Report calls for end to solitary confinement in prisons
Irish Penal Reform Trust wants a minimum of eight hours ‘out-of-cell’ time per day
The report argues that the separation of a prisoner from others should not be permitted for reasons of punishment, but only for reasons of safety.
The Irish Prison Service should move to abolish the practice of placing prisoners in solitary confinement and set the minimum out-of-cell time at eight hours per day, a major report by the Irish Penal Reform Trust has said.
The report, Behind the Door: Solitary Confinement in the Irish Penal System, published on Friday, sets out a range of observations on the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners and sets a number of recommendations to improve the system.
Additionally, the report argues that the separation of a prisoner from others should not be permitted for reasons of punishment, but only for reasons of safety in emergency situations, and for the shortest possible period of time.
The study analyses the use of solitary confinement in the Republic that comes within the definition of 22 or more hours of confinement in a cell individually or sharing.
The report acknowledges contentions by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and more recently the UN Committee on the Prevention of Torture, that the levels of violence in Irish prisons are high.
This is a situation exacerbated by the presence of what some of the interviewees for the study referred to as “gangs”.
“This has resulted in high numbers of prisoners being segregated from the general population due to perceived threats of violence, able to associate only with others in their particular grouping,” the report notes.
The report also says the number of prisoners locked in their cells for 22 or 23 hours a day has decreased significantly over the last four years, from 211 in July 2013 to 9 in October 2017.
However, the overall number of prisoners on so-called “restricted regimes” (i.e. all those locked up for 19 hours a day or more) has “continued to increase”.
In October 2017, this number stood at 428 individuals, 385 of whom were segregated for reasons of “protection”.
The majority of all prisoners on restricted regimes were in 21-hour lock-up. At present prisoners may be placed on protection simply on the basis that they have asked for this to happen.
Yet, the report says, those regimes are “significantly impoverished” as prisoners face restricted access to education, physical activities and fresh air; limitations on family visits and phone contact; and difficulties in accessing health and addiction support.
Such restrictions “may impair effective reintegration” upon release.
The research shows the Irish Prison Service expects the number of protection prisoners who are subject to restricted regimes to either remain at a similar level (nearly 11 per cent of the overall prison population) or increase in the next few years.
Plans are also in progress to designate parts of Mountjoy and of Midlands as “protection prisons”. The prison service intends that these prisons will offer improved regimes and more out-of-cell time for prisoners segregated from the general prison population.
However, fear was expressed during the research that, despite having real safety concerns, some prisoners may be deterred from requesting placement on protection due to the prospect of being transferred further from their families.
Protection prisoners, while constituting the greatest number of prisoners on “restricted regimes” in the Irish prison system, are not the only prisoners subject to such restrictions.
Others include prisoners segregated from the general prison population for reasons of “order”, some of whom are considered to be “violent and disruptive”.
An initiative currently under development is the creation of a unit based at the Midlands Prison for a small number of violent and disruptive prisoners. This unit is expected to open in spring.
Irish prisons hold a “considerable number” of prisoners with mental ill-health. In September 2017, a reported 20 prisoners with the most acute psychiatric difficulties were waiting for beds to become available in the Central Mental Hospital.
The report recommends the end of this practice.