The Irish penal system response to the Covid-19 pandemic illustrates how swiftly positive change can be implemented. Reducing prisoner numbers has been key to keeping prisons and people in prison safe from Covid-19. This must be maintained. Keeping prisoner numbers low is also necessary to ensure the human rights of men and women detained are met. All stakeholders, including legislators, the judiciary and the Probation Service, have a role to play in achieving this.
The introduction of digital technology into prisons is another positive example. This has enormous potential to support various aspects of prison life, such as contact with the outside world, family life and education. This in turn supports rehabilitation.
The Covid-19 pandemic has adversely affected all society. However, the imposition of additional restrictions on people already deprived of their liberty has resulted in extremely harsh conditions. This includes excessively long hours spent in cells, reduced access to rehabilitative programmes, and almost no in-person contact with children, family and friends since March 2020. The mental health needs of the prison population must also be supported given these protective factors have been diminished. It is important that restrictive measures are proportionate to risk, and subject to regular review.
There have been no published prison inspection and monitoring reports ten months on from the start of the pandemic. This is of serious concern. Timely publication of reports is essential to protect against potential human rights violations, especially during an emergency.
The deprivation of liberty is the punishment. Additional restrictions to prison life can be viewed, and experienced, as a disproportionate level of punishment. Therefore, IPRT calls for the significant impact of Covid-19 on prison life to be taken into account in all decision-making processes, from remand and sentencing decisions to decisions relating to remission, early release and addressing parole delays. It is neither fair nor just that men and women in prison should be detained for longer or in harsher conditions for reasons outside their control.
The State must now consider the socio-economic impact of Covid-19 and its implications for the criminal justice system. It is vital that the State invests in measures to support those disproportionately affected by the crisis and protect against deepening inequality. This will make all of society safer for everyone.
The Covid-19 crisis presents an opportunity to move away from a reactive approach and instead address the need for systemic ‘root and branch’ change within the wider criminal justice system in Ireland. Enshrining the principle of imprisonment as a last resort in law should be at the centre.
The ways that Covid-19 has impacted on the world is an opportunity now to re-think and re-sharpen our focus on shaping a world-class penal system grounded in human rights and best practice, that supports broader social justice and criminal justice reforms.