In a year characterised by changes to daily life and emergency responses to a global pandemic, the importance of the Progress in the Penal System project cannot be overstated. It assesses the daily realities and human rights of people in prison across Ireland – a group too often forgotten. It comes at a time when the impact of the pandemic continues to be felt by those detained and their loved ones outside.
At the outset of the pandemic, media attention turned to commitments from governments to release large numbers of people from prison. However, many of these did not come to fruition leaving overcrowding levels high and the risk of transmission of Covid-19 and other infectious diseases a real threat.
Now, as I write this at the beginning of 2021, the reported number of people in prison globally who have been infected with Covid-19 stands at more than 311,279 across 118 countries and around 2,753 people in prison have reportedly died due to Covid-19 in 40 countries.1 We believe that due to the lack of data and testing, compounded by a lack of transparency in some places, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Responses in prisons globally have focused largely on reducing contact between people within facilities, and the suspension of visits, programmes and education opportunities, with many people locked in a cell for up to and exceeding 23 hours a day for weeks or months on end. In many cases measures have violated human rights, and at the very least, made time in prison much harsher and burdensome, sometimes bringing mental health to crisis point – as also highlighted in this report.
The timely steps taken by the prison service in Ireland to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on people in prison are rightly commendable and should be looked upon for future crisis planning by other prison systems.
The task now is to identify the good practices and innovations and ensure these measures are sustained or developed, and to identify ongoing and emerging systemic issues that require urgent reform to protect the health and human rights of all in contact with the criminal justice system. In this regard, this report serves as a vital resource as a roadmap for Ireland to build on the achievements to date and renew efforts to not only meet international standards but exceed them for a more effective, humane system.