Ireland’s prisons urgently need external scrutiny

There is no effective complaints system for prisoners or access to the Ombudsman

All prisoners, no matter what they have done, possess the capacity to redirect their lives. Like anyone else, they are not defined by their pasts. Their life stories can be re-narrated and later chapters can be very different in style and substance from earlier ones. Hope is the state of remaining open to this possibility. Devoid of hope, imprisonment is pointless pain.

If prisons are to be places of hope it is essential that they are transparent. We need to know that conditions and treatment meet acceptable standards. This requires independent monitoring and a meaningful way for people deprived of their liberty to raise issues and ventilate complaints.

As matters stand, the degree of sustained external scrutiny is patently inadequate. Rather than being transparent, prisons are decidedly opaque. The latest edition of the Irish Penal Reform Trust’s Progress in the Penal System report is launched on Monday. It shows that the gaps in effective monitoring are unacceptably wide. This is to the detriment of the vulnerable men and women whose life chances are further diminished by their incarceration and whose protection requires constant, probing vigilance.

By law every prison has a visiting committee. The legislation, dating from 1925, specifies that each committee should have between six and 12 members. Currently they have between two and six, far too few to constitute an effective local watchdog.


The most recent visiting committee annual reports are for 2019. They tend to be short and do not give any sense of real engagement with prisoners’ lives. The Dóchas Centre in Dublin holds women with complex needs. It faces endemic challenges in terms of self-harm, drug misuse, order maintenance, and resettlement. The visiting committee report for the centre extends to a paltry five pages (including a title page and covering letter). This is more than twice as long as the annual report from Limerick Prison’s visiting committee, which weighs in at two well-spaced pages.

It is difficult to fathom why there have been no reports on most of the country's prisons

The visiting committee for Castlerea Prison observed that: “The small number of offenders requesting to see the committee is taken as an indication of how well the prison is being run.” An alternative interpretation is that the committee lacks visibility and credibility, and is not sought out by those whose interests it should be protecting.

A prison inspector has been in post since 2002 with the office being placed on a statutory footing in 2007. There are a dozen prisons in Ireland meaning that robust, ongoing scrutiny should be straightforward. The first inspector, Dermot Kinlen, served for five years. He covered quite a bit of ground, publishing lengthy and sometimes scathingly critical reports, several of which had to be edited on legal advice prior to publication.

This momentum was not maintained and the most recent inspection report dates back to 2017. It concerns the Training Unit and was published after the unit closed. Before that there was a short report on Loughan House Open Centre in 2014 and a brief interim report on the Dóchas Centre in 2013. The only other reports to have appeared over the past decade are two follow-up inspections of Limerick prison, each just a few pages long, and a report on St Patrick’s Institution, which has since shut down. It is difficult to fathom why there have been no reports on most of the country’s prisons.

In 1985 the Whitaker Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System recommended that prisoners should have access to the Ombudsman so that their complaints could be independently adjudicated. The Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, accepted this recommendation in 2016, after it was reiterated by the Inspector of Prisons, and gave a commitment to progress the matter. In 2018 a different minister, Charlie Flanagan, informed the Dáil that advanced discussions were under way with the aim of establishing an effective complaints system for prisoners. Last year, yet another minister, Helen McEntee, stated that the consultation process was ongoing.

At this rate it will be close to 40 years post-Whitaker by the time this simple reform is given effect.

The Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT) is a human rights treaty which assists states in preventing torture and other forms of mistreatment of people in detention. States undertake to establish a national preventive mechanism to conduct inspections and they agree to facilitate visits by the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture.

The Irish government signed OPCAT in 2007. Despite repeated promises, it is not ratified. By contrast, our neighbours in the United Kingdom signed OPCAT in June 2003 and ratified it in December 2003; six months in the UK compared to 15 years, and counting, here.

This lack of oversight is corrosive of prisoners’ human rights. That it has persisted for so long is shameful. If we are to ensure that those among us who end up in prison are safeguarded, the local, national and international arrangements necessary for effective monitoring must be in place without further delay. There is nothing to be said in favour of continued drift.

Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at University College Dublin