Reduce prison numbers, end punitive regime
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has responded to the report into Ireland’s prison system from the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). The report’s authors severely criticise the handling of mentally ill prisoners in prison and detail their concerns citing specific cases.
Prisoners in the five prisons inspected by the CPT stated that the vast majority of prison officers treated them correctly. But it was also noted that a small number of prison officers were inclined to use unnecessary physical force, along with verbal abuse.
Keith Adams, Social Justice Advocate with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice says the report must be a catalyst for the reduction of prison numbers and an end to punitive regimes in Irish prisons.
The JCFJ says that the development of alternative and more constructive responses to crime must be a priority, as must be community-based services for those who are homeless, addicted or mentally ill.
The Justice Centre also calls for the development of secure wards for mentally unwell prisoners outside the prison system, where their unique needs can be addressed in an appropriate and humane fashion.
Prison officers can only aim to reach “minimum standards”, according to Keith Adams because they are called to fulfil roles for which they are not suited. “The broader criminal justice system has made prison a destination for people who should instead be in a psychiatric facility,” he says.
Homeless campaigner Peter McVerry SJ also works with the JCFJ. He spoke about the report to The Examiner newspaper, saying that there was an ‘urgent need’ to address the current situation of mentally ill people in prison. “Community psychiatric services are geographically based,” he said, “They will only accept people from their own locality and if you’re homeless no one will accept you because you don’t have a local address. It’s the structure of the mental health services that has to be changed.”
Responding to Government statements that it is setting up a ‘High-Level Task Force’ on prison, addiction and mental health, Fr McVerry said, “We need action, not talk. We don’t need more reports.”
Read the full statement from the JCFJ below.
Reduce prison numbers and end punitive regime
The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture report contains information on notable advances in the practices within the Irish Prison System (IPS), but these are overshadowed by how the IPS is tasked with impossible challenges. IPS staff are charged with the care of prisoners who are severely unwell, in prisons which are overcrowded.
Prison officers can only aim to reach “minimum standards” because they are called to fulfil roles for which they are not suited. Most strikingly, they are repeatedly placed in positions where even with the best efforts and intentions, their level of care for prisoners is deficient because the broader criminal justice system has made prison a destination for people who should instead be in a psychiatric facility.
In the responses to ending solitary confinement and cell occupancy, the explicit position of the Irish Prison Service is to aim for the minimum standards. This testifies to the fundamental failure of the Irish Criminal Justice system more broadly, which – despite assertions to the contrary – in practice overwhelmingly seeks a punitive response.
The Penal System is thus overburdened by the demands made on it. The solution to overcrowding and repressive regimes is not more cells and more prisons, but the development of a broad range of appropriate non-custodial criminal justice responses, centred around the idea of community intervention and restorative justice.
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice recommends that this report serve as a catalyst for a reduction in the numbers in custody achieved through the development of alternative and more constructive responses to crime, community-based services for those who are homeless, addicted or mentally ill, alongside the development of secure wards for mentally unwell prisoners outside the prison system, where their unique needs can be addressed in an appropriate and humane fashion.
Overcrowding is a chronic problem in Irish prisons, even with the recent decrease in the prison population due to Covid-19. The IPS is charged by the State with providing safe and secure custody, dignity of care and rehabilitation to prisoners, but is effectively serving as a release valve for social policy failures in health care and housing. Prison staff already have a difficult job, made impossible in these circumstances. Prisoners already have a hard road ahead of them if they wish to turn their lives around, made all the more improbable in such circumstances.
The Department of Justice and the Irish Government can aspire to greater ambition than meeting minimum standards. It is time to equip the IPS to follow through on the mission given to them.
Social Justice Advocate
Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice
CONTACT: +353 (0) 86 165 2917
About the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice is an agency of the Irish Jesuit Province, dedicated to undertaking social analysis and theological reflection in relation to issues of social justice, including housing and homelessness, penal policy, environmental justice, and economic ethics. Established in 1978 by a small group of Jesuits living and working in Ballymun, on the northside of Dublin city, the Centre was intended to promote social justice and critically examine issues of structural injustice and poverty.