Prisoner release must be ramped up in Portlaoise and other jails due to Covid-19 argues campaign group

Conor Ganly

Reporter:

Conor Ganly

coronavirus covid-19

Midlands Prison Portlaoise secure unit

Efforts to reduce the prison population at jails in Portlaoise and elsewhere must be ramped up in order to uphold minimum human rights standards of those in custody and protect the prison community from Covid-19, the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT)

The organisation, which campaigns for the rights of everyone in prison, says this should be achieved through the presumption of bail and increased use of non-custodial sanctions, alongside the continued safe early release of sentenced prisoners.

IPRT called on the Minister for Justice & Equality Charlie Flanagan to accelerate such actions. It also called on him to ensure monitoring bodies including the Office of the Inspector of Prisons are resourced to ensure human rights are respected and to protect against potential ill-treatment and torture during this period.

IPRT was responding to a judgment in a case taken by a remand prisoner who is being kept in his cell for 24 hours a day, with no access to exercise. The Trust said the Court found that the temporary nature of the man’s situation and the logistical challenges faced by the Irish Prison Service in having so many prisoners cocooning or in quarantine justified the limitation of his entitlements under the Prison Rules.

There were 3,843 prisoners in Irish jails as of April 14. This compares to 4,209 on February 29 which was the day before the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Ireland. Jails are now 89% full as compared to 97% on February 28.

Temporary releases were sanctioned as part of the national restrictions to stem the spread of the virus. Visiting prisons has also been suspended.

Fíona Ní Chinnéide is the Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust. She said more must be done.

“If the minimum entitlements outlined by the prison rules cannot be met due to staffing and logistical pressures during this time, then a further reduction in prison numbers is needed. While much remains unknown about COVID-19, we do know that the virus will remain in the community for quite some time. Responses that rely on lock-up for extended periods will exacerbate fears and tensions and increase the risk of violent incidents in prison. This is in addition to the serious risk to health that an outbreak of COVID-19 in crowded prisons would present.

“With limitations being placed on the rights of people in custody, including those on remand, stringent oversight and accountability mechanisms are more crucial now than ever. Independent monitoring bodies such as the Office of the Inspector of Prisons must be guaranteed access to prisons and prisons data in order to protect against potential human rights violations during this period. It is essential that the Office of the Inspector of Prisons receives additional resources to meet the significant demand that this unprecedented situation presents,” she said.

IPRT said it notes the preventative measures taken by the Department of Justice & Equality and the Irish Prison Service to protect against an outbreak of COVID-19 in the prison system, including the temporary release of certain prisoners. However, it added that with increasing pressure on staffing levels and challenges to meeting minimum rights in prisons, accelerated action on further steps, as outlined in the Department of Justice & Equality ‘Justice Sector COVID-19 plan’, is now required.

It said this includes increased access to enhanced remission of up to 33% for lower-risk prisoners and temporary release for prisoners with less than six months remaining to serve on a sentence.

Speaking about the risk COVID-19 poses in the prison system, Ms. Ní Chinnéide continued:

“In the context of COVID-19, prisons represent a high-risk environment, with social distancing almost impossible to achieve within normal operating capacity of prisons. The number of prisoners in the prison population (3,843 as 14 April 2020) is still far above the number of operational cells (3,149 as of 16 April 2019), meaning that many prisoners do not have access to single cells. A further reduction in the prison population is essential in order to achieve a safe level of occupancy and protect both the health of the prison community and the communities that prisoners and staff return to.”

Ms Ní Chinnéide said there is a continued over-reliance on imprisonment.

“In order to reduce the risk of infection, the churn of people processed through the prison system must be reduced. In particular, there should be a presumption against committing people to prison for offences that attract custodial sentences of less than 12 months, in line with the principles of the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011.

"Short-term custodial sentences are widely ineffective at any time, but in the context of COVID 19 could result in grave consequences. The 2014 cross-agency Strategic Review of Penal Policy recommended that imprisonment be regarded as a sanction of last resort in Ireland. While this should always be the case, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is urgent that this recommendation is the cornerstone of all sentencing decisions,” she said.

She said accompanying these measures, the number of remand committals must be reduced immediately to limit the flow of entries to the prison system.

“Remanding people to custody places further pressure on a system that is already under strain, with all new committals placed in quarantine for up to 14 days. The period after committal to prison is a time of heightened vulnerability, marked by feelings of hopelessness and higher incidences of self-harm. IPRT is concerned that this will be compounded due to reduced access to psychological supports in prisons as a result of COVID-19. Pre-trial detention should be used as an exceptional measure, with bail only denied in the most serious of cases.”

The Trust said numerous international bodies, guided by public health evidence, have called for an immediate reduction in prison populations in order to respect public health advice on COVID-19 and save lives. This includes the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations, the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, among others.

In order to effectively manage the rapidly developing crisis without infringing on the rights of those in custody, IPRT called on the Department of Justice & Equality, the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service and the judiciary to work together to continue the safe reduction of the prison population.

Proposed measures are:

·   Activate the additional early release measures available to further reduce the prison population to ensure access to single-cell accommodation across the prison estate;

·   Presumption against custodial sentences for offences that attract sentences of <12 months in prison, in line with the principles underpinning the Community Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011;

·   Adherence to the constitutional presumption of bail, in particular for non-violent offences;

·   Guaranteed access to prisons for the Office of the Inspector of Prisons in order to protect against potential human rights violations during this period.