Thursday, 1 December 2016
Prisons (Solitary Confinement) (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
In moving the Bill, I thought today was going to be a showcase to display not just the worst of what is happening in prisons, but some of the best, given we had plans this morning to have a number of currently serving and former inmates make a presentation in Leinster House, along with their partners and staff in the Irish Prison Service, about the community health care programme run by the Irish Red Cross. That programme is a wonderful example of rehabilitative measures in our Prison Service but, unfortunately, that did not happen this morning. I mention this for two reasons. The first is that I know the staff and inmates were incredibly disappointed and I want to put on record publicly that we are determined and hope, in co-operation with everybody involved, to reorganise that event in January. The second reason is to register that when we speak about the shortcomings in prison policy, such as the one this Bill seeks to address, it does not mean we are unaware of the excellent work being undertaken in some sections of the Prison Service by staff, inmates, management, professional staff and so on.
I want to start by stepping back a bit and looking at where we are going with our penal policy and asking whether it is working. Every day we have thousands of men and women who are staff, inmates, professional staff and cleaning staff locked in a bubble behind the walls of our prisons at huge cost. It is an area that is rarely discussed, except in a sensationalist manner by the gutter press. We have to ask what it is all about and whether it is working.
We know from the Whitaker report, for example, that prison is not a major or universal deterrent to crime. We know from multiple reports that prison harms people emotionally and, in many cases, physically. We know it has a major impact on families and communities and deepens exclusion. We know it increases the chances of people staying involved in a life of crime. The excellent report done by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice this year, Developing Inside, gives an analysis of who is in our prisons. Even though the data are somewhat old and varied across different periods, we can say that 52% of the prison population come from ex-homeless people, 20.3% have no education or only primary school education, 88% are unemployed, 93% come from the two lowest socio-economic groups, 90% have mental health issues, 28.8% have indicators of learning disabilities, 18.5% have an alcohol dependency, and all are victims of crime themselves. The list goes on.
What is the point in taking these people out of society for a couple of years and then dumping them back into society? Prison, if it is to mean anything, has to be an opportunity to deal with some of the many complex issues, be they drugs, behavioural problems or other problems, that put people in prison in the first place. Otherwise, it is an absolute waste of time and it undermines the efforts of the staff in the Prison Service who are doing their best against the odds. Our Prison Service falls well short in terms of the lack of support for drug treatment, mental health training, education facilities and so on, with the effect that people are being sent back out in pretty much the same way they came in, if not more damaged than they were beforehand. That is very bad for the staff, society and, obviously, the inmates themselves.
Our penal policy and our starting point has to be that people should be sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. Our prison policy is supposed to be that deprivation of liberty is the price that somebody pays, and once they are there, the time should be used to try to rehabilitate that person back into being a productive member of society. That approach, which has been taken in other jurisdictions, such as Finland, for example, has massively reduced the prison population there.
It is against that backdrop I am moving the Bill which sets about severely curtailing the use of solitary confinement. Let us be clear. Obviously, my personal belief is that solitary confinement should be outlawed entirely. However, to help the people who are in that situation now, whose human rights are being violated, in some cases for months, in some cases for years, as we sit here in this nice, comfortable Chamber, I am putting forward this Bill in the hope that the manner in which I do so will assist in getting it passed. I am taking the definition which comes from the international human rights standards on this issue. To be honest, they are pathetically limited but they will, if passed, make a difference for people in that situation.
The first thing the Bill does is to bring into Irish law for the first time a definition of solitary confinement. This is very important because we do not have the data and because, every time we ask, the answer the Minister will give is that we do not have any solitary confinement in Ireland. However, we know from statistics taken, for example, on one day in April, that there were 368 people, or 9% of the prison population, on restricted regimes. The Government can call it what it likes - restricted regimes, violently disruptive prisoner policy or isolation segregation - they are all versions of the same thing.
When we have raised this issue before, and the Bill itself centres on lock-up and solitary confinement for 22 to 24 hours, the Minister in previous replies has pointed out that the numbers are declining. It is true that the number being held in these conditions is declining, which is a tribute to the work being done by the Irish Prison Service, but I would point out that the reductions are not consistent and it depends on what figures are compared. For example, if one compares 2013 to 2016, they are going down, but if one compares 2014 to 2016, they are going up. The key point of this Bill is that this needs to be put into law because there is nothing to stop them going in up in the future.
The Bill amends section 35 of the 2007 Act, which allows the Minister to make rules to govern and regulate prisons. It is under current prison rules 62 and 63, which are made under this section, that the current system of solitary confinement is allowed. This Bill seeks to put restrictions on that practice. The definition is the restriction of a prisoner's opportunities for meaningful human interaction and communal association for 22 to 24 hours a day, whether by means of restricting the prisoner to a cell or by any other means. There is an important reason for that. We have used the definition that loosely followed the UN's revised standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners, the Nelson Mandela rules, as they are known.
The only qualification or addition is that we have put in meaningful human interaction and communal association because it is not just a question of restricting somebody to a physical space. When we have made this point about prisoners in that situation, the Minister has said they get out, they can go to the gym or to the yard but the point is they are denied any human contact and that is incredibly dangerous. This Bill restricts that to a maximum of 15 days. The evidence is very clear that any solitary confinement beyond that period is profoundly damaging. It can induce psychiatric disorder characterised by hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia and a litany of other physical and psychological problems. Assessments of men in solitary confinement indicate high rates of anxiety, nervousness obsession, violent fantasies, nightmares, trouble sleeping, perspiring hands and heart palpitations. This Bill includes a number of severe restrictions on the time and manner in which people can be isolated. It puts the onus back on prison management.
The purpose of the Bill is to put an end to a human rights violation. What we are putting some people through in some instances is State-sponsored torture. The restrictions outlined in the Bill put the onus on the authorities to find alternatives. It is relevant because Ireland will appear before the UN in July when we will have to answer for our lack of effort in this regard.
