Covid-19 presents the Irish Prison Service (IPS), and other custodial institutions, with unique and unprecedent challenges relating to managing the spread of the virus and the provision of appropriate medical treatment. While legitimate measures are needed to mitigate this risk of the spread of the virus, authorities need to ensure human rights are upheld, particularly when dealing with the needs of the most vulnerable detainees, including minors, those with disabilities and pregnant women.
A prisoner’s human rights protecting their liberty must never be made subject to measures of derogation that would circumvent the protection of their non-derogable rights, including their right to life, right to prohibition of torture and their right to take proceedings before a court.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in its COVID-19 Statement of Principles, refer to alternatives to deprivation of liberty which is imperative in situations of overcrowding. Prisons and prison populations are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks. On the 12th March 2020, it was reported by Irish Prison Reform Trust, that the prison population was 4,300, 60 of whom were sleeping on floors in prisons. The over population of Irish prisons is an issue that pre-dated Covid-19, however, it is more important than ever to ensure the safety of prisoners.
The Minister for Justice has approved several actions to reduce the number of prisoners in Irish prisons including the granting of temporary release (TR) to low risk prisoners. As with all releases from prison, there needs be a structured plan in place for each individual, with emphasis on securing accommodation and linking in with support services, in order to ensure a successful transition back in the community. For those who may not have a residence upon release, the state should take measures to provide adequate housing, which may require the implementation of measures in a state of emergency, including using vacant and abandoned units and available short-term rentals. The impact on the economy as a result of Covid-19 and the closure of so many facilities will, however, present challenges in these areas.
The decrease of the prison population is indispensable across Ireland to ensure the effective implementation of the sanitary regulations and to ease the mounting pressure on prison personnel and, indeed, the penal system as a whole. An outbreak of COVID-19 in Irish prisons would have devastating consequences for the community.
The IPS should ensure that during the COVID-19 pandemic the human rights of all those who remain in detention are upheld. The nature of the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment should never be compromised by measures taken in prisons, to include the isolation of a prisoner for health reasons. Any restrictions imposed on detainees should be non-discriminatory, necessary, proportionate, time-limited and transparent.
Since the 27th March 2020, all family visits to all Irish prisons have been suspended. The specific and disproportionate impact on prisoners, as well as on their families and children, must be carefully considered. In these circumstances the IPS need to implement alternative arrangements, such as;
- Increased access to phone calls
- Provision of video conferencing
- Access to IPS issue mobile phones
Prisoners should continue to have access to information, legal assistance and independent complaint mechanisms. Prison monitoring mechanisms should be able to continue to oversee the situation while taking precautions to avoid exposing people to further risks. Postponing hearings may in fact exacerbate the risk of in places of detention by delaying release. The State must not deviate from fundamental principles of fair trial, including the presumption of innocence.
We support the actions taken by the IPS to date in the prevention and minimising the impact of this crisis on the prison community. The COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented situation. The dedication of frontline workers to include prison staff, prison medical staff and prison chaplains in providing safe custody, in this ever-evolving situation, must be acknowledged.
By Katie Dowling, Solicitor