One in four Irish prisoners abroad experience racism, survey finds

Well-resourced repatriation system ‘urgently required’, says Catholic Church agency

Around 60 per cent of participants said they were having mental health difficulties while in prison.

Around 60 per cent of participants said they were having mental health difficulties while in prison.


More than one in four Irish prisoners abroad have experienced racism while the greatest concern for 70 per cent of those who responded to a survey was the welfare of relatives at home during the pandemic.

Around 60 per cent of participants said they were having mental health difficulties while in prison, and 42 per cent have no plans for life following their release.

The findings have prompted the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO), an agency of the Catholic bishops, to urgently call for “a well-resourced, transparent, fair and expeditious repatriation system.”

It would “ensure that those prisoners who wish to do so can, if eligible, return to Ireland to serve the remainder of their sentence close to their families and be supported in preparing for release.

“While long awaited draft legislation has now been published in relation to prisoners in EU states, it will be insufficient without further amendments to existing and proposed legislation and adequate resources to process applications efficiently,” it said.

Bishop Denis Brennan, chair of the ICPO, said he was particularly concerned about “the relatively high number of survey respondents indicating an absence of a clear sense of direction after their release from prison”.

This seemed to be “a consequence of resettlement supports being withheld from foreign national prisoners in a number of countries and the inability for many to access educational, resettlement and offender behaviour courses during the pandemic,” he said.

Of the 1,100 Irish prisoners surveyed in 30 countries, almost 70 per cent were in UK prisons with the remainder in jails in the US, Europe, and Australia.

The unprecedented survey was conducted in the final quarter of last year by the ICPO, which was set up by the Catholic bishops in 1985 to work with Irish prisoners overseas regardless of faith, conviction or prisoner status.

The response rate of “over 10 per cent” was considered “very high” by the ICPO, which emphasised that it was “not a representative sample” as “prisoners with literacy issues or visual impairments may have not been able to complete the survey.”

Some 55 per cent of respondents were aged 45 and over, with 43 per cent aged between 25 to 44. More than 92 per cent of respondents were male.

The survey found that 25.4 per cent of respondents had experienced ‘discrimination/racism’ in prison, with 49.1 per cent experiencing difficulties with ‘separation from family’.

Other difficulties experienced resulted from lack of visits, 23 hour lockdowns in cells, concern for their health in a confined setting, delays in legal hearings and inability to access educational and offender behaviour courses.

As to what they found helpful in relieving stress and anxiety, a majority of respondents (almost 60 per cent) said prayer or reading spiritual materials, while others engaged in physical exercise, attended the prison gym or took up yoga and mindfulness. Also included in this category was reading, watching TV or DVDs, listening to music and doing ‘puzzles/in-cell activities’.

In 2019, around 1,200 Irish prisoners abroad were visited by the ICPO. Since then there has been a significant reduction in such visits due to pandemic restrictions, but regular contact has been maintained by email and through supporting prisoners with small grants for phone calls.

Commending the ICPO’s work, Bishop Brennan noted how its “small team” was in regular contact with approximately 1,100 Irish citizens in prison in 30 countries around the world.

Its work last year involved 10,000 letters, phone calls, emails and prison visits made to, from or on behalf of Irish citizens overseas.

“All of this is Trojan but unheralded work,” he said.