When we have raised this issue it is justified by the prison authorities and the Minister under several criteria, mainly those outlined in rules 62, 63, 64 and 67 of prison regulations, according to which people can be placed in solitary confinement either at their own request or at the request of the prison authorities for their own safety or the safety of others, the good order of the prison, or medical and disciplinary reasons. Our Bill outlaws it for anybody with mental health problems and as a disciplinary mechanism. Under the present regime, depending on the circumstances, there is no limit to the length of time somebody can be kept there. That is a human rights violation.
Prison officers are entitled to a safe working environment. Last year almost 100 prison officers were injured at work. Thankfully, no prison officer in the history of the State has died but prisoners have died at the hands of other prisoners. Prison can be a violent place. There are at least two prison officers who have been permanently incapacitated because of what happened to them at work. That is not on. When we talk about the rights of prisoners, that does not mean we are blind to the rights of prison officers. All rights have to be respected. Putting people in solitary confinement does not make prison safer for those people or those who work with them every day or for those in society to which they will be returned after a short time.
There are many people in our prisons with serious mental health problems. One of the causes for that is the lack of psychiatric beds in the community. The Prison Service has had to release people and drop them at hospital accident and emergency departments telling them not to leave until they get a psychiatric bed. Under the violently disruptive prison policy and the arrangement with the Central Mental Hospital the hospital takes only one prisoner at a time. Others are left in prison with staff who are not qualified or equipped to deal with them. There are many acutely psychotic people in prison who should not be there. Solitary confinement is not the answer. We know from prison officers that some people have been put in there either at their own request or allegedly for their own protection and have come out violent, paranoid and worse than they were. These issues need to be tackled. Our Bill puts the onus back on the Prison Service to come up with an alternative. I do not blame the Prison Service. We and the Government are the ones who must come up with an alternative. The Prison Service does pretty well given its lack of resources. If we do not address this, not only are we violating the human rights of prisoners, we are affecting broader society.
We and our colleagues in the cross-party group have met many prisoners since being elected to the Dáil. We got involved in the case of one young man who had an incredibly troubled upbringing with grave parental neglect. He was brought into State care and was seriously let down by the State from the age of four, suffered serious abuse, was homeless as a young teen, has been incarcerated for most of his adult life and has spent most of that time in solitary confinement. He has no contact with other prisoners and limited access to education. This has had a profound effect on his life. I asked him what solitary confinement means to him. He said:
I am currently being held in solitary confinement for the past 3 and a half years. It has such a[n] effect on me ... My whole life has changed. I can't even mix with people without being overwhelmed. I get extremely paranoid, when you spend so much time on your own you become disconnected from reality. You find when meeting people here and there too much you're [sic] anxiety is through the roof. Always looking for threats that aren't there, it's like being stranded on an island on your own no where to go and no one to say how are you today because there is no one there to answer you back it is so lonely even if you were the hardest person on the planet you would crumble in solitary confinement. I wish I wasn't in isolation it has ruined my life as far as mixing is concerned I have done nothing wrong being treated like this. If only the powers that be could walk in my shoes for a day week month year what do the powers that be want from me or any other prisoner in isolation. To take away their basic ... rights as humans it is immoral what we have to put up with will continue ... if things don't change ... Days are so long. How much more do we have to endure I am a human not a dog.
If we treat people like animals they will behave like animals. Respecting the human rights of some of the people who would be considered the most lowly in society means vindicating the human rights of all.
I have been asked by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, to respond to this Private Member’s Bill on her behalf as she is unavoidably engaged elsewhere.
I take this opportunity to express the Government’s condolences to the family of Judge Michael Reilly, the Inspector of Prisons, who passed away last Saturday. He was robust and fair minded in the way he carried out his work as Inspector of Prisons. He was not afraid to criticise where this was merited but he retained the respect of everyone involved in penal policy throughout his tenure as inspector. His loss will be deeply felt by everyone in the prison system, prisoners and staff alike.
I am aware that Deputy Clare Daly has an ongoing and genuine interest in the running of the Irish Prison Service. The Tánaiste appreciates the seriousness of intent behind the bringing of this Private Member’s Bill, the Prisons (Solitary Confinement) (Amendment) Bill 2016. However, the Government must oppose it for several reasons. I will summarise these reasons before expanding upon them later.
First, the Bill attempts to micro-manage in primary legislation the regime for dangerous, unwell, vulnerable and disruptive prisoners. The Tánaiste believes that the current process of making prison rules by way of secondary legislation should continue. Second, the Bill would restrict the rights and obligations of a prison governor to ensure good order and safe and secure custody in his or her prison. Third, the Irish Prison Service could not meet the commitment that all prisoners in such circumstances would be assured access to work, education, free association and so on, as provided for in the Bill. Indeed, the question arises as to whether the provisions of the Bill in this regard are realistic. Fourth, the Bill jumps the gun in regard to an ongoing consideration of the implementation of the revised UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Mandela rules in respect of solitary confinement.
As I will outline later in my speech, the Director General of the Irish Prison Service has established and chairs a working group which meets regularly to review matters relating to protection prisoners and those subject to a restricted regime, including the issue of solitary confinement.
The number of prisoners on protection and in what is commonly referred to as "23 hour lock-up" has reduced dramatically since 2013. A sub-committee is also examining policy proposals to eliminate insofar as possible solitary confinement from Irish prisons. It is also important to place these developments in the wider context of prison reform. Huge improvements have been made to prison conditions in recent years. For example, overcrowding and the practice of slopping out has been eliminated in Mountjoy Prison, a brand new replacement prison was built in Cork and progress is being made in developing Limerick Prison.
Turning again to the Private Members’ Bill before the House, as matters stand, section 35 of the Prisons Act 2007, the section which the draft Bill seeks to amend, allows the Minister for Justice and Equality to make rules for the regulation, conditions and good governance of prisons. Those rules are currently made in SI 252 of 2007 (Prison Rules 2007), as amended. Amending prison rules by way of statutory instrument allows relatively easy adaptability of regimes in changing circumstances. These changing circumstances could derive from developments in prisons in terms of numbers, new regimes, new policies, new buildings, new international practices and so on. In the future, it could be possible to make changes in prison regimes heading towards those proposed in the Bill but the existence of primary legislation may make such changes more difficult to bring about.
