Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

1.3 Prison for punishment or rehabilitation? (2020)

The Covid-19 pandemic placed severe restrictions on the whole population,[28] with settings ranging from luxury cruise ships to people’s own homes compared with prison. However, such comparisons fail to comprehend the deprivation of liberty as experienced by men, women and children in penal detention. They do not consider the lack of agency, autonomy, and contact with the outside world that is inherent (although not inevitably so) in penal detention. As highlighted by the WHO:

“People in prisons and other places of detention are already deprived of their liberty and may react differently to further restrictive measures imposed upon them.” [29]

Severely reduced contact with families and community; lack of purposeful activity, including very limited access to education, work, training and other regimes; long hours spent in cells with little access to exercise and fresh air; and increased levels of anxiety and other mental health difficulties have all compounded the “pains of imprisonment”.[30] Men and women detained in prison during the pandemic have received a level of punishment that could not have been anticipated in their initial sentencing. Indeed, some court cases in England, Wales and Scotland have taken into account the impact of Covid-19 restrictions as a relevant factor in sentencing.[31] However, there has been a notable absence of debate on this issue in Ireland. Given that the principle of proportionality is the cornerstone of Irish sentencing law,[32] and that harsher punishment has been served during the pandemic than intended by the sentencing Courts, consideration should now be given to reducing sentences, for example through increased remission.[33]

It remains the case that the punitive nature of imprisonment has been intensified during the pandemic, while its rehabilitative purpose has been significantly eroded by virtue of the imposition of Covid-19 restrictions.


Irish Penal Reform Trust


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