Report calls for abolition of solitary confinement in Ireland

Deirdre Malone
Deirdre Malone

Holding prisoners in isolation in excess of 22 hours and for extended periods of time must be abolished due to the harm this can cause to prisoners’ mental health, the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has said.

The penal reform group yesterday launched Behind the Door: Solitary Confinement in the Irish Penal System, the culmination of a major evidence-based research project led by the IPRT.

The report contains 25 key recommendations, informed by fieldwork and literature, grouped under four headings: elimination of the use of solitary confinement; segregation for reasons of protection; access to justice; and collection and publication of statistics.

Addressing the launch of the report yesterday, Deirdre Malone, executive director of the IPRT, said: “Our goal is ambitious but achievable – the abolition of solitary confinement in Ireland in the short term and the gradual elimination of the use of restricted regimes with a minimum out-of-cell time at 8 hours per day and an ultimate target of 12 hours out-of-cell time daily for all prisoners across the prison estate.

“We recognise the challenge for any prison service in balancing prisoner safety on the one hand, while at the same time providing prisoners with a reasonable and humane regime. At present, prisoners may be placed on ‘protection’ on the basis that they have asked for this to happen. Yet those regimes are significantly impoverished as prisoners face restricted access to education, physical activities and fresh air; limitations on family visits and phone contact; and difficulties in accessing health and addiction support. Such restrictions can have a serious negative impact on effective reintegration upon release.”

Juan Méndez, former UN special rapporteur on torture, told the event: “Human rights principles require prison regimes to be safe, respectful, purposeful and effective. It is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve these standards in situations where prisoners are confined in isolation for long hours, whether this is 22 to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, or for more than 19 hours on restricted regimes.

“Social isolation is one of the harmful elements of solitary confinement and its main objective. It reduces meaningful social contact to an absolute minimum and as a result, prisoners in solitary confinement or on restricted regimes can experience serious health problems, regardless of specific conditions of time, place and pre-existing personal factors.

“Prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment or even torture because of the mental pain it inflicts. In recognition of this, international law is developing a specific framework to regulate its use, mostly by way of the Nelson Mandela Rules, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015. Like the IPRT in Ireland, reform groups in countries around the world are working to achieve the abolition of solitary confinement and the elimination of restricted regimes in prison systems. I fully support the IPRT’s report and commend their excellent work in advocating for prisoners’ rights.”

The launch event included contributions from report authors, Dr Agnieszka Martynowicz and Dr Linda Moore, and Professor Barry Goldson, University of Liverpool, as well as a panel discussion with expert speakers, including Michael O’Neill, head of legal at the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission; Martin Smyth, director of operation at the Irish Prison Service; independent socialist TD Clare Daly; and Professor Ian O’Donnell from UCD.