In the context of the restrictions in the Bill on the rights and obligations of a prison governor to ensure good order and safe and secure custody in his or her prison, it is necessary to examine what the Bill provides and what is provided under the current prison rules. The definition of solitary confinement in the Bill is "the restriction of a prisoner’s opportunities for meaningful human interaction and communal association for 22 to 24 hours a day, whether by means of restricting the prisoner to a cell or by any other means". The Bill goes on to limit solitary confinement to 15 days in all circumstances. It also seeks to guarantee the continuation of access to services such as education and work training as well recreation and association with other prisoners to those in solitary confinement. It seeks to prevent a prisoner with a mental illness or disability being subject to solitary confinement, to remove the sanction of confinement in a cell as a punishment from disciplinary proceedings and to stipulate that no prisoner on remand be subject to solitary confinement in all circumstances.
In the existing prison rules of 2007, as amended, there is no mention or definition of the term "solitary confinement". Rather, there is a specific set of provisions contained in rules 62, 63, 64 and 66, under the collective heading entitled "Control, Discipline and Sanctions”, on which basis prisoners may have their normal prison regime restricted for a variety of reasons. The statistics on restricted regimes are published on the Irish Prison Service website, www.irishprisons.ie. Rule 62 provides that a direction can be given by the prison governor to restrict the regime of a prisoner by removing him from structured activity, participation in communal recreation and association with other prisoners on the basis that there is a significant threat to the maintenance of good order or safe or secure custody. For example, this allows the prison system to isolate gang leaders, other dangerous and serious criminals and those suffering from serious mental illness who pose a risk to themselves and others in the general population.
Rule 63 provides for the protection of vulnerable prisoners and allows for a prisoner to be kept separately from other prisoners who are likely to cause significant harm to him or her. This rule allows governors to remove vulnerable prisoners from the general population in the interests of the prisoners themselves and the security of the prison in general. This includes vulnerable prisoners who wish or need to be kept away from the general prison population for safety reasons. There are also some prisoners who cannot mix with any other prisoners for various reasons, sometimes at their own request. It would be impossible given current resources to meet the statutory obligation, as the Bill seeks to do, to provide education, work, training, association, etc., to such prisoners.
Rule 64 provides that a prisoner may be placed in a safety observation cell on medical grounds such as severe mental illness or in a closed supervision cell on the grounds of risk or harm. The Bill would curtail the option of using special observation cells. There has been a significant rise in committals suffering serious mental illness in recent years and a number currently in custody are on a waiting list for admission to the Central Mental Hospital.
Rule 66 provides for procedures in respect of breaches of prison discipline with the option of confinement in a cell for a maximum limit of three days as a form of punishment. Under this rule, prisoners can only be confined to a cell as a form of punishment for up to a maximum of three days. This is rarely applied and only done so in the most serious cases. Strict procedures apply to making a prisoner subject to these rules. The rules contain review mechanisms which prevent them being used in an in arbitrary way. All actions taken in relation to prisoners and the overall system itself are subject to scrutiny by the inspector of prisons and this will not change when a successor to the late Judge Reilly is appointed. Moreover, I should say that all prisoners, including those segregated from the general population, already have the protection of the rights established under the Irish Constitution and the European Convention on rights, which are enforceable through the courts.
The Bill, if enacted, would also have significant resource implications and it is unclear how these would be met. The Irish Prison Service also believes that it would be detrimental to the good order and security of prisons if the most dangerous, unwell and volatile of prisoners were to be guaranteed free association with other prisoners and access to structured activities. Furthermore, there are considerable safety risks in the provision of one-to-one services in such circumstances and, indeed, would involve considerable staff resources that are simply not available.
I want to turn now to how this Bill is jumping the gun in terms of the ongoing consideration of the implementation of the revised UN standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners, known as the Mandela rules. These UN rules were first adopted in 1957 and were revised and adopted as the Nelson Mandela rules in 2015. The vast majority of the principles described in the Mandela rules, while not mandatory, are reflected in the Irish prison rules 2007, as amended. However, there are some exceptions and these include the categorisation of prisoners, separate accommodation for prisoners and solitary confinement. It is important to stress that this Bill goes much further that the Mandela rules in providing for the right to access to work, training, education, rehabilitation and other services while on restricted regimes.
Although Ireland has not yet signed up to the Mandela rules, it is recognised internationally that they are regarded as a source of standards on treatment in detention. Although the Irish Prison Service is committed under current strategic plan to comply with international human rights obligations and makes specific reference to the Mandela rules, the nuts and bolts of this need to be teased out. To that end, the Director General of the Irish Prison Service has established and chairs a working group that meets regularly to review matters relating to protecting prisoners and those subject to a restricted regime, which includes the issue of solitary confinement. Already, significant progress has been made. The number of prisoners on protection and what is commonly referred to as 23-hour lock-up has reduced. Since July 2013, the number of prisoners on 22 or 23-hour lock-up has decreased from 211 to 31, a decrease of 85%. The working group is continuing its work with a view to eliminating 23-hour lock-up from the prison system. However, the protection of vulnerable prisoners can be quite challenging and the elimination of 23-hour lock-up is not something which can be achieved overnight, but is one which the Irish Prison Service is committed to eliminating to bring it into line with the Mandela rules.
The director general has also established a sub-committee to draft a policy with the aim of eliminating insofar as is possible solitary confinement from Irish prisons, acknowledging that there will always be medical exceptions, particularity given the number of seriously mentally-ill prisoners currently held in Irish prisons and awaiting admission to the Central Mental Hospital and other mental health facilities. The policy will be presented to senior management for consideration by the end of January 2017. After the policy is developed and implemented, the Tánaiste could then consider whether to commit to signing up to adopting the Mandela rules in this specific area by way of amendment to the prison rules.
The Tánaiste acknowledges the intent behind Deputy Clare Daly’s Bill but believes that she cannot accept it, both in terms of the content and in the context of the legislative vehicle being used. The use of prison rules, done by way of statutory instrument, remains, in her view, the most effective and efficient way of adapting to changing circumstances. The Tánaiste supports the ongoing efforts of the Irish Prison Service to develop its policy on this issue in a way that improves the conditions of prisoners whilst having equal regard to safe and secure custody of prisoners overall and to good order in the prison.
