Ill-treatment and accountability
The CPT found that in most prisons the relationships between staff and prisoners seemed to be quite relaxed and positive on the whole. While this was so, the CPT was concerned about several allegations of verbal abuse and physical ill-treatment by prisoners. Verbal abuse allegations were mainly from prsoners from the travelling community and foreign prisoners. The ill-treatment alleged related to certain members of staff and concerned punches and kicks to the body, especially during the removal of prisoners to the segregation units of prisons. Some of the allegations reported by the CPT are of repeated stamping and blows to the chest, arms and head and the slamming of a gate into the face of a prisoner. The CPT recommended that the message that all forms of ill-treatment are unacceptable and subject to severe sanctions should be relayed frequently to staff.
As well as the worrying issue of ill-treatment by staff, the CPT was also very concerned about a culture within Mountjoy Prison in particular which was conducive to inter-prisoner intimidation and violence (page 21) to the point where the prison was considered “unsafe” for both staff and prisoners. “Stabbings, slashings and assaults with various objects are an almost daily occurrence” it reported (page 21), noting that reasons included the availability of drugs, a lack of purposeful activity, feuding gangs, lack of an individualised risk and needs assessment for all prisoners and a lack of space and poor material conditions. Furthermore, the lack of space and design of the prison did not allow for proper separation and classification of prisoners.
The CPT did note that this issue had improved at St Patrick’s Institution since its previous visit and that levels of violence were also lower in Cork apparently due to a less extensive drug problem, an absence of feuding gangs and a concern amongst prisoners to avoid transfer to another prison.
In relation to allegations of ill-treatment, the CPT expressed its concern that the incidents outlined in its report were not subject to a proper investigation. It noted that in some cases the prison officer against whom allegations were made was not transferred to other duties during the investigation, a point also made by the Inspector of Prisons. The CPT also expressed concern that in the cases it examined, it appeared that prison management was reluctant to take action against prison officers and the Inspector of Prisons having reviewed the investigation of one incident at Mountjoy also concluded that it had not been thorough, but that the accompanying Garda investigation was professional.
Five days prior to the CPT’s visit, the Irish Prison Service brought into operation a new policy document on the Investigation of Prisoner Complaints/Allegations. This document does not appear to be available publicly, but the CPT notes its key features. These are:
- All complaints and allegations (including verbal complaints) must be acted upon and afforded due process
- There should be a new standardised complaints journal
- Monthly updates with the Gardaí on Garda investigations are to be obtained and given to the prisoner
- Prison management should investigate allegations which are withdrawn or concern prisoners released from custody.
- The Governor should have a more visible role in the prison using, for example, daily inspections, conducting disciplinary hearings and reviewing prison registers once a week.
This document is a direct response to concerns expressed by the Inspector, who found that the recording of complaints in prisons was woefully inadequate and very high numbers of complaints were withdrawn. The Inspector also recommended that there be a member of staff dedicated to assisting prisoners with their complaints. At present, prisoners must fill out complaint forms themselves or seek the assistance of a friend or chaplain. What those with literacy difficulties, speakers of languages other than English and isolated prisoners are to do is difficult to imagine. This recommendation does not appear to have been acted upon by the Irish Prison Service. Happily, however, the Department of Justice has indicated that it would review whether new procedures were required to ensure effective and impartial investigation of serious complaints. As I have written elsewhere, what is needed is a fully independent, professionalised body dedicated to hearing and resolving complaints from prisoners such as an Ombudsman. I hope that the Department of Justice gives such a proposal serious consideration.