Chronic overcrowding and staff shortages in Ireland’s two female prisons must be urgently addressed, the Irish Penal Reform Trust has said.
The 2017 annual reports for the Dóchas Centre and Limerick Prison, published by the Department of Justice and Equality on 8 March, detail various systemic and persistent issues, including “serious challenges” due to “over-stretched resources”.
The reports show the Dóchas Centre at 50% per cent over capacity in 2017 with Limerick (female) Prison operating at 96% over capacity this week.
The IPRT believes that efforts must be accelerated to provide community-based alternatives to prison for women who offend, along with step-down accommodation for women on release from prison.
It has called for urgent Government action on recommendations of the joint Probation Service / Irish Prison Service Women’s Strategy 2014-2016 and the Strategic Review of Penal Policy Final Report (2014) and commitments included in the National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020.
Of particular concern to IPRT is the accommodation of mothers and babies on a general corridor of the Dóchas Centre.
Removal of babies
IPRT acting executive director Fíona Ní Chinnéide (pictured) said “The removal of mothers and babies from the mother and baby unit, reportedly for disciplinary reasons, is of serious concern to IPRT.
“Non-custodial alternatives should be the preferred option for new or expectant mothers. In the small number of cases where a custodial sentence is the only appropriate response, access to a mother and baby unit must be available.
“It is unacceptable that mothers and babies have been held in a general corridor with “ten to fifteen other women”. This practice is contrary to Rule 36.3 of the European Prison Rules. All questions of prisoner discipline should be dealt with without impacting on the best interests and welfare of the babies.”
Visiting Committees for both of Ireland’s female prisons have repeatedly called for access to step-down or supported accommodation for women.
Supporting these calls Fíona Ní Chinnéide said “Despite repeated policy commitments by the Department of Justice and Equality, there have been delays in the establishment of a step-down facility or open provision for women, which would support their gradual release back into society.
“IPRT again calls for delivery on this commitment, which should be met with an accompanying reduction in the number of closed female prison spaces.”
The report for the Dóchas Centre details the concerns about the current lack of a standardised complaints procedure and the “inordinate” amount of time taken to investigate other “fairly straight-forward complaints”.
IPRT is further concerned at alleged inappropriate relationships between staff and prisoners detailed in the 2017 annual report of the visiting committee for the Dóchas Centre.
Ní Chinnéide said “In order to ensure that both prisoners and staff have confidence in the complaints system, IPRT has long advocated for the establishment of a prisoner ombudsman or access to the existing Office of the Ombudsman.
“In light of the significant issues raised in these reports, IPRT restates that the need for prisoner access to the Ombudsman to facilitate the appealing of complaints to an independent body is urgent.
“While the majority of prison officers and other staff in the prison system undertake their duties in a professional manner, if any member of staff does not fulfil their role to the highest professional standards, there is a duty on the Irish Prison Service to investigate and to take action as appropriate,” she said.