I will call Deputies in the order in which they indicated to me that they wish to contribute. There is no provision in Standing Orders for a set sequence, as in normal Private Members' business. To proceed, I call on Deputy Jonathan O'Brien, who has ten minutes. Further to that, I will call Deputies Mick Wallace, Paul Murphy, Jim O'Callaghan, Bríd Smith and John Lahart in that order.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and I commend Deputy Clare Daly on introducing it. It is one that we in Sinn Féin will be supporting. Like Deputy Clare Daly, I would also like to see the outright banning of solitary confinement. As the Deputy outlined, for reasons in respect of which we cannot really legislate, we will be fully supporting the recommendations within the Bill.
As republicans, prisons hold a special resonance for us as they have been associated with colonial rule and the legacy of conflict for hundreds of years on the island of Ireland. They were sites of execution, torture and ill-treatment for many thousands of political prisoners down through the decades. They were also used as inhumane warehouses for the destitute in a society that was very unjust and unequal. It is in this context that Sinn Féin has taken the decision to support this Bill.
Prisons in this State have been synonymous with solitary confinement and slopping out for many decades. In the North, solitary confinement was regularly used against republican prisoners. I particularly recall its use against female prisoners in Armagh jail who refused to be strip searched. They were placed in prolonged solitary confinement as a form of punishment. If the Government needs any further evidence, it need only to look at the conditions in prisons in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the treatment of the blanket men who were placed in cells for 23 or 24 hours a day. Those cells had urine flowing out under their doors and prisoners had to cover the walls in their own excrement. The punishment diets that those prisoners had to endure were also a harsh reality of prison life within the Six Counties.
In terms of the current situation, international human rights law states that prisoners have the right to be treated with dignity. They have the right to safety and security, to humane treatment and to freedom from torture, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. On any given day in the Irish prison system, upwards of 150 prisoners are being held on 23 hour lock-up for reasons of protection, with a further unspecified number on 23 hour lock-up for other reasons, including those relating to discipline. I received an e-mail today from the Irish Penal Reform Trust, IPRT, which indicates that 24 prisoners in this State have spent more than 100 days in solitary confinement, while nine have spent more than one year on a 22 hour lock-up regime.
We recognise that within the prison system there is a need to strike a balance between prisoner safety and providing a humane regime. However, the potential harm that can be done to a person's mental health by extended periods of isolation means that holding any category of prisoner on 23 hour lock-up must only ever be done as a temporary measure. That is what this Bill proposes to do. Even at that, solitary confinement cannot be a solution in itself to prisoner safety concerns. Robust safeguards must be put in place regarding the use of solitary confinement.
International human rights law is very clear on this matter. It prohibits, in absolute terms, the use of torture or other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. Both the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee Against Torture have stated that, in certain cases, prolonged solitary confinement of imprisoned persons can amount to a breach of their human rights. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has said that holding anyone in solitary confinement in excess of 15 days amounts to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment that can rise to the level of torture, as can any time in solitary confinement for juveniles or people with psychological disabilities. The UN Committee Against Torture has proposed that, at a minimum, any isolation of prisoners be strictly and specifically regulated by law, in terms of maximum duration, conditions and so forth, and should be exercised under judicial supervision.
The European prison rules also clearly state that solitary confinement should only be used in exceptional cases and for a specified period that should be as short as possible. In addition, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture has repeatedly called for the abolition of such regimes. It has argued for limiting of the use of solitary confinement to exceptional circumstances and for increasing the level of meaningful social contact available to isolated prisoners. The European Court of Human Rights has also recognised that prolonged solitary confinement is a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and recently reaffirmed that solitary confinement cannot be imposed indefinitely and should not be applied to prisoners who are not dangerous, disorderly or who do not pose a security risk.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has warned that the effects of solitary confinement may be worse for pre-trial detainees as they have an increased rate of suicide and self-harm within the first two weeks of isolation. Solitary confinement is also thought to create a situation of de facto psychological pressure which can influence pre-trial detainees to confess or plead guilty.
Regarding children and detention, the Council of Europe has set out rules permitting separation only in very exceptional cases for security and safety reasons. Such separation must be carried out by a competent authority and be based on the procedures laid down in national law which specify the nature, maximum duration and grounds on which solitary confinement may be imposed.
Prolonged solitary confinement is very damaging to the psychological well being of individuals. In one study of California's prison system, researchers found that from 1999 to 2004, prisoners in solitary confinement accounted for nearly half of all suicides within the prison population. A 1995 study of the federal prison system in the US found that 63% of suicides occurred in inmates who were in what is known as "special housing status", such as solitary confinement or psychiatric seclusion cells.
There is currently no bar in Ireland on placing people with mental health issues in isolation. It is fair to say that a person with no mental health difficulties who is placed in solitary confinement has a significantly increased chance of exiting such a regime with issues of that nature. Given the massive psychological and emotional risks posed to a person's well-being following time spent in solitary confinement, there have been long running campaigns for complete abolition of such confinement. That is something that we should be working towards and is an objective that I support.
Solitary confinement can be looked at as a microcosm of the entire penal system. It is, in fact, a prison with a prison, considering that a term in prison is a form of isolation from society. How can we expect to achieve any kind of rehabilitation in the context of the isolation that happens within our penal institutions? This is a much-needed Bill. It provides a starting point for the wider reform of our prison service. I am disappointed that the Government will not be supporting it. Sinn Féin will certainly be supporting its passage to Committee Stage. If the Government has any concerns about the Bill, it can deal with them on Committee Stage. Not allowing this legislation to progress sends out the wrong message to those individuals who are spending months, if not years, in solitary confinement. It suggests that this Government stands over that regime and is not intending to change it any time soon.
I will start by thanking Deputies Wallace and Paul Murphy for permitting me to speak ahead of them. I also want to welcome this Bill and the opportunity to speak on the Irish Prison Service, on prison officers and the prisoners who are held within our prisons. It is instructive to note that since I became justice spokesperson for Fianna Fáil, on many occasions in this House I have debated issues concerning An Garda Síochána, judges, the Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, changes to our criminal law, the courts and, indeed, family law. However, this is only the second occasion on which I have been asked to debate or discuss in this Chamber issues concerning our prisons.
