Ireland has made “good progress” towards being able to ratify a UN protocol designed to support improved standards in prisons, Garda stations and other places of detention, Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald has said.
She said she and her department were “determined” to address the remaining issues so as to allow for the ratification of the optional protocol to the UN’s Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Opcat).
She was speaking to reporters at a conference in Dublin organised by the Irish Penal Reform Trust.
One of the speakers at the conference, Prof Malcolm Evans, said Ireland’s repeated failure to ratify the protocol “almost verges, to be blunt, on the embarrassing”.
Four European countries
Ireland is one of only four European countries that have not yet done so, the chair of the UN subcommittee for the prevention of torture said.
Ms Fitzgerald said there are official visits to Irish prisons, and that huge progress has been made in terms of capital investment. There were now published reports on every death in custody, and earlier this week her department had hosted a seminar on different possible structures for a new, overarching inspectorate for the criminal justice system.
She said ratification was something she wanted to see done.
Her presence at the conference, she said, showed her interest and commitment to the building of an effective prison monitoring system in Ireland.
Chief inspector of prisons in the UK, Nick Hardwick, said in his address it was his experience that the protocol acted as a “protective shield” his organisation could wrap around itself when “politicians didn’t like what we were saying”.
He said when his organisation encountered resistance to its being allowed to inspect a warehouse that was being used to detain an overflow of detained migrants who had come over from Calais, it was able to refer to the protocol and gain access.
‘The good people’
He said the protocol can also be used in discussions with the Treasury over the resourcing of the prison system. Another benefit of the protocol was that it empowered “the good people” who could argue for improved standards on the basis that otherwise an institution could be later deemed to fall foul of the protocol.
Mr Hardwick said in excess of 90 per cent of his organisation’s visits to prisons in England and Wales were unannounced. It was very important that inspections involved “unfettered access” and that prisoners and prison staff could be spoken to in private. It was vital that detainees were spoken to. “Who knows what is going on in a prison? The prisoners.”
During his address he showed some grim photographs of a toilet, a bed and a pile of rubbish in Pentonville Prison, London. There was, he said, “no doubt” that prisons in England and Wales had “deteriorated over the past four years”.