Ireland’s Shame as European Torture Committee Presents Damning Indictment of Irish Prison System


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The fifth report on Ireland from the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Degrading Treatment (CPT), published today, is the most critical yet, and a damning indictment of a prison system that is failing to meet the most basic human rights standards of safe and humane custody. The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), Ireland’s leading penal reform campaign organisation, is calling on all election candidates to take heed of this national disgrace and commit to rectifying the many human rights issues identified in the report, including slopping out, overcrowding, escalating violence, patchy provision of health care including mental health care, and above all, the failure to provide safe custody.

During the CPT’s last visit to Ireland, which took place from 25th January to 5th February 2010, the Committee also examined detention in Garda stations and psychiatric institutions. However, the bulk of the report is given over to detailing the appalling human rights issues in Ireland’s prisons. The critical issues of prison healthcare and complaints receive particularly serious censure.

Speaking on the publication of the report, Liam Herrick, Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust said:

“This report further documents a prison system in crisis, with clear failures in many important aspects of the system – including in relation to healthcare, prisoner protection and investigation of complaints against staff.  Undoubtedly some of the problems identified here stem from chronic prison overcrowding and inadequate penal policies, but many of the most serious issues highlight failures at an operational level to meet the most basic standards of safe and humane custody.”

“This report shows a litany of broken commitments and inaction in relation to chronic problems over the past two decades.  There has been a failure of leadership to address the problems within our prisons. The bottom line is that prisoners and the general public are left with a prison system that is unacceptable and which has exposed Ireland to international shame.  The next Government must prioritise addressing the problems in our prisons, and commit to getting prisoner numbers down.”

There were 3,150 prisoners in custody when the CPT visited in October 2006; this number had reached 4,100 on the occasion of the CPT’s 2010 visit to Ireland. On 25th January 2011, prisoner numbers were 4,541. Efforts being taken by the Irish Prison Service to address the issues cannot succeed unless Government take control of the overcrowding situation, which frustrates any attempts to tackle the serious problems outlined in this report.

Individual Prisons
Cork, Mountjoy and Limerick female prisons come in for particular criticism:

  • Cork: the CPT found plastic bags being used as toilets (paragraph 41), unacceptable dirty segregation cells (96) and inadequate visiting facilities (99).  Prisoners also reported only being able to access one shower and change of underwear each week.  The State’s response to these criticisms referred to the proposed new prison at Kilworth – a plan which is now acknowledged to be suspended indefinitely.
  • Limerick female prison: the CPT found women having to sleep two to a bed because of chronic overcrowding.  They also found blocked showers and flooding in cells (42)
  • Mountjoy prison: the persistent problems of overcrowding in chronic conditions were reinforced by the CPT, who found the prison in an overall poor state of repair (45). The criteria for placement at Mountjoy for those prisoners not deemed vulnerable was “available space, or even floor space”.
  • St. Patrick’s Institution: The CPT was concerned at the length of time prisoners were spending in their cells and the high number of prisoners not engaged in any meaningful activity (52)

Critical Issues
Among other issues, the Committee found:

  • Complaints: Some of the most serious concerns in the report relate to allegations of mistreatment of prisoners by staff, where the Committee points to inadequate investigation of complaints, poor recording of alleged incidents, and inadequate or no medical examination of prisoners who make complaints. (30-31; 34) Clearly there is a major deficit of oversight and accountability, and this report highlights how an independent system of investigation is needed, similar to that which now prevails for Garda custody. (102-105)
  • Prison health care: the CPT found inadequate provision of prison healthcare, recording that in some prisons doctors were not fulfilling contracted hours, even where these hours were already wholly inadequate.  Serious concerns also expressed about prescribing methadone at Cork, Midlands, Mountjoy (74). Some particularly worrying incidents were reported in relation to inadequate treatment of a HIV positive prisoner (63); of a prisoner being chained to staff during medical treatment in the Midlands (65); and of a prisoner being forced to undergo withdrawal from heroin while subjected to slopping out in Cork (75). Overall the keeping of medical records was found to be inadequate (67), with prisoners not receiving medical examination on admission at Cork or Mountjoy (68 and 70) – this has very serious implications for investigating any allegations of mistreatment.
  • Risk Assessment: Across the prison system, the Committee found no basic admission or induction policy in place (except at Midlands prison) including no cell-share risk assessment procedure – which is especially worrying given serious incidents, including homicide, in shared cells in recent years.
  • Slopping out: the CPT rejected the State’s contention that toilet patrols operated effectively, and reported that they found prisoners were often not allowed out of cells at night and reported being subjected to verbal abuse when they asked for access to toilets (48)
  • Psychiatric care: the CPT found mental health care to be inadequate, particularly in Cork where there was poor record keeping, over-reliance on medication and dirty observation cells. They report on one case in Wheatfield prison, where a prisoner was held in a special observation cell for 6 weeks and worsened in condition during that time.
  • Protection and punishment: The report contains a shocking description of the high numbers on 23-hour lock up for protection (56), including high numbers in St. Patrick’s Institution (57).  The CPT also found improper use of special observation cells for discipline (81), including an incident where a disciplinary hearing took place in a special observation cell while prisoner in underpants.  It found routine use of de facto solitary confinement being imposed for up to 60 days, which is illegal under the Prisons Act.
  • Racism: concerns raised in the report which had not appeared in previous reports include accounts of allegations of racism against Travellers and foreign prisoners by staff and other prisoners (29, 32.)