The first occasion was when I introduced under Private Members' business a Parole Bill, which passed Second Stage. The second occasion is the publication by Deputy Daly of her Bill on seeking to restrain solitary confinement.
As representatives of the people and individuals who are responsible for speaking on justice issues, we are doing a disservice not only to prisoners, but to our prison officers and the Irish Prison Service, if we do not discuss in this Chamber issues concerning Irish prisons. It is not as though we can present Irish prisons as being some separate lost world that occurs behind walls about which we do not have any ongoing serious debate. Prisons play a vital role in our criminal justice system and it is extremely important that we, as legislators, continue to debate how best they can be reformed and improved not simply for the prisoners within the Irish Prison Service, but also for the prison officers and the other members of staff who work in them.
It is important to note that the area that must be reformed in our criminal justice system is the question of punishment. In many respects, the question of punishment has not changed significantly since Victorian times. We still have an over-dependence upon punishment, which is seen in terms of custodial sentences. I know, as I am sure does every other Member in this House, that there are certain individuals who because of their violence and the threat they pose to society must be subjected to a custodial sentence. However, there are others where it is too much of an easy option for us to go down the route of putting them in jail. We must constantly review and appraise our penal system to see whether we can come up with different, more creative and more effective forms of punishment than simply locking people up.
It is also important, given an opportunity like this, that we consider the statistics in respect of Irish prisons. Approximately 3,700 persons are kept as prisoners in Irish prisons. That is a weight of approximately 80 per 100,000. That is not at the high end of the international system when we compare it to the United States of America, which has 716 persons per 100,000 in prison or Cuba, which, perhaps surprisingly to some, has 510 people per 100,000 in prison. The Irish figures are not that high. However, the average cost of a prisoner in our prison system is approximately €68,000 per annum in terms of the cost of a prison space.
The vast majority of prisoners in Ireland have a very poor education. There is a huge correlation between imprisonment and leaving school before the age of 15 without having completed, let alone passed, a State examination. The more we improve the education system in deprived areas of our country, the more we will continue to reduce the prison numbers in our prisons. In 2008, of the 520 prisoners who were enrolled in the school at Mountjoy, 20% of them could not read or write. We need to ensure that we improve the education system in deprived areas of this country as that will have a direct impact on the prison population.
We also need to recognise that prisons give the State an enormous amount of power. When the State puts people into prison, it has virtually complete control over them. We need to use that control as best we can for the purpose of seeking to rehabilitate people. I recognise, and I am sure everyone else recognise it also, that there are certain prisoners who may not be capable of rehabilitation, although no soul should ever be lost to the attempt to rehabilitate them. However, there are many who can be rehabilitated and we need to concentrate on inculcating in such individuals the benefits of education and the opportunities that should lie ahead for them when they leave prison. We should try to use the prison system as a means to train persons who are within the prison system.
On the specific issue of solitary confinement, we know that solitary confinement has been a part of the prison system for as long as the prison system has been in operation. It dates back to classical times. There have been numerous references in literature to people who were confined. Charles Dickens wrote about solitary confinement and the impact it had on individuals. We know that solitary confinement has a serious impact on the mental health of prisoners. We also know that it is used on occasion for the purpose of punishing and restraining prisoners. However, if it was suggested that prisoners who are ill disciplined, who cannot be restrained or who need to be punished were to have their limbs broken, we would completely reject that as barbaric. Similarly, when it is suggested that we should put prisoners into solitary confinement in the knowledge that it will have an impact on their mental health, we should also view that in similar terms.
I know the Irish Prison Service has difficulties in the prison system in terms of dealing with certain prisoners, and the figures reveal those difficulties. The figures for the Republic show that on 1 January last, 51 inmates in Irish Prison Service jails were being held in their cells for at least 22 hours a day, with half of them held for more than 100 days and at least nine prisoners spending more than a year in such a conditions. Half of those are held in Mountjoy Prison, in north Dublin. The majority of prisoners held in solitary confinement on 1 January last were sent there under prison rule 63. That rule was designed to protect vulnerable prisoners and can be used at a prisoner's own request where the prisoner feels he may be under threat. We need to see whether we can come up with a more effective method of protecting prisoners in jail who are exposed to threats from other prisoners. It should not be beyond the realm of our ingenuity, whether by allocating separate prisons for that, to see whether we can deal with it. In all, 36 of the 51 inmates who were on 22 hour or 23 hour lock-up on 1 January were there under rule 63, and only one of those was their at the governor's direction. Rule 62 is used when the prison governor decides a prisoner is having a negative effect on the general population. A total of 11 prisoners were on 22 hour or 23 hour lock-up under this rule on 1 January.
We need to move away from the current position where solitary confinement is seen as being too readily available. I welcome Deputy Daly's Bill and I believe it will benefit when it comes before the Oireachtas committee. As a committee, we need to hear from individuals concerned with Irish prisons, including prison officers and representative of the Irish Prison Service, but I welcome the fact that Deputy Daly has put the issue of solitary confinement in Irish prisons on the agenda of this Chamber. Had she not done so, I do not believe anyone else would have done it in the immediate future. For that reason, Fianna Fáil will be supporting this legislation to get it beyond Second Stage and into committee. We know, as the Minister of State pointed out, that there may be failings in the legislation. That is something that can be teased out. We need to examine the legislation with an enabling eye rather than a permanently critical eye. We need to recognise that this is an issue that requires reform, and we will work constructively in committee for the purpose of trying to tease out the legislation to see how it can be informed. I am sure Deputy Daly will agree that it will be an opportune time to hear from those directly involved in the prison system, namely, prison officers, prison governors and prisoners themselves.
We also need to recognise that the United Nations is issuing guidelines in respect of solitary confinement. In 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, called on all countries to ban the solitary confinement of prisoners except in very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible. We also need to ensure it is something that is expressly excluded for children and people with mental disabilities. For those reasons, and recognising that this is legislation that can be improved, and I am sure it contains some failings, we will be supporting it on Second Stage and hope to be able to work with Deputy Daly, the Government and the other representatives of the Irish Prison Service on Committee Stage.
