Video calls and in-cell phones given to prisoners during COVID times could be taken away again once the pandemic ends.
And a new report revealed that the COVID response showed that the majority of closed prisons across Ireland were “overcrowded and unsafe”.
The introduction of video calls and in-cell phone provisions was welcomed in Irish prisons to enable inmates to speak to their families during COVID.
The roll-out in parts of the prison estate are viewed as positive features that emerged from the crisis, according to a report by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT).
They highlight that the phone privileges should be maintained as supplementary to prison visits.
They have also warned that the positive changes introduced in response to the pandemic risk being dismantled.
Executive Director of the IPRT, Fiona Ni Chinneide said the changes are at risk of being reversed as the courts prepare to clear the backlog of cases.
She explained: “In recent years, the number of those held ‘on remand’ in our prisons is rising at a concerning level. Imprisonment is not the only sentence option in the criminal justice system.
“It should not be a waiting room for those who need treatment in our Central Mental Hospital.
“COVID has offered us a brown-field site for a more humane penal system. There should be no reversal of that.”
The report found that the measures introduced to mitigate the virus demonstrate how quickly positive changes can be made to Ireland’s prison system.
Before the virus hit there were more than 4,200 people in custody in Ireland.
Following the outbreak of the pandemic, the Irish Prison Service and the Department of Justice reduced the prison population to 3,807.
Fiona Ni Chinneide, said the improvements in the prison system are at risk of being reversed.
She said: “A reduced prison population saw a near-end to prisoners sleeping on mattresses on floors and a move towards single-cell occupancy.
“Single-cell occupancy is a key measure in supporting men’s and women’s dignity in prisons.
“The COVID response demonstrates that the majority of closed prisons across the State were overcrowded and unsafe in the first instance.
“It also suggests that prison was not a necessary sanction for all of those imprisoned before the pandemic hit.”
The report also stated that as prison numbers increased, so did the risk of COVID outbreaks, putting more staff and prisoners at risk.
Among the key findings was that little progress was made to address mental health in prison.
The report highlights that the State continue to incarcerate people with severe mental illness in prison because of a lack of access to community hospitals or space in the Central Mental Hospital.
It reads: “In any given month through the first half of 2020, there were anything from 20-33 very unwell people incarcerated.
“Mental health and the provision of mental health supports in the prison system is paramount at all times, but especially now as the isolation of the pandemic becomes aggravated for those in prison.
“The lack of in-person contact between children and their parents in prison since last March is particularly hard.
“If we are to learn anything from Ireland’s history of inappropriate institutionalisation of our citizens, incarceration as an alternative to healthcare must end.”
- Progress in the Penal System: Assessing progress during a pandemic – is the fourth annual report of standards in Irish prisons. It is available to view from 4pm today.
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