A common perspective shared by commentators on prison issues is that many criminal justice systems were in crisis before the pandemic and that Covid-19 only brought this reality further to the fore. This was forcefully articulated by the CPT:
“As regards the situation of prisoners, the CPT is now witness to a pandemic crisis taking place against the background of pre-existing flaws in various criminal justice systems. As the responses from member States have shown, resolute action is only now being taken – in crisis mode – on some issues that have been the subject of CPT recommendations for very many years.
This was also the case in Ireland, notwithstanding progressive policy development and reforms since 2011. Many of the issues that arose during the Covid-19 pandemic already existed but were exacerbated by the pandemic itself. For example, practices such as restricted regimes had steadily become normalised in prison systems, including in Ireland. Chronic and persistent issues such as overcrowding, long hours spent in cells, and limited access to meaningful activity, had been documented over successive editions of PIPS (and in Part 2 of this report).
IPRT acknowledges the significant work done by the Irish Prison Service to keep the prison system Covid-free during the pandemic. However, had the standards outlined and demanded by PIPS been met previously, the lives of prisoners, their families, prison staff and management could well have been a good deal easier and the impact of Covid-19 less severe. Prisoners would have had access to better living conditions, including single-cell accommodation. Families would have been accustomed to communicating with their family member in prison using digital technology. Prisoners would have transitioned smoothly from school to virtual classrooms. Prison staff and management would not have had to manage the pandemic in the context of crowded prisons, and the impact on life in prison would have been minimised.
A unique opportunity now exists to capture innovations introduced and maximise positive developments brought about in response to the pandemic. IPRT echoes the CPT when it states:
“The Committee urges the relevant authorities of all member States to progressively move from the management of risks to seizing opportunities that the pandemic has created. Certain emergency measures put in place temporarily must be made sustainable. This applies in particular to the increased use of alternatives to deprivation of liberty, with a view to putting an end to the phenomenon of overcrowding.”
The parallel challenge is to ensure there is no regression on progress achieved in the Irish penal system since PIPS 2017, and restrictive measures introduced to protect against the virus do not become the norm. To this end, IPRT sets out the lessons that have been learned in the next section.
Penal Reform International, Covid-19: Pushing criminal justice systems to crisis point, https://www.penalreform.org/covid-19/
CPT/Inf (2020) 21 Follow-up statement regarding the situation of persons deprived of their liberty in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, p.2 https://rm.coe.int/16809ef566
Presentation by Prof Malcolm Evans at the IPRT/ZMT seminar Human Rights and Detention in the time of Covid-19 on 29th April 2020, https://www.iprt.ie/upcoming-events/human-rights-and-detention-in-the-time-of-covid-19-uk-and-ireland/