In his contribution the Minister of State quoted the Minister who stated: "The use of prison rules, done by way of statutory instrument, remains, in her view, the most effective and efficient way of adapting to changing circumstances." We are not doing very well by international standards in the way we operate prisons.
It is important that we are talking about prisons today, as we do not talk about them enough here. It is not a topical subject and it is not one that would win one any votes, but we need to address problems in that area more seriously.
We have been visiting prisons, in the North and South of Ireland, since 2011 and we are well aware of the fact that it is not a black and white issue. There are serious problems and serious challenges. What we can say though is that the outcomes are poor in Ireland and it is about time we admitted that we could do better.
A big problem is that there are many people in prison in Ireland who should not be there. It should not go unmentioned that a few years ago there were over 8,000 beds between Grangegorman, St. Ita's in Portrane and St. Loman's in Palmerstown. They are closed and they have not been replaced with much because we never got around to providing community health care. There are many people with mental health issues in our prisons who should not be there.
In our visits to prisons in Ireland, we have met good people, including prisoners, prison officers and management. Of the prison officers and management, there is an unusual commitment and interest in their job. They show an amazing amount of enthusiasm towards the challenges they face. We are not saying they get everything right but we would not question their interest and enthusiasm for their work.
The Jesuits probably know more about prisons than any of us. The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice notes that in recent decades there has been a "severe hardening of attitude and policy in political and administrative fields in relation to penal matters". This "punitive turn" is highlighted by the 400% increase in the prison population since 1970. According to the European Prison Rules, "Imprisonment is by the deprivation of liberty a punishment in itself and... the regime... shall not aggravate the suffering inherent in imprisonment". Prison sentences are handed down as punishment, not for punishment.
The terms segregation, loss of privileges, on protection and restricted regimes are used to signify solitary confinement in Irish prisons, which entails 22 or 23-hour lock-up in which prisoners are denied contact with others, along with the opportunity to work or take part in prison programmes. The reasons given are for protection or punishment, usually for violence or drugs. The Irish Prison Reform Trust estimates that, on any given day, up to 80 prisoners are held in such conditions in Ireland. Data released under freedom of information in October 2016 showed that 24 prisoners in Ireland had been in solitary confinement for over 100 days, including nine who had spent over a year on 22-plus hours lock-up.
Terms in solitary confinement are imposed with little or no oversight. The decision rests entirely in the hands of the staff who, according to the Irish Prison Reform Trust, do not necessarily always have the qualifications to deal with the challenges facing them, no matter how hard they try. The reluctance of the Government to define solitary confinement and our failure to ratify the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture, which would allow for routine inspections of places of detention, create a completely non-transparent environment undermining the position of both staff and inmates.
The European Committee on the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, CPT, of which Ireland is a member, recommends 14 days as the maximum length anyone should have to spend in solitary confinement, as after this period the damage to the prisoner can be irreversible. Ireland's practice of handing down extended terms in solitary confinement has been criticised by both the CPT and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice cites a number of studies since the 1990s which indicate that Ireland has a high incidence of mental health issues among prisoners, relative to the general population. On the whole, Ireland struggles to deal with high levels of severe mental health problems within the general population, not to talk about prisons. In Wexford, for example, there are zero 24-hour acute mental health services. It takes up to 72 hours to be seen by a suicide crisis assessment nurse if one presents at accident and emergency. If one gets to see such a nurse, one could be referred to Waterford where one again must wait in accident and emergency and if one is lucky, one might get a place in one of their acute beds, but they are usually full. Not only do we not look after mental health issues in prisons, we do not do so in the general population.
If we look at other countries, such as Norway - we should be looking at international best practice - the focus of its prison system is on restorative justice and rehabilitation. Its recidivism rate is 20%, one of the lowest in the world. A report by the Irish Prison Service and the CSO shows that Ireland's recidivism rate within three years is 62%. Norway's prisons are small, spread all over the country to keep prisoners close to their families and communities, and are designed to resemble life on the outside as much as possible. Ireland's tendency towards institutionalisation, isolation and punishment just perpetuates the cycle of crime. In the words of the director of Norway's Halden Prison, "every inmate in Norwegian prison is going to back to society. Do you want people who are angry or people who are rehabilitated?"
In 2006, Dr. Stuart Grassian, a board certified psychiatrist who was on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School for over 25 years, published a study of the effects of solitary confinement in which he evaluated the psychiatric effects of solitary confinement in well over 200 prisoners in various state and federal penitentiaries. He came to the same conclusions that other doctors had reached more than 150 years previously, that keeping a person in prolonged periods in what amounts to social isolation is disastrous for his or her well-being. The penitentiary system began in the United States, first in Philadelphia, in the early 19th century. This system involved almost an exclusive reliance on solitary confinement as a means of incarceration and also became the predominant mode of incarceration in several European prison systems at the time. The results were catastrophic to such a degree that it was ultimately abandoned, and yet we are still using the practice here 150 years later.
In his study, Grassian lists the symptoms that he commonly found among those subjected to solitary confinement. To name just two of them, he states that well over half the inmates interviewed described severe panic attacks while in solitary confinement and almost half the prisoners reported episodes of loss of impulse control with random violence. The average conditions of the prisoners Grassian was dealing with were identical to 20% of those in what the Irish Prison Service likes to call "restricted regime". Grassian's average prisoner resided in "a cell of roughly fifty to eighty square feet; approximately twenty-two and one-half hours per day locked in the cell; about one hour per day of yard exercise". This will not solve problems.
Due to the lack of a clear definition of solitary confinement here in Ireland, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, is free to answer concerns about the practice with the following:
I am advised by the Irish Prison Service that there is no provision for solitary confinement in the Irish Prison Service. However,... on occasion, it is necessary for vulnerable prisoners and others to be separated from the general prison population.