1. Council of Europe Committee on the Prevention of Torture and Degrading Treatment (CPT)
The CPT reports on visits to Ireland along with the Government’s response are published at:

2. Ombudsman for Children: Young People in St Patrick’s Institution
On 9th Feb 2011, the Ombudsman for Children published a hard-hitting and comprehensive report following consultations with children held in St Patrick’s Institution.

The report is available here:
IPRT’s comment on the OCO report is available here.

3. Prison Figures:

  • On 25th Jan 2011, the prison population was 4,541 (Source: Irish Prison Service)
  • On 2nd February 2011, there were 41 boys in St Patrick’s Institution: 6 sixteen-year olds; 35 seventeen-year olds. (Source: Irish Prison Service)
  • On 17th Dec 2010, 1,003 men were required to slop out in Irish prisons: 515 in Mountjoy Prison; 299 prisoners in Cork prison, all in shared cells (sharing with 1-2 others); 51 in Portlaoise Prison; 99 in Limerick Prison (male).
  • (Source: Dáil Question, 27th Jan 2011)
  • On 26th January 2011, there were 250 prisoners on 23-hour or more lock-up (for reasons of protection); 26 on 22-23 hour lock-up; 164 on 20-22 hr lock-up (including 57 in St Patrick’s Institution) and 60 on 18-20 hr lock-up.
  • (Source: Dáil Question, 27th January 2011)

4. IPRT Briefing on Sanitation and Slopping Out in Irish prisons
IPRT has outlined our serious concerns about the ongoing practice of slopping out, which is inhuman and degrading, in a short (2-page) Briefing.

5. Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT):
IPRT is Ireland’s leading non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of everyone in prison and the progressive reform of Irish penal policy, with prison as a last resort:


4 Responses

  1. Ben Randle

    February 11, 2011 5:01 am

    The modern Irish prison system had its origins in the middle of the nineteenth century when Mountjoy and other prison buildings were based on architectural plans for Pentonville and other British prisons. Many British prisons currently experience the sanitation and other problems resulting from archaic and now dilapidated building designs. Some forty years ago in Britain there was an agitational group called PROP trying to get radical reforms in the British system, but it fizzled out because some of its leaders got bogged down in ideological discussions based on readings of theoretical works by Michael Foucault. Simply, Prop failed to maintain contact with the daily concerns of the low-income communities from which most prisoners come. In Ireland about thirty years ago there was a Prisoners Rights Organization – PRO – with practical-minded leaders like Margaret Gaj (a restaurant owner and feminist) and Joe Costello (now tipped to be a Labour minister in the coalition that forms after the coming election). The PRO certainly put prison reform on the Irish social agenda despite rearguard foot digging by FF ministers and conservative sections of the legal profession. But the PRO dissolved itself voluntary and despite the emergence of the unusually enlightened former governor of Mountjoy, John Lonergan, successive governments have spasmodically spent money on ‘modernising’ antiquated sorry old buildings in Cork, Limerick, Dublin and elsewhere, instead of deciding that these buildings are beyond redemption and in need of complete replacement.

    So instead of focusing demands for prison reform on more money for drug rehabilitation, more funds for new sanitation systems etc. it would be better to demand that the archaic prisons be steamrollered (keeping some parts for conversion into museums)and new structures designed. The systems of alternatives to imprisonment practised in Scandinavia could be studied too, because imprisonment at a young age often sets a youthful offender off on a circular career of crime and institutionalisation.

    There are no votes in prisons, but prison reform is a humanitarian issue that ought to receive attention across the party political spectrum.

  2. Liam Herrick

    February 11, 2011 1:33 pm

    Hi Ben,

    I’d agree with the large bulk of what you’re saying. There are very real questions about the potential for incremental improvements without a change of policy and mindset.

    Some issues we are facing are:
    1. Can new buildings lead to real change if the mindset of the organisations remains the same?
    2. Are new buildings feasible in the medium term, given what seems inevitable re. capital spending generally?
    3. How could a new Government (if they are willing-that is the critical point) effect real change over IPS and the Department that sets policy?

    We don’t have simple answers to these questions and your input is really valuable.


  3. Ben Randle

    February 12, 2011 1:47 am

    Liam, I’m not an economist and can’t answer your relevant questions, but I agree that modern new custodial buildings with the same old mindset by Department of Justice and the prison staff will fail to change the unhelpful impact of imprisonment on convicted detainees. If part of an economic recovery by the new government were to entail public building programmes that replaced dilapidated prisons then the expenditure would be justified in terms of job creation. The Office of Public Works has for several decades put skilled and unskilled builders to the task of restoring historical castles, abbeys and the like, with money spent coming back profitably from tourism revenue. I think the creation of museums from some existing slum jails could fall into the same category of creative restoration. But yes, Liam, old attitudes to crime, punishment and rehabilitation need public discussion along with all that.