Inhumane prisoner conditions during pandemic
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice (JCFJ) commented on inspector reports into prisons in Ireland during Covid-19 restrictions. The four Covid-19 Thematic Reports » —Mountjoy Male, Cloverhill, Wheatfield, Limerick— which were published today (3 August 2021), are the first public prison inspection reports since May 2017.
These reports have provided the first comprehensive glimpse into prison life during the pandemic. The Inspector singled out the collaborative effort by prison staff and prisoners to suppress transmission and maintain public health, which resulted in Ireland’s prisons remaining relatively free of Covid-19 in comparison to other countries. But today, the cost to prisoners has been revealed. These reports have shown the extent to which solitary confinement [prisoners were locked up for 23 hours or more per day] was used within the Covid-19 protocols and the toll which this had on prisoners.
The published inspection reports carry a grave warning for society and policymakers alike that “increased restriction is the new norm.” Restrictive measures with increased in-cell time can be implemented in a short space of time but the challenge, which is rarely considered at the time of implementation, is how to successfully unwind these measures at a later stage. It is easy for remnants of restrictive measures to endure.
Based on their observations, the Inspector concludes that, during the Covid-19 response, “a low standard of physical survival has been introduced.” Life for the prisoner has been reduced to the bare essentials and yet many were still lacking basic provisions. Prisoners under quarantine or isolation protocols were denied access to a shower, in some cases up to 14 days in total. Inspectors found repeated examples of substandard bed mattresses, and prisoners having to wear the same clothes for long periods of time. Female prisoners could not access certain sanitary products.
Meals were often served at very close intervals, leaving a period of 16 hours between the evening meal and breakfast. Many of the well-documented issues with Irish prisons such as the continuation of “slopping out” and the provision of triple occupancy cells which do not meet internal standards for minimum cell size are reported.
Many of the issues documented by the Inspector—overcrowded cells, lack of privacy with toileting due to partial partitions, lack of access to shower facilities—are the result of over-crowding within our prisons. The Irish Prison Service should have implemented a more extensive scheme of early release and demarcation to minimise the impacts of the restrictive regimes put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The first of the Covid-19 Thematic Reports were submitted to the Department of Justice in early May and have only been published three months later. During a period of crisis, it is even more important that inspections are published in the most timely manner so prison procedures and conditions can be closely monitored. Future full inspections need to be published promptly until the Office’s powers are expanded.