This is an absurd deflection tactic and, by calling it something else, does not erase the fact that the prison service routinely engages in human rights abuses. We need a system that is able to accommodate those who need help building up their coping skills, not one that locks them up alone for weeks at a time in a box. Our recidivism rate is among the highest in the world, and it is no surprise. We are heaping punishment upon punishment, with sometimes permanent damage being inflicted.
The sooner we realise and accept that what we do through our prison system is not really working, not even with the best efforts of all the staff concerned, the better. We have to change our whole approach. Let us at least start talking about it. Just because there are no votes in it does not mean we should not be addressing some serious issues in this area. It affects all society because these people come back out into the system. When they misbehave and remain violent, there is a reason for it. We have not dealt with it properly and we have to accept responsibility for that. Let us wake up and look at the realities.
I thank Deputy Daly for bringing this Bill forward. We support it and, indeed, the call to ban solitary confinement altogether. In many circumstances it is a form of torture. The Government's response is very poor. It is unfortunate that it will not agree to support the Bill, but I will comment further on its response later.
I will start with a quote from a man called Anthony Graves, who spent years in solitary confinement:
The way they treated me was dehumanising. It was like I was an animal. I had 60 square feet, with four walls that seemed to close in on me every day. I could sometimes hear guys screaming... Solitary confinement plays tricks on your mind. You're bound by four walls, you're bound by four walls, you're cut off from society, and you're left with just your own thoughts. Sometimes you start to feel like, if they treat me like this, I'm going to act like this. And then you risk becoming the kind of person that it seems like they're trying to tell society that you are. Human contact was what I missed most - something that told me that I was still loved, and that I was still able to love. We don't realise how important human contact is. When we give hugs and shake hands, it's because we need to. I don't know how to explain the emptiness it leaves when you are not allowed human contact anymore. It felt like they were starving me to death.
Anthony Graves was not imprisoned in Ireland. He was imprisoned in America, where solitary confinement is an absolute scourge and where 80,000 people are in solitary confinement at any one time, and 20,000 of those for extended periods of time in absolutely horrific conditions. They include political prisoners and those who have been framed, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal who has faced solitary confinement. It is used elsewhere around the world. The Irish citizen, Ibrahim Halawa, has faced solitary confinement. A very moving letter from him is published in today's newspapers. It should encourage all of us and the Government to act in the strongest way possible.
It happens not only in America and overseas, but also in this country. Historically, solitary confinement has played a role in this State. Countess Markievicz, a former Member of this House, was subject to solitary confinement. Sheila Humphreys, in a counter-revolution at the foundation of the State, was also subject to solitary confinement. Obviously, the British State used solitary confinement relatively extensively in Northern Ireland. Solitary confinement is also used today in the South, although it is not defined as that by the Government. I thank the Irish Penal Reform Trust for the useful information it circulated. It demonstrates that, on average, there are 80 prisoners in 22 or 23 hour lock-up on any given day in Ireland. A census of Irish prisons in October 2016 showed there are 424 prisoners on a restricted regime of some type and, quite shockingly, that 24 prisoners are in solitary confinement for over 100 days and nine are in solitary confinement for over a year. What is interesting in the figures is the allocation of those in solitary confinement to different prisons. Nine of the 31 are currently in Cloverhill Prison and 11 are in Portlaoise, so two prisons account for two thirds of the prisoners currently in solitary confinement for reasons of order. The numbers appear to fluctuate over time. It might be useful for the Minister to pay attention to the reasons behind the increases at particular times in certain prisons and why that is the case.
Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has been clear on this. He deals with the issue of not having a definition of solitary confinement by saying:
Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit... whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by states as a punishment or extortion technique... Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.
That gets to the point here. What is the aim of the penitentiary system, as he calls it? What is the aim of our penal system? This relates to solitary confinement but it reaches further. Is it about punishment? Is it about a transactional view of justice, of people getting a pound of flesh, or is it about rehabilitation? Is it about the interests of society and doing things that are in the best interests of society, to have a society with as little crime and as few anti-social acts as possible? That gets to the heart of the approach, or non-approach, of the Government.
It does not take an expert to realise that being locked up with extremely minimal human contact is devastating for people's mental and physical health. An American study in 2006 showed that one third of solitary confinement prisoners suffered from illusions or hallucinations, over half had reported progressive inability to tolerate ordinary stimuli and there were issues such as panic attacks, paranoia, a loss of concentration, insomnia, confusion and a negative effect on the physical health. Amnesty International has reported that half of all prison suicides in the US occur in solitary confinement cells. Even more worrying is the fact that after 15 days the effect on somebody's mental health can be irreversible. That is demonstrated by some of the examples one can read about online. The Guardianhas an app, 6x9, whereby one can experience for a couple of seconds or minutes what it is like to be in solitary confinement. One can multiply that by the number of days. The State is willing to engage in this to deprive people of contact with other human beings and, therefore, of their mental health.
There is a particular concern for those who are on remand. They are presumed innocent until proven guilty, so there is an even higher impact on their mental health. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture identified those prisoners as having a higher risk of suicide and self-harm than other prisoners. Crucially, it can impact on their ability to make decisions relating to their forthcoming trials, such as guilty pleas, confessions and so forth.
The Government's response is extremely poor. The Minister said "the Bill attempts to micro-manage in primary legislation the regime for dangerous, unwell, vulnerable and disruptive prisoners". He says it is not something in which we should be engaged and that it should be left to secondary legislation. Consider what is in the Bill. It provides that solitary confinement cannot be for longer than 15 days at a time or for more than 30 days in a year. Does the Minister and the Government believe that people should be held in solitary confinement for longer than 15 days, when we know it can have a permanent impact on people's mental health? Do they believe that people should be held in solitary confinement for more than 30 days in a year? The Bill provides that it cannot be used as a punitive exercise, which is in line with what the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has said. Does the Minister think that it should be used as a punitive exercise? The Bill also provides that it cannot be used for the disabled or mentally unwell and that a doctor and mental health professional must visit a prisoner in solitary confinement on the first day. It is not an unreasonable request. The Bill provides that it cannot be used for prisoners on remand. Bear in mind that people on remand have not been found guilty of anything and they maintain their innocence.
