Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

7: Humane prison conditions (2019)

Standard 7:

Every prisoner is treated with respect, dignity and humanity and has access to decent living conditions.


The deprivation of liberty is the punishment once someone is imprisoned. Therefore, prison living conditions should aim to reflect ordinary daily life and be of a standard that ensures the respect and dignity of each individual.

Current context:

In order to gain insight into whether prisoners have access to decent and humane conditions, the publication of timely reports by independent and monitoring bodies is essential. It is thus difficult to report on this area, due to the absence of published inspection reports by the OiP. In addition, there have been considerable time delays in the publication of Prison Visiting Committee reports.

Access to decent prison living conditions is impacted directly by overcrowding, due to its knock-on effects on all other aspects of prison conditions. The President of the POA has highlighted that: “[o]vercrowding puts both prisoners and prison officers at unnecessary risk – and this is totally unacceptable”.[176]

The Minister for Justice and Equality stated that a number of steps were being taken to address the issue, including: the re-opening of accommodation such as the Training Unit and an audit of existing accommodation, that may provide up to an additional 100 spaces.[177] IPRT is concerned that expansion of the prison estate is being put forward as a response to prison crowding in 2019.

Indicators for Standard:

Indicators for Standard 7

Indicator S7.1: Number of overcrowded prisons (new)

Throughout much of June 2019, five closed prisons were consistently overcrowded: Dóchas (women’s prison), Cloverhill, Limerick (male and female), Arbour Hill and Castlerea.[178] No prisoner should have to sleep on a mattress, yet the number of prisoners recorded as doing so in May 2019 shows the extent of prison overcrowding.[179] Peak dates for this included:

  • 26 people in Midlands (25 May);
  • 25 people in Limerick (male) (12 May);
  • 12 people in Cork (30 May);
  • nine people in Cloverhill (29 May); as well as
  • six women in Limerick (female) and seven men in Castlerea on several occasions across the month.

Indicator S7.2: Access to decent living conditions (new)

There is a lack of up to date inspection reports published by the Office of the Inspector of Prison on prison conditions.[180] The Prison Visiting Committee annual reports for 2017 published in 2019 showed mixed standards of living conditions across the prison estate.[181]

The Dóchas Prison Visiting Committee raised concerns about the standard and conditions of the rooms and described that campus as in need of a major upgrade.[182]

The Limerick Prison Visiting Committee recommended that: “work on all identified infrastructural improvements continue as a matter of priority and urgency. The Isolation Unit is a particular cause of concern”.[183]

Portlaoise Prison Visiting Committee reported poor conditions in E block of that campus requiring urgent attention.[184]

The Mountjoy Prison Visiting Committee reported the opening of refurbished landings with much improved yard and recreational facilities.[185]

In Wheatfield, conditions varied depending largely upon a prisoner’s regime (basic, standard or enhanced)[186]:

“If a prisoner is on basic regime his cell will more than likely be in poor condition. Windows are broken causing issues in summer and winter. The in-cell mirrors are usually broken and there is a lot of graffiti on the walls or ceiling. If a prisoner finds himself on enhanced regime, the cells are in a much better state of repair. Prisoners have access to television, books, and magazines and also have facilities for tea and coffee etc.” [[footnote num=187]

The Committee also reported that there has been a decrease in dumping since new windows have been installed.

In open prisons, conditions at Loughan House, were described as good.[188] There were also positive reports of Shelton Abbey, with one room fitted out with ‘pods’ allowing for increased privacy of prisoners.[189]


In 2018–2019, the issue of overcrowding in the prison system has worsened, which impacts on prisoners having access to decent living conditions. No one in prison should have to sleep on a mattress on a floor. Overcrowding has many negative impacts, including elevated levels of violence. IPRT is clear in our position that increasing prison capacity is not the right response, as confirmed by the Thornton Hall Review Group and the Penal Policy Review Group.

Prisoner numbers must be reduced through the promotion and use of non-custodial alternatives. (See Standard 2.) Furthermore, a multi-agency response is required in order to divert specific cohorts away from the prison system to the appropriate service, such as those with mental illness. (See Standard 13.)
The introduction of ‘pods’ in the dormitory rooms in Shelton Abbey has improved the privacy for people accommodated there. Building is also underway to replace unfit prison accommodation in Limerick Prison. IPRT welcomes that this will end ‘slopping out’ in that prison, and that the women’s facilities are being replaced. However, it is disappointing that female capacity in the prison will be doubled. This is contrary to policy consensus that the number of women in prison should be significantly reduced.

IPRT is very concerned at Wheatfield Visiting Committee reports that cell conditions vary for prisoners according to regime level. Decent living conditions must be met for all prisoners, regardless of the regime level they are on.

Status of Standard 7: Regress

Actions required:

Action 7.1 The IPS should carry out regular internal audits of prison conditions. The IPS could consider developing a set of indicators to ensure that all prisoners have access to decent living conditions.
Action 7.2 The Minister for Justice and Equality should progress the establishment of a Prison Service Board, and ensure governance structures are resourced.


Irish Penal Reform Trust


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