Disabled prisoners often left isolated in cells due to a lack of supports – report
Prisoner unable to leave cell because no walking stick was available
File photograph: Cyril Byrne
Disabled prisoners are often left isolated in their cells due to a lack of supports, with one prisoner unable to leave his cell because a walking stick was not available, a new report has found.
Meanwhile, visually-impaired staff do not have enough access to material that they can read, while, the deaf suffer “extremely limited” access to sign language interpreters and are not given the use of video phones to talk to their families.
One prisoner said staff refused to push him in his wheelchair due to a lack of insurance.
Bullying of disabled prisoners was flagged as a particular concern. “They’d be preyed upon,” said a prison staff member. “They’d be seen as weak . . . but that’s the law of the jail, that’s the law of the jungle.”
The experiences are highlighted in a new Irish Penal Reform Trust report, Making Rights Real for People with Disabilities in Detention, published on Wednesday.
Researchers conducted 31 indepth interviews in three prisons, including with 16 prisoners who represented the experiences of the long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impaired.
Because of its relatively small sample size, it examines general trends and individual accounts as opposed to the prevalence of disability within the system. The testimony of prisoners was “generally substantiated” by staff and other interviewees.
Deaf prisoners routinely had no one to communicate with, and often only had an hour or so a week with someone who was proficient in Irish Sign Language
“There were reports that prisoners were effectively confined to their cells due to the inaccessibility of the prison environment, and had services brought to them,” the report found.
“This was seen to increase isolation experienced by prisoners with disabilities, many of whom had spent time in isolation or in safety observation cells.”
Prisoners are also said to miss out due to significant difficulties navigating services, while the cell environment is challenging.
“Access to sign language interpretation for deaf prisoners was extremely limited, making communication with prison staff and other prisoners almost impossible,” the report noted.
“Deaf prisoners routinely had no one to communicate with, and often only had an hour or so a week with someone who was proficient in Irish Sign Language, which amounted to communication deprivation and de facto isolation of deaf prisoners.”
We heard examples of prisoners making phone calls for deaf and hard of hearing prisoners, cleaning other prisoners’ cells, providing emotional support...
It noted in particular the lack of video call facilities. One prison had the technology available to those with family abroad but did not allow deaf prisoners use it.
A particular area of concern identified was the lack of access to services and education and employment opportunities, due to accessibility and other issues.
Although all of the facilities visited had cells designated as appropriate for the mobility impaired, many others do not have such options.
Several prisoners praised the efforts of staff. However, others are often left to rely on fellow inmates for support.
“We heard examples of prisoners making phone calls for deaf and hard of hearing prisoners, cleaning other prisoners’ cells, providing emotional support, providing advocacy, transcription and even helping in medical emergencies.”
IPRT director general Fíona Ní Chinnéide said the Irish Prison Service (IPS) had demonstrated a commitment to its equality and human rights obligations by facilitating the research.
“It is important that this commitment is now met with resourcing and implementation of the report recommendations, in order to address the significant barriers faced by people with disabilities in prison,” she said.