Accountability in our prisons: the response of the Irish Government

In a previous post, I wrote about the recent report of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture on Irish prisons, noting the concerns expressed by theis Council of Europe body about the operation of a complaints mechanism.

Sadly, the immediate response of the Department of Justice fails to recognise the lack of an independent mechanism for prisoners to make complaints about their treatment in Ireland, a point made by Hamilton and Kilkelly and also by the Inspector of Prisons. The Department notes (at page 20) that prisoners can make a complaint to a member of staff, a Visiting Committee, the Gardaí, the Prison Chaplain, the Prison Doctor, the Minister and the Courts. They may also write to the CPT and also discuss matters of concern with officials from the Headquarters of the Irish Prison Service. Of the bodies noted, only the Gardaí and the Courts can be considered genuinely independent of the prison system, though of course Chaplains and others provide an important outlet for prisoners they have no power to resolve the matters complained of. Not all complaints will warrant the intervention of the Gardaí and seeking access to the Courts is a long, expensive and arduous process. It is not in any way suitable for resolving most complaints by prisoners, who may be released long before their case is dealt with. The response of the Department of Justice is inadequate in this regard.

The Department also referred to “enhanced” grievance procedures brought in by Rule 57 of the Prison Rules 2007 (page 20). That Rule gives prisoners the right to request a meeting with an officer of the Minister and obliges a Governor to forward such a request to the Director General of the Irish Prison Service who designates an officer to visit the prisoner and hear any request or complaint. This takes place within the view but out of the hearing of a prison officer and the Minister can request it also be out of view. The officer involved can make a recommendation to the Governor or ask the Governor to deal with it. The Director General of the Irish Prison Service can require a Governor to comply with a direction given by him or her.

Again, while these procedures are important, they do not provide any form of independent accountability mechanism for prisoners’ complaints. The prisoner is left to complain about the operations of the Irish Prison Service to an official of that Service, and the official appointed by the Irish Prison Service will make recommendations or issue directions to another agent of that Service. This process is obviously entirely circular and internal, providing no way to seek an independent adjudication of the matter.

The Irish Prison Service also stated that none of the complaints of verbal abuse made by prisoners in Cork had been made to management, staff or the Visiting Committee. While this is obviously relevant and legitimate to state, it cannot be said to provide a full explanation or indeed defence. As both the CPT and the Inspector of Prisons have stated previously, the Visiting Committees do not seem to have the confidence of prisoners, a point also made by boys in St Patrick’s Institution in the recent report of the Ombudsman for Children into that institution. Thus, complaints may not be made to them on the basis that prisoners don’t know of their existence or may not believe they will be able to do anything about a problem. Indeed, Committees do not have the power to take action about complaints. The Ombudsman for Children also found that boys in St Patrick’s did not believe management would take complaints seriously, which Ben Crewe also found in an analysis of an English prison. Thus, the Irish Prison Service should not be complacent about the fact that complaints have not been recorded by any of these bodies.

The Irish Prison Service also notes the introduction of welcome training for prison officers since 2007 in ‘Custodial Care’. However, this training is for new recruits and the benefits may take some time to filter upwards through the system. The

Finally, the Irish Prison Service indicated that internal reviews of the incidents referred to by the CPT were underway. It is to be hoped that the outcomes of these investigations will be made available publicly.

It is also essential that the complaints policy, which should always have been in place, is fully enforced and gains the confidence of prisoners. No amount of books or visibility of a Governor will make a difference if the perception remains that complaining is not worth it or will be counterproductive. The only genuine way to improve this situation is to ensure there is an absolutely independent system for making complaints. An Ombudsman for Prisoners is necessary.

Accountability in our prisons: the response of the Irish Government

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