Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

Introduction (2020)


The first planning meeting of Progress in the Penal System (PIPS) 2020 took place on 13th March 2020, two days after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak of Covid-19 as a pandemic,2 one day after schools across Ireland were closed 3, and one day before children’s visits to prisons in Ireland were suspended. 4 At that point in time, a disruption of 2 to 4 weeks was anticipated. Eight months on, Covid-19 has brought many unforeseen challenges – but also unexpected opportunities for reform. It is against the backdrop of this unprecedented global emergency that we present Progress in the Penal System 2020.5

Progress in the Penal System 2017–2019

Since 2017, the IPRT PIPS project has set out a clear vision for the future of the penal system. Its ambition is for Ireland, a small country, to offer leadership as a model of international best penal practice. In order to support progress towards making this vision a reality, IPRT devised 35 standards for the penal system. These were informed by international and European human rights best practice, and they aimed to assess our progress in the areas of penal policy, prison conditions, regimes, oversight and reintegration. The PIPS project aimed to shine a spotlight on how Ireland treats men and women behind bars and locked doors, and to hold the State to account on its human rights obligations. Over its initial three- year period, the PIPS project identified progress in a number of key areas – and regress in others.6 Overall, the pace of progress was slow, but travelling in the right direction.

Progress in the Penal System 2020

This year, PIPS 2020 necessarily takes a different approach. While we remain dedicated to achieving the 35 standards across Ireland’s penal system, it
is not possible to measure progress in the same way as previous years. On the one hand, increasing rates of imprisonment have been reversed – this
is welcome but it has not been brought about through implementation of policy reform. On the other hand, the concept of the ‘porous prison’ cannot be facilitated during a pandemic – this is not due to a lack of progressive thinking but rather adherence to national public health guidance.

PIPS 2020 seeks to capture the positive reforms that have been implemented, reflect on how these reforms were achieved, and outline the longer-term benefits to wider society so that these progressive reforms will be retained into the future.

At the same time, PIPS 2020 shines a spotlight on how the pandemic has exacerbated the pains of imprisonment. It details how people in prison are being “doubly punished,” subject to harsher restrictions within an already restricted environ- ment.7 It asks whether sufficient measures have been taken to minimise the impact of Covid-19 related restrictions, and outlines how the pandemic response risks normalising human rights breaches.

It asks whether imprisonment has become purely punitive, what ‘rehabilitation’ means during a pandemic, and the implications for policy and public safety in the future. PIPS 2020 also recognises the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on certain groups, and how the response has deepened inequalities in society.

Structure of the report

Part 1 of PIPS 2020 reflects on the PIPS vision in the context of Covid-19, exploring the human rights framework within which the pandemic has unfolded, and drawing together key lessons on which to progress reforms in the future.

Part 2 focuses on the four thematic areas that have been of most significance during the Covid-19 pandemic, and includes analysis of 12 standards that are both interconnected and central to achieving the overall PIPS vision. The four thematic areas are:

  1. Reducing the use of imprisonment
  2. Prison conditions and regimes
  3. Health and mental health
  4. Oversight, accountability and complaints

Assessment of Progress

IPRT uses a wide variety of research methods to gather the evidence on which to base our annual assessment, including: a comprehensive desk review of published information and reports; requesting information directly from stakeholders; parliamentary questions and debates; and more.

On the basis of the evidence gathered, we make a top-line assessment and then apply one of the following categories to each standard regarding progress made over the 12-month period September 2019 to August 2020: progress; regress; mixed; no change; and insufficient data. These are explained below.

Progress: Where there has been identified and significant movement towards attainment of the standard.
Regress: Where there has been identified and significant movement away from the attainment of the standard.
Mixed: Where there has been both progress towards the standard in some areas and regress away from it in others.
No change: Where there has been neither significant progress nor regress.
Insufficient data: Where sufficient or adequate data is not available to make a reliable assessment of progress towards the standard.

Thematic Area 1: Reducing the use of imprisonment

Standard Theme Assessment Rationale
S1 Progressive penal policy Progress Several penal reform commitments are included in the Programme for Government. The Department of Justice published evidence-based reviews and facilitated open consultations on various strategies. PIPS standards informed the Framework for the Inspection of Prisons in Ireland.
S2 Imprisonment as a last resort Mixed The annual trend of sending people to prison for short sentences continued in 2019.
S10 (Updated) Pre-trial detention as an exceptional measure Regress The remand population has increased by 21% since 2017.

Thematic Area 2: Prison Conditions & Regimes

Standard Theme Assessment Rationale
S9 Single cell accommodation Regress Before the pandemic, additional bed capacity was created in three prisons in Ireland.
S11 Family contact Mixed

The roll-out of video calls nationally and in-cell phone provision in some parts of the prison estate are welcome innovations.

Children and families had little or no in-person visits with their family member in prison due to public health restrictions.


Out of cell time

Regress Out-of-cell time was significantly reduced for the prison population due to the Covid-19 restrictions. The general prison population also had reduced daily out-of-cell time, averaging six hours.
S26 Solitary Confinement Regress

Based on Census figures, solitary confinement increased from 40 in January 2019 to 75 in January 2020.

One hundred twenty-seven people were on a restricted regime of 22 or more hours per day in April 2020; this number includes medical-related isolation.

Thematic Area 3: Healthcare

Standard Theme Assessment Rationale
S12 Healthcare Progress

The Irish Prison Service must be commended for keeping Covid-19 out of prisons during the initial lockdown.

The prison health needs assessment is significant for informing long-term healthcare policy in Irish prisons.

S13 Mental healthcare Mixed

The establishment of a Taskforce between the Department of Health and the Department of Justice to address the prison population’s mental health and addiction needs is welcome.

There continues to be a similar number of prisoners awaiting transfer to the Central Mental Hospital (CMH) as there was in 2019.

Thematic Area 4:
Oversight, Accountability, and Complaints

Standard Theme Assessment Rationale
S22 Complaints system No change While the Irish Prison Service has made changes to the internal complaints system, it has not met its implementation timeline.
S23 Independent complaints and appeal mechanism No change Prisoners still have no access to an independent complaints and appeals mechanism.
S24 Inspections & monitoring Mixed

Some positive developments include additional resourcing of the Office of the Inspector of Prisons, the publication of the Framework for the Inspection of Prisons in Ireland, and commitments in the Programme for Government to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) and reform prison visiting committees.

The absence of published inspection and monitoring reports is acute during a time of a national and global emergency.

Irish Penal Reform Trust


Copyright 2024 Irish Penal Reform Trust. CHY number: 11091

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