The Bill states that it can only be used in exceptional cases and each case would be reviewed every three days. What response can the Government have to that? A prisoner would still have access to work, training, education and family visits and would still have a right to make complaints in the normal way. I do not understand what the problem is with limiting the ability of a prison governor to impose solitary confinement on a prisoner. The Bill does not go as far as many of us would like in terms of banning solitary confinement altogether. That makes the Government's unwillingness to accept it all the more outrageous, uncaring and inhumane. The Bill will pass Second Stage, which is good. The Minister will have to come up with something better on Committee Stage and engage with the legislation. If the consequence is that it has resource implications so that we do not torture prisoners, that choice will have to be made. We will have to allocate some resources so prisoners are not mentally and physically tortured as a result of solitary confinement.
Like other Deputies, I warmly welcome this Bill and congratulate Deputy Clare Daly for yet again having the courage to raise a very difficult subject in this Chamber. As she said, we rarely hear any discussion about prisons or prisoners except from the gutter press, which portrays prison life as these people being in some kind of a hotel regime and that, therefore, it is a wonderful place to be.
I had a short experience in prison along with Deputy Clare Daly approximately 13 years ago. We were treated very differently from other prisoners, an issue to which I will return. What has been said about the nature of the torture imposed in terms of the basic principle of the deprivation of one's liberty should be sufficient to act as a punitive measure rather than heaping more and more punishment on a person.
The way in which society deals with those in prison says a great deal about it. It is rare that prisoners' conditions and human rights are spoken of in this House, or even outside it, without a cry of law and order and clamour for various reasons to lock them up, throw away the key and oblige them to live in harsher conditions. It is no exaggeration to say that the reality of prison life in this country is a stain on how we continue to deal with the question of prisoners. I argue it reflects a wider class bias that is deeply inherent in Irish society. That was something we witnessed in the women's prison in Mountjoy. The vast majority of prisoners were incarcerated because they were poor, not because they were necessarily violent or outrageously bad people. They came from certain socioeconomic backgrounds, which meant that they ended up robbing, taking drugs or, as other speakers noted, in many cases they had found themselves homeless or suffered from psychiatric illnesses and were thrown to the four winds by this society because there was no help for them on the outside. I remember one woman who was regularly released because her prison term was up and within a day she would be banging on the door to get back in because there was nowhere for her outside those walls.
On any given day, according to the Irish Penal Reform Trust, 150 prisoners are held on a 23-hour lock-up for their own protection and an unspecified number are held for a variety of reasons, including discipline. The trust notes - as have previous speakers - the mental health harm that is done to prisoners kept in isolation. Studies compiled by other bodies show that mental health harm when one is kept in isolation is irreversible.
The Minister of State mentioned in his retort to Deputy Clare Daly the reduction by 85% in the number of prisoners being locked up from 22 to 23 hours. If we consider the figures for that cohort of prisoners being locked up for 22 to 23 hours, that is probably true. It is interesting to note that when those most recent figures were recorded in 2013, there were 190 prisoners locked up for 23 hours. Almost a quarter of those individuals - some 23% - were imprisoned at St. Patrick's Institution, which is now closed. I seriously question those statistics. The Minister of State should look at them again. If we consider the cohort of prisoners locked up for 22 to 23 hours in solidarity confinement, we should not ignore those who are locked up for 21 hours, the number of whom, 170, is quite significant and the even greater number who are locked up for 19 hours. We need to look at those figures again because we are talking about prisoners being locked up for most of the day, certainly for all of their waking hours, where they are held away from human contact and from any sort of normal activity.
Restrictions are imposed, certainly at Castlerea Prison, on the number of visits people can receive. It has to do with the realignment of the resources and cutbacks on hours. Many families travel long distances. Again, they come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and they cannot afford to travel up from Dublin or Cork up and down Castlerea on trains, buses, or cars. When they visit their loved ones, they try to spend the entire day there - a few hours in the morning and evening - but they are being deprived of that contact as well. There are many problems with our prisons.
There is also the issue of what it costs to keep a prisoner in prison. It might seem crude to talk about the monetary aspect. It is disgraceful that we are spending an estimated €65,500 a year to keep a prisoner in a place of detention when we could consider alternatives such as community service, which would cost €2,200 a year. With community service, the person would be educated, watched over, given some guidance and training and they would also make a contribution to the wider community. The question of resources is never an excuse to deprive people of their human rights when they are locked up because most of them should not be locked up in the first place. We know only too well the scandal of many people who have spent time in prison because they refused to, failed to or could not afford to pay fines or bills. Even if they are sent to prison for a day or two days, it an outrageously incorrect use of resources by the State, which could be used to rehabilitate, train and help those people out of a conveyer belt-type system that sees them repeatedly offend and be sent back to prison. Experience shows that the latter is often the case with many prisoners.
In Ireland, prisoners are 25 times more likely to come from and return to socioeconomically-deprived areas. More than 70% of prisoners are unemployed on committal and they do not have a trade or an occupation. Most of them will have literacy problems. More than 300 prisoners who attend the school in Mountjoy are barely able to sign their names. We have to look at this as a class-biased system, as well as all the other cruelties relating to prison and with solitary confinement. This cohort of socioeconomically-deprived prisoners are bound also at some point to end up in long hours of lock-up. How will that do anything other than embitter them, damage their psychological and physical health and put them back on the conveyer belt to which I referred?
Our attitude to overcrowding in Irish prisons has not changed that much. If we cannot solve it by building more prisons, which we will not do, we have to reconsider matters in the context of why and how we send so many people to prison.
I want to finish by fleshing out the argument about there being a class bias in our system. We all know of well-known characters in recent Irish history who have had to go to jail, the late Liam Lawlor and Ray Burke among them. I want to refer to an article written by The Irish Timescorrespondent, Fintan O'Toole, when Sean Quinn Jnr. was locked up for three months for talking approximately €500 million that should have been available to the Irish State and lying about its whereabouts. He was sentenced to three months in prison but he spent one night in Mountjoy and was sent directly to the training unit. The make-up of prisoners in the training unit should be those who have served long terms, who are in rehabilitation and who need training before they exit the prison system. However, we know that when Seán