By Cillian Sherlock, PA
Approximately one in three prisoners is on a waiting list for mental health services, according to a new report by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT).
The Progress in the Penal System (PIPS) report found that in 2022 the use of solitary confinement in Irish prisons increased, the proportion of people accommodated in single cells decreased, the average number of people on remand increased by 23 per cent and overcrowding remained a consistent feature of closed prisons, particularly in women’s prisons.
It is the sixth year of the PIPS report which assesses Ireland’s penal system across human rights and best practice standards set in 2017.
It examines prison conditions, regimes, accountability and reintegration.
Law professor Cormac Behan, chair of the report advisory group, said the challenges facing the Irish penal system include the high rate of imprisonment of people with mental health issues; limited access to drug and alcohol treatment; the absence of an open prison for women; the increase in the number of people, and the time spent, on remand; the lack of an independent complaints mechanism; and the re-emergence of overcrowding.
The report identified rising numbers of people in prison as a move away from progress achieved over the past few years.
“This increasing prison population is contrary to clear commitments in the Government’s Review of Policy Options for Prison and Penal Reform 2022-2024 to look at measures which aim to reduce reoffending, support desistance from offending, avoid overcrowding in prisons and reduce reliance on custodial sentences,” IPRT said in a statement.
It said “some pockets of progress” are at risk of reversal due to a lack of policy implementation.
Acting executive director of IPRT Molly Joyce said prison has been the default option for people who experience mental health issues or the challenges associated with addiction “for too long”.
She welcomed the High Level Task Force to consider mental health and addiction challenges for those coming into contact with the central justice sector and the opening of a new Central Mental Hospital.
She added: “That said, mental health remains a deeply pressing issue within our prisons, with approximately 33 per cent of prisoners on waiting lists to access psychology services at the start of 2023 and 18 people in prison on the waiting list for the Central Mental Hospital as of the end of December 2022.
“This situation requires urgent action by implementing the recommendations of the Task Force without further delay.”
The report indicates significant regress on the issue of overcrowding in Irish prisons, with people sleeping on mattresses and sharing of cells becoming a regular feature across the prison estate.
In particular, there was an 8 per cent increase in the annual average number of people in prison between 2021 (3,794) and 2022 (4,095), a knock-on impact of these increasing prison numbers is the additional pressure it places on rehabilitative services.
Ms Joyce commented: “The increasing numbers of people in prison, and subsequent overcrowding across the prison estate in Ireland, is extremely disappointing.
“Concerted efforts to successfully reduce the number of people in prison as part of the Covid-19 response have now been reversed, resulting in a prison system that is on its knees.”
In December 2022, there were 2,408 instances of prisoners sleeping on mattresses and – as of December 1st last year – there were 104 prisoners sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
“Such conditions undermine the dignity afforded to people in prison,” Ms Joyce said.
The 2022 report further notes that there was an average of 875 people held on remand in 2022: this compares to an average of 584 people on remand in 2017.
The IPRT said women in prison in Ireland are among the most marginalised women in the state, with an estimated 85 per cenr having addiction issues and studies suggesting they are more likely than men to have experienced sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.
The report found the majority of women committed to prison in Ireland are committed for less than a year on non-violent offences, with 2021 figures showing that 85 per cent of all sentenced committals of women were for 12 months or less.
Ms Joyce stated: “Not only are Ireland’s two female prisons the most consistently overcrowded in the State, but women in prison are also often detained on shorter sentences for less serious crimes.
“These short periods in prison leave little time for rehabilitation whilst also disproportionately impacting their families, children, and ability to reintegrate back into communities afterwards.”