The most recent report of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) on its visit to Ireland during 2010 has just been published. The CPT visits Garda stations, prisons and some establishments run by the Department of Health such as the Central Mental Hospital and St Brendan’s Hospital. The prisons visited by the CPT were Cork, Limerick (female), Midlands, Mountjoy, Portlaoise and St Patrick’s Institution. In addition, “targeted” visits were paid to Cloverhill and Wheatfield to examine the care afforded to prisoners with a mental health disorder and a visit was also made to the Dóchas centre to interview a prisoner there. The CPT’s visit took place from January 25 until February 5 2010.
There are so many issues of concern arising out of this report that only reading the report in its entirety will do it justice. In this blogpost and perhaps a couple of others, I will try to extract some of the key themes and comments in the report as well as the main features of the response of the Irish Government which was published on the same day.
At the very outset, I think an overarching theme arising out of the CPT report is that of accountability, or perhaps the lack thereof. A lack of accountability for policy decisions, for the internal implementation of discipline, for complaints have cumulatively led to the often distressing picture of prison life painted by this report. I will write separately on this specific topic, but it is part of many elements of this important report.
Overcrowding As the CPT notes, the prison population has increased significantly since the CPT’s last visit in 2006. It was 3,150 in October 2006 and over 4,000 by the end of January 2010. The figure has increased again since the visit, standing now at over 5,000. This aspect of the problem overshadows the others in the sense that it impacts on sanitary conditions and regimes but, as I have said elsewhere, it also creates a situation in which the focus on numbers and the crisis of increasing numbers has acted, it seems, to transfix policy-makers and commentators to the point when many other problems with in the system – such as accountability structures – are overlooked. There is no doubt, however, that the level of overcrowding in Mountjoy, Limerick (female) and Cork prisons is very serious. As the CPT makes clear, at page 15, “as was the case in 2006, the de facto overcrowding, combined with the conditions in certain of the old and dilapidated prisons, raises real concerns as to the safe and humane treatment of prisoners”.
The focus on space has also led to an emphasis in Government responses on the provision of more spaces rather than on other solutions. The danger here, of course, is that while waiting for the provision of these new spaces, which may be some time away and, indeed, may be radically different to that envisaged by the Fianna Fáíl led Government s of the recent past, existing conditions are tolerated and explained away with something of a generation of prisoners being written off. The CPT makes this point, encouraging the Irish authorities to invest necessary resources in the interim. It also makes a policy point, stating that it has “serious misgivings” (page 15) about the construction of very large prison complexes and that the building of additional accommodation is unlikely in itself to provide a lasting solution and stated “more might be achieved through devising programmes for such persons to serve their sentences in the community” (page 16) and referred to a recommendation of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers in this regard. The CPT recommended to the Irish government that it continue to pursue “vigorously multi-faceted policies designed to put an end to overcrowding in prisons” (page 16).
You can read these recommendations on my delicious site.
So, prison building is not enough: important words, but not unexpected! The IPRT has been saying similar for some time.