Solitary confinement at prisons in Portlaoise and other Irish jails could cost more than €100,000 a year per prisoner and should be abolished because of the devastating harm to prisoners.
Those is the findings from the Irish Penal Reform Trust which launched a major research study on the use of solitary confinement and restricted regimes in Ireland on Friday, February 2.
'Behind the Door': Solitary Confinement in the Irish Penal System was funded by an Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission grant scheme in 2016.
This report contains 25 key recommendations centring on the use of solitary confinement and restricted regimes in Ireland.
"Our goal is ambitious but achievable – the abolition of solitary confinement in Ireland in the short term and the gradual elimination of the use of restricted regimes with the ultimate target of 12 hours out-of-cell time daily for all prisoners across the prison estate," says the report.
Deirdre Malone, Executive Director of the IPRT spells out the need for change.
"The exceptional and devastating harm to prisoners’ mental health that can be caused by extended periods of isolation means that the practice of holding any category of prisoner on 22- or 23-hour lock-up must be abolished. Restrictive regimes must only ever be an exceptional measure; it cannot be a solution in itself to prisoner safety concerns".
The financial cost on Irish taxpayers is not revealed bu the study says that it is very expensive.
"While providing a much poorer environment, solitary confinement regimes are expensive to run, primarily due to higher staffing costs. In the US supermax system, for example, confinement costs in the region of 75,000 dollars per cell annually, as
compared to 25,000 dollars for an ‘ordinary’ state prison cell (Ross, 2016: 102). Figures for England and Wales show that each close supervision bed costs an average £100,000 per year to run (Casey, 2016), as compared to the average annual cost of
a regular prison place of just over £32,000 (Prison Reform Trust, 2017)," it found.
Some of the key recommendations arising from the report include:
- The placement in solitary confinement of adults with mental health difficulties or mental or physical disabilities should be prohibited.
- Where a prisoner requests to be kept on protection for an extended period, this should be kept under constant review.
- The Irish Prison Service should research and develop a range of initiatives to address violence in prisons. These may include, but should not be limited to, restorative justice approaches and weapons amnesties.
- Prisoners on protection or other restricted regimes should be provided with meaningful access to work, training and education, as well as other activities and services. As far as possible this should be in association with other prisoners.
- The Irish Prison Service should regularly collect and publish data relating to the length of time prisoners spend on restricted regimes in all prisons.
The report points to a unit based at the Midlands Prison in Portlaoise for a small number of ‘violent and disruptive’ prisoners. This unit is expected to open in spring 2018 and will be run jointly between the Prison Psychology Service and operational prison staff.
The report was launched by the former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Professor Juan Méndez.
Laois TD and Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan is responsible for prisons at Government level. He is also based in the town where more than 1,000 prisoners housed in two prisons. One is a high security jail for terrorists and gang members.
He welcomed research and said it will take some time to consider the report and the recommendations.
He said the Irish Prison Service participated in the research of the report and the Director of Operations for the Prison Service participated in a panel discussion at the launch of the report by the IPRT.
In relation to solitary confinement, Minister Flanagan said that since his appointment has taken steps to improve the solitary confinement regime.
"Last June, I took action to make Ireland compliant with the Nelson Mandela Rules in relation to solitary confinement, meaning all prisoners have a right, save in exceptional circumstances, to a minimum of 2 hours out of their cell with an opportunity for meaningful human contact. The number of prisoners on 22/23 hour restricted regime has reduced to 9, from 211 in 2013.”
In relation to violence in prisons, Minister Flanagan stated violence in prison can affect staff and prisoners and every effort is made to prevent violence from occuring.
“Every assault on a member of staff is serious. Appropriate action is taken by the Prison Service, including the reporting of such assaults to an Garda Síochána for the purposes of investigation and criminal prosecution where appropriate
“No level of inter prisoner violence or assaults is acceptable either, and every effort is made by prison staff and management to prevent acts of violence. No prison service can completely eliminate the possibility of violent incidents happening in a prison setting where a large number of dangerous and violent offenders are being held,” he said.
The Laois TD said the Irish Prison Service has successfully introduced a number of measures across the prison estate such as, hand-held metal detectors, netting over prison yards, ‘boss’ chairs and security screening machines to detect and prevent weapons from entering the prison to limit the scope of acts of violence.
In relation to the conditions of detention in prison, Minister Flanagan pointed to the significant improvements have been made to prison conditions in recent years.
“We have seen huge improvements in prison conditions in recent years due to the ongoing focus by the Government and the Irish Prison Service. The practise of slopping out has practically been eliminated. A new prison opened in Cork in 2016 all the wings in Mountjoy Prison have been refurbished.
“The development of a step down unit for female offenders which is being progressed and the planned modernisation and expansion of the female facilities in Limerick Prison, which includes a transition unit, will greatly improve the conditions within the Prison system and options for the successful reintegration of females into the community
“In recent years, my Department, the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service, with the support of other agencies and stakeholders, have introduced several strategies targeted specifically at stemming the growth of and reducing the prison population.”
The Fine Gael TD said new legislation was introduced to provide alternatives to custody including the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011 which requires a sentencing judge to consider the imposition of community service where a custodial sentence of 12 months or less is being considered.
“The initiatives aimed at reducing the prison population, provide the Irish Prison Service with the opportunity to focus more on rehabilitation and support services, which they are doing. The Irish Prison Service and Probation Service provide a wide range of rehabilitative programmes that include education, vocational training, healthcare, psychiatric, psychological, counselling, welfare and spiritual services.
“The Irish Prison Service is also committed in its Strategy statement to ensuring that prisoners are detained in accordance with the law, including international human rights law, and that prisoners are treated with dignity and respect,” he said.
The restriction of a prisoner's regime can arise in a number of circumstances. Such restrictions are as provided for in the 2007 Prison Rules, as amended. For example, Rule 63 provides that a regime can be restricted so as to provide for the protection of vulnerable prisoners either at their own request or when the Governor considers it necessary.
Rule 62 provides a further example of a restricted regime. This is where the Governor may decide, for the maintenance of good order in the prison, to remove a prisoner from general association or structured activity, to reduce the negative effect that a prisoner or prisoners may have on the general population. A smaller number of prisoners may have their regimes restricted for medical (Rule 64) or discipline reasons (Rule 67).
The Prison Rules 2007 provide that the imposition of restricted regimes is closely monitored by the Irish Prison Service (IPS). The IPS Statistics Unit commenced the collation of a Quarterly Census of Restricted Regime Prisoners in 2013 and this is published quarterly on its website (www.irishprisons.ie).
The Director General of the IPS chairs a high-level group to look at measures, which can be introduced to reduce the number of prisoners held on restricted regimes. The objective of this group is to ensure that all prisoners receive a minimum standard out of cell time to engage in exercise or activity consistent with IPS policy on the elimination of solitary confinement. That policy is also available on its website.
Section 19 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 specifically provides for assaults or threats to peace officers including prison officers acting in the execution of their duty.
Any person who assaults or threatens to assault a peace officer in the execution of their duty, is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine or a term of imprisonment not exceeding 12 months or both or on convictions on indictment, to a fine or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years or both. In addition, the Act allows for judges to impose such sentences consecutively on persons found guilty of such offences.