Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

Executive Summary

The PIPS project was initiated as a three-year IPRT project in 2016. It aimed to set out a clear vision for the future of the penal system in Ireland, taking as its starting point that as a small wealthy country, Ireland should work towards the goal of becoming a leading model of international best penal practice.

In its first year, PIPS 2017 set out the guiding principles and values of penal reform. Informed by international human rights standards and best practice, 35 standards were created. Clear rationales were outlined as to why these standards were important. Indicators were also put forth to make an assessment of the standards on an annual basis, with short term actions identified for improvement in the 35 areas.

PIPS 2018 focused on the important role of a number of ‘changemakers’ in reducing the prison population. These included: the judiciary, the Probation Service, as well as other stakeholders such as departmental bodies including Education, Health and Housing. PIPS 2018 spotlighted three issues where IPRT believed urgent action was required: mental health, staffing, and the distinct needs of women in the criminal justice system.

In its third year, PIPS 2019 places a strong a focus on accountability in the penal system – the thread of accountability runs through all of its 35 standards. The need to strengthen two core pillars of a robust accountability framework emerges: the further publication of criminal justice data and research; and independent reports from inspection and monitoring bodies. PIPS 2019 again spotlights the standard of mental health (where there has been little change to 2018), along with prison healthcare and the complaints system.

2018 was the first year where the standards were assessed against the categories set out below. The assessment of progress against the standards for both 2018 and 2019 is:

PIPS Assessment of Standards 2018 2019
Progress: 3 7
Regress: 4 6
Mixed: 10 10
No change: 13 10
Insufficient data: 5 2

In 2019, there has been slightly more ‘progress’ identified than in 2018. For example, progress is evident in the area of community engagement within prisons, where projects have been commended both nationally and internationally (Standard 20). IPRT welcomes the opening of the National Violence Reduction Unit (NVRU), as well as publication by the IPS of data on violent incidents across the estate and on restraint techniques (Standard 27). There has also been a review of prisoner escort services, with a recommendation by the Department of Justice and Equality that a detailed framework should govern the performance of prisoner escort services (Standard 28). IPRT also welcomes the signing into law of the Parole Act 2019, the introduction of the Criminal Justice (Rehabilitative Periods) Bill 2018, and an initial review of the current spent convictions legislation by the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality (Standards 33-35).

Despite these positive and welcome developments, there has been regress in a number of key areas including the most fundamental principle of penal reform: that imprisonment is used as a last resort. There continues to be an increase in daily prison population numbers and an increase in the number of committals for short sentences of less than 12 months (Standard 2). Ireland is moving further from the goal of an imprisonment rate of 50 per 100,000, and enshrining the principle of imprisonment as a last resort in statute has not happened. As a result, overcrowding remains a common feature of the prison system in 2019, with evidence that people in prison are sleeping on mattresses on floors (Standard 3). This is totally unacceptable in 21st century Ireland.

2019 has also seen an increase in the number of people placed on restricted regimes. Limited out-of-cell time is also an issue for the general prison population, as a result of staffing shortages and redeployment as evidenced in Prison Visiting Committee reports (Standard 16). What is further disappointing is the lack of up-to-date reports published by inspection and monitoring bodies to give an insight into current prison conditions in Ireland (Standard 24).

Some of the standards assessed are identified as ‘mixed’. For example, while IPRT welcomes further publication of research and data, there appears to be little progress towards the implementation of core penal policy recommendations (Standard 1). Similarly for women, while we welcome the opening of a step-down facility for women leaving prison, overcrowding in women’s prisons remains a chronic feature and there is still no open provision for females (Standards 6 and 32.1). Furthermore, while there has still been no review of the healthcare needs of prisoners, a Terms of Reference has been agreed upon by the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Health and the Irish Prison Service with a tendering process in place (Standard 12).

‘Insufficient data’ is identified for two standards – education and developing positive relationships and work culture – as there was very limited information to make a proper assessment. IPRT would particularly welcome further publication of data on participation rates in education by the prison population (Standard 19).

In total, 12 standards were assessed as ‘no change’ in the past 12 months. This include two of IPRT’s 2019 spotlight areas: mental health, with no change in the number of prisoners with serious mental illness awaiting to be transferred to the Central Mental Hospital (Standard 13); and the complaints system, where prisoners remain without access to an independent complaints mechanism (Standard 23).

Above all, it has been disappointing to see an increase in daily prison population numbers over the three years of the PIPS project. Imprisonment as a last resort is a fundamental principle of penal reform and the PIPS project. PIPS highlights clearly how increasing prison population numbers impact on all aspects of the prison system, for example, overcrowding and a decrease in the number of prisoners having access to single cell accommodation. We again highlight that prison numbers must be reduced in a number of ways: through enshrining the principle of imprisonment as a last resort in statute and using community based sanctions; through diverting the mentally ill away from the prison system; and supporting the needs of individuals upon release, including issues of homelessness, addictions, and the need for improved spent convictions legislation in Ireland.

There is still an opportunity to turn this around, as examples of progressive penal practice in Ireland in 2019 show. For example, human rights as a fundamental part of recruit prison officer training (Standard 29), work towards the implementation of the Public Sector Duty for women and other developments in particular for minority groups such as Travellers at risk of discrimination (Standard 32), and the development of a social enterprise strategy, and a review of the limited spent convictions legislation are all promising (Standards 33-34).

We hope that the short-term actions identified in this report will be considered by the relevant stakeholders as key actions to progress in 2020, in order to achieve the overall PIPS vision of having a world class penal system.

Irish Penal Reform Trust

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