prison “do a wonderful job”, a prison environment was not suitable for men clearly approaching the end of their lives.

“Some of the men may not have the strength and capacity to make telephone calls,” notes the chaplain’s report .

“Their families and friends often cannot visit due to the facilities. This cannot be acceptable in our society. Our basic human dignity needs to allow each person the respect and compassion to have palliative , and end-of-life-care, in an appropriate manner and in a setting outside of the prison,” the reports adds.

The same report, for the Midlands Prison, also raises concerns at the way some men were locked into cells for up to 30 hours at a time during Covid-19 quarantining “sometimes on very warm days with poor ventilation” has been extremely difficult.

“To deny men showers for two weeks at a time is demeaning, and has a serious impact on their personal hygiene, on their dignity and on their general wellbeing,” it adds, noting the conditions were “disgusting” and “dangerous”.

The chaplains’ reports for all of the jails in the Irish prison system have been published by the Department of Justice. A common theme is the continued committal of mentally-ill prisoners in the unsuitable prison environment, where staff tried their best but were neither equipped nor trained to deal with such prisoners.

In the Dóchas Centre, the women’s prison on the Mountjoy campus in Dublin’s north inner city, the chaplains warned of a very serious situation where it was clear prisons are a “dumping ground” for the mentally ill.

It said one prisoner was committed to the jail after spending “over a year in a psychiatric facility”. She was so disorientated she “wanted to know what hospital she was in”.

The prisoner “remained in bed all day” and despite being so obviously mentally ill the woman “had been charged, arraigned in court and remanded to prison”.

After an intervention from the governor and healthcare staff, the woman was transferred back to “the psychiatric facility she had come from”. At the same time, two other mentally-ill prisoners on the same landing “were even more difficult to deal with: both were self-harming and both were violent”.

Mentally ill inside

Both of those prisoners had been treated for mental illness before being committed to prison and one had been brought into the jail infected with Covid-19. The other woman was then returned to the psychiatric facility where she had been before the Dóchas Centre.

That prisoner, however, was returned to the Dóchas after she behaved in the same violent way that she had when held in the Dóchas previously, the report said. “Obviously she had been referred to the psychiatric facility for specialist treatment. How was she expected to receive that treatment when she was returned to the Dóchas? This is a clear example of the Dóchas being used as a dumping ground.”

The chaplains’ reports also spoke positively about many of the facilities put in place by the Irish Prison Service to aid inmates during the pandemic. These included extra phone calls and new video-conferencing family visits when physical visits were cancelled. Netflix was also provided in cells as well as in-cell phones so prisoners could directly reach the chaplaincy service or other supports, such as the Samaritans.

However, the impact of Covid-19 resulted in difficult restrictions. In one case a prisoner was refused temporary release from Loughan House open prison in Co Cavan to see the remains of his brother; something he wanted to do as it would be the last time he would see him. He absconded and so got to see his brother’s body, but on his return to the jail he was transferred to a secure prison, effectively losing the privilege of being kept in an open prison.