Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

Thematic Area 4: Oversight, accountability and complaints (2020)


Ireland is obliged to treat all persons in any form of detention with dignity and with respect for their human rights. Monitoring and inspection of places of detention, as well as the establishment of an independent external complaints mechanism, are thus central to the protection and promotion of the human rights of people in prison.[408] Prisons are closed institutions and, as such, [the] exceptional nature of the powers taken by the State over confined individuals makes effective external scrutiny of their use a matter of particular urgency.[409]

However, the State has failed to act with urgency in prioritising independent oversight of places of detention. This is evident across a number of areas. Ireland is one of the four remaining EU Member States that have yet to ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture[410] (see Standard 24, Inspections and Monitoring) and both inspection (Office of the Inspector of Prisons) and monitoring (Prison Visiting Committees) bodies cannot publish directly, but must submit their reports to the Minister for Justice for publication. This undermines their independence.

The lack of published up-to-date information from oversight bodies means the general public has little knowledge of the situation inside prisons. This is even more significant during an emergency situation such as the Covid-19 pandemic. The Inspector of Prisons outlined key issues and responses, and the risk of ill treatment in prisons during the pandemic:[411]

“The ‘usual’ routine in a prison is completely changed very quickly, and frequent communication to people in custody and staff explaining what is happening and why is of particular importance. Protective measures may require additional restrictions, which, if used inappropriately could amount to ill- treatment.”[412]

While the Inspector of Prisons undertook one-day visits to all prisons during the initial lockdown (13 March 2020 to 29 June 2020), with particular focus on out-of-cell time and meaningful activity, the lack of published inspection reports means the public has no insight into the findings of these visits.[413] This is unacceptable given the adverse impact, including limited contact with the outside world, of Covid-19 restrictions on the prison population. By contrast, a number of inspection reports have been published in the UK since the onset of the pandemic. These reports have identified issues of concern such as time out-of-cell, while also showcasing examples of positive practice across the prison estate.[414] [415] These timely reports provide transparency, accountability and an impetus for continued improvement in daily prison life.

Delays in the publication of reports raise serious concerns about the rights of those in custody. This is not unique to the Covid-19 pandemic, nor is it unique to prison inspection reports. It also extends to death in custody reports. A total of ten investigation reports into deaths in custody have been published by the Minister for Justice in 2020, however, eight of these deaths occurred in 2018.[416] In order to be considered effective, investigations into deaths in custody must be prompt so that systemic failures can be identified and addressed as outlined under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Furthermore, it took two years for an investigation report to be submitted to the Minister for Justice in relation to the death of a terminally-ill prisoner who experienced delays in accessing urgent medical treatment.[417] Delays in the preparation and publication of these reports are not justified by extensive detail. The Office of the Inspector of Prisons has noted the lack of detail recorded and provided by staff. In this respect, one of the Inspector’s recommendations was that the Irish Prison Service “should instruct all staff that their written records and verbal evidence in respect of Deaths in Custody and other significant incidents must be fully detailed and specific in relation to all factual aspects of the event including timing and job roles.”[418] However, a recent positive development is the publication of Irish Prison Service action plans alongside the reports. In these action plans, the Irish Prison Service outlines steps taken to implement the Inspector’s recommendation(s), including assigning responsibility for the implementation of action(s) and a timeline.[419]

Reform of prison visiting committees is also required. The Prison Visiting Committee Annual Reports for 2018 were published on 25 May 2020.[420] This is a substantial delay, with inconsistent quality in reporting across the committees. It would be all but purposeless to publish information on prison conditions during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic on a similar timeline, which would be May 2022.

It is clear that there is much to be done to increase, improve and strengthen the accountability and oversight structures that provide oversight of the prison system. Ireland must ratify the OPCAT. The Office of the Inspector of Prisons must be able to publish inspection reports independently of the Minister in order to improve transparency and support credibility. Prison visiting committees must be reformed. A robust and effective internal complaints system must be introduced, and prisoners must have access to an independent external complaints mechanism. All of these calls have been made in previous editions of PIPS, and in the context of the pandemic, they have never been more urgent than they are today.


Irish Penal Reform Trust


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