Prisons Report Illustrates the Need to Build Back Better


We are all looking forward to life after Covid. Perhaps the people with most to hope for are those who live and work within our prison system. This week they are due to be vaccinated and life behind bars will, like wider society, begin the slow walk back to normality. Out-of-cell time will return. Education, work and training courses will restart. In-person family visits will be restored.

It may quickly become business-as-usual.

But some resumptions may not be so welcome. The reduction of over 400 people in the overall prison population, as part of the response to Covid-19, may gradually be reversed. There will be no explicit or stated policy position, muscle memory will likely kick in. If prisons were able to manage with over 4,200 prisoners before the pandemic, surely they can accommodate a few more after.

“Building Back Better”

Recognising that the global pandemic presented an opportunity to link past economic failure with future climate action and global poverty, activists began to talk about “building back better.”  The slogan has even trickled down (or up) to the Minister for Finance.

Aside from the appealing alliteration, the main strength of the slogan is the creation of a binary. It presents the choice of business-as-usual or building something different. Some policy areas such as taxation, health, climate action, and urban planning are already immersed within this debate. Almost daily we see the fruits of this discussion as streetscapes across the nation are fitted out for a more outdoor approach to life.

Such conversations have not yet scaled the prison walls. In its absence, we can expect a return to business-as-usual: over-crowded prisons; short sentences for non-violent offences; the degradation of dignity as those with mental illnesses continue to be warehoused in penal institutions.

We have other options.

A timely Inspector of Prisons’ Annual Report, published by the Department on Friday, provides much which should form the basis of such a debate on the future of our prison system. Here are what we in the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice consider the main points of interest in the report.

Covid-19 Restrictions and Future Population Reduction

The 2020 Inspectorate report understandably focuses on the effect of Covid-19 on Irish prisons. The Irish Prisons Service (IPS) introduced very restrictive measures intended to prevent Covid-19 transmission such as cocooning, quarantine, and isolation. Older people and those with underlying conditions were cocooned, quarantine was used after prisoners moved, and isolation was deployed when cases were detected.

The Inspectorate made short visits to all twelve prisons during the first round of restrictions [March to May] to examine implementation of preventative measures and the subsequent impact which these impacts had on the prisoner population.

Impact of Covid-19 Restrictions on Women in Prison

Three short visits were carried out in the Dóchas Centre [Mountjoy Women’s Prison] as the situation in Dóchas at the end of April was much different compared with other prisons. Over half of the women in custody were in isolation or cocooning.

Hygiene, Human Contact and Training Neglected

The report highlights that some very basic needs were absent for a number of prisoners during their time in quarantine or in isolation cells as there was no access to shower facilities during this time. Personal hygiene was maintained through the provision of a sponge and basin. The Inspector of Prisons was clear that the Covid-19 response was comparable to solitary confinement, offering “no meaningful human contact and no access to education, work or training.” Concern was also expressed over new rules relating to the suspension of prisoner activities and family visits, as they do not require an assessment of proportionality to be conducted in advance, nor the inclusion of a sunset clause.

Pandemic Preparedness Must Involve Reduction in Numbers

It is vital that a systemic reduction of prison numbers be at the heart of future pandemic responses. The Inspector urges the IPS to “consider the need to further decrease the prison population as a measure to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission in Irish Prisons.”  In order to have levels permitting single-cell occupancy, and thereby decreasing the impact on prisoners, the total number would need to be below 3,000 prisoners.

Prison Complaints

The section on prisoner complaints could be summarised in seven words and lose none of its core message: IPS complaints system is unfit for purpose. This is the third year where this conclusion has been drawn and the need for immediate action highlighted. However, to move on after such a brief summary would be to miss other salient points in the data provided.

The statutory role of the Inspector of Prisons in relation to individual complaints is to provide oversight of the IPS Prisoner Complaints System, not to investigate individual complaints. There are currently six categories of prisoner complaints ranging from Category A, the most serious, highlighting serious ill-treatment and excessive force to Category F, complaints about decisions in relation to temporary release or prison transfer.

In order to look closer at Category A complaints, we considered notifications relating to 2020 received from monthly reports.

Overall, 85 per cent (n=61) of the Category A complaints proceeded to the investigation stage by the IPS but only 25 (40 per cent) full investigation reports had been received by the Inspectorate with a further nine (15 per cent) interim reports, which are required if investigations take longer than three months. Only two (8 per cent) Category A complaints from 2020 were grounded or upheld. It may turn out that such a small proportion of successful claims is reasonable, but they are strikingly low numbers.

Timeliness is a key element of a functioning prison complaints system to maintain trust in the system for prisoners. It isn’t just that less than half of last year’s claims have been investigated. It’s that there are still a dozen cases outstanding from 2018, as yet unaddressed.

Overall, the Inspector was concerned about “the poor adherence by the IPS to the law in relation to prisoner complaints” and concluded that levels of noncompliance renders “the present operation of the existing system inadequate and unreliable.” The Inspector identified that the existence of “a robust and fair complaints system” is not just critically important for prisoners but also for prison staff and the wider public, so we can have confidence in what happens in our name. In both 2019 and 2020, the Inspectorate was informed by the IPS that it was their intention to have a new Prisoner Complaints System operational at the end of each respective year.

No system has been implemented.

Prison Regimes for Women

In conflict with the Bangkok Rules on women in detention, the Dóchas Centre implemented a regime change for its prisoners more in keeping with how a male prison functions. The overall regime became more restrictive with a greater focus on security and less out-of-cell time.

The evidence suggests this had a negative effect on the prisoners. Of the 67 Cat A complaints received in monthly reports, eight were from the Dóchas Centre, which only had a population of 116 at the end of the year. Aware that many more women spent time in the Dóchas during the year, there was one Category A complaint for every 15 prisoners. The average across the prison estate is one for every 54 prisoners.

Looking at this from a slightly different vantage point, the Dóchas Centre had 3.2 per cent of the total prison population in 2020 but 11.9 per cent of the Category A complaints. Most prisons seem to have a corresponding proportion of population and Cat A complaints. Only Cloverhill and Mountjoy Male prison seem to be outliers as well, but for different reasons.

Of most concern is the fact that many female prisoners have a history of abuse. They have very often been subjected to ill-treatment, neglect or have been a victim of violence before they enter prison.

Prisoners are permitted to send and receive an unopened letter from the Inspector of Prisons. Last year, the Office received 59 letters from prisoners, mostly in ones and twos from each prison each month. October 2020 clearly stands out as the Inspector received eleven letters from female prisoners during a time when reports of xenophobic bullying, harassment and intimidation were emerging. This small variance further underlines the importance of the Inspectorate to hear the voice of prisoners when they have no confidence in internal complaint mechanisms avenue and risk reprisal and retaliation from prison officers.


As we take time to reflect on the past sixteen months of suppressing Covid-19 transmission in Ireland’s prisons, we will realise that the restrictive regimes imposed—cocooning, quarantine, and isolation—were not, in reality, in conflict with the natural instincts of the Department of Justice or the Irish Prison Service. The instinct and emphases on security, often to the detriment of rehabilitation and integration, only had to be trained on a new enemy.

The Inspectorate report confirms our initial proposals; that a rapid population reduction through structured temporary and early release was required at the beginning of the pandemic. When it became clear that the reduction in numbers would be in the low hundreds, the only path available, and likely necessary, was the highly restrictive regime imposed on the prisoners and implemented by officers who are surely the last essential frontline workers to receive vaccinations.

The reality is that the prison system would have been better able to manage Covid-19 if the prison population was 3,000 prisoners, rather than 4,200 prisoners. The unquantifiable toll on prisoners and their families could have been reduced.

The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has made a number of policy suggestions in various proposals and pieces, but it is probably worth restating three here:

  1. Prison numbers should be reduced to single cell capacity.
  2. The legislation underpinning the Office of the Inspectors of Prisons should be strengthened to permit the Inspector to publish reports directly. A key anomaly with the office, in comparison to other international prison inspectorate is the absence of statutory authority to publish inspection reports, investigation reports or annual reports. The habitual publication of reports by the Department late on a Friday afternoon may be realpolitik, but this practice stymies wider public debate.
  3. Mandate and resource the Inspectorate to establish an Independent Complaints System with the confidence of prisoners and prison staff. The introduction of an effective complaints system must be identified as a priority for action.

One benefit of the pandemic is it prompts us to reconsider assumptions.  Even when most of the population are vaccinated, Covid-19 will remain with us. Significant questions persist about the duration of vaccination cover and the potential for localised outbreaks next winter, particularly in congregated settings like prisons. To have a repeat of the Covid-19 restrictions for future outbreaks would represent a failure of planning and systemic learning.

Business-as-usual is a choice. Building back better is a wiser option.