Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

Standard 9: Single-cell accommodation (2020)

Standard 9:

Every prisoner has access to single-cell accommodation.


It is important that prisoners have the choice of single-cell accommodation. Access to single-cell accommodation promotes a prisoner’s right to privacy, and helps to reduce violence.

Current context:

The PIPS vision of a best-practice prison system is one where single-cell accommodation is the default option. Where people choose to share cells, a thorough risk assessment should be undertaken on a regular basis. Single cell accommodation may act as a safeguard against violence.[244] The Mountjoy Visiting Committee has observed that: “The value of single cell accommodation cannot be overstated, reflecting a commitment to the dignity and privacy of the person.”[245]

Single-cell accommodation also acts to protect health particularly within the context of infectious diseases such as Covid-19. Public health guidance reiterates the importance of ‘social distancing’ (i.e. keeping two metres apart) to prevent transmission of the coronavirus. Social distancing cannot occur when prisoners are cell-sharing. Cellmates are described as ‘close contacts’ of quarantined prisoners and therefore have to be quarantined too.[246] Provision of single-cell accommodation would help uphold prisoners’ rights to parity of medical care and a right to bodily integrity, despite restrictions in their liberty.[247]

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of prisoners sharing cells reduced by 8% from 1,892 in January 2020 to 1,746 in April 2020.[248] This reduction was brought about through the overall reduction in prison numbers.

Standard 9: Every prisoner has access to single-cell accommodation.

Prior to the pandemic, in December 2019, the Irish Prison Service had increased its bed capacity in the main women’s prison, the Dóchas Centre by 41 from 105 to 146.[249] This followed an audit described by the Director General as identifying cells “capable of holding two prisoners that are only occupied by one.”[250] The Midlands Prison bed capacity increased by 30 and Wheatfield Prison increased capacity by 60.[251] This increase in bed capacity was achieved merely through the addition of extra beds, and not through any increase in prison size or any improved access to regimes. This is regressive penal policy, which must be re-considered – particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and of the requirement to facilitate social distancing.

The Mental Health Commission also highlighted the significant risks associated with shared accommodation, in particular dormitory-style accommodation in mental health care facilities, during the Covid-19 pandemic. The CEO of the Mental Health Commission called for a national review of shared accommodation to address[252]This recommendation is also of relevance to prison settings where both dormitory style accommodation and shared accommodation exists within the estate.

Given the reduced number of people in prison, there is now an opportunity to work towards provision of single-cell accommodation throughout the estate. This would also allow for people in prison to access toilets in private.

Access to single-cell accommodation is essential in order to meet compliance with infection and prevention control standards including facilitating social distancing, a public health measure likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Indicators for Standard:

Indicators for Standard 9

Indicator S9.1:

Number and percentage of people accommodated in a single cell.[253]

Progressive Practice:

Progressive Practice: Single-cell Accommodation, Norway

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Norway is abolishing the use of double and multi-occupancy cells.[254] Single-cell accommodation is being used in order to prevent the spread of infection. This is possible as a result of low imprisonment and recidivism rates.

Actions required:

Status of Standard 9: Regress

Rationale for Assessment

Single-cell accommodation is a measure that promotes and protects the health and safety of prisoners. The reduction in prisoner numbers in March 2020 has increased the number of prisoners with access to single-cell accommodation. However, it is disappointing that additional beds were added within three prisons following the completion of the Irish Prison Service cell audit at the end of 2019. This should now be reviewed particularly in light of what has emerged during Covid-19, and the necessity of running prisons below design capacity.

Action 9.1

The Irish Prison Service should reverse the increase in bed capacities in Dóchas, Midlands and Wheatfield prisons.

Action 9.2

Legislators should introduce a provision under the Prison Rules, 2007 that single-cell accommodation must be available across the prison estate.


Irish Penal Reform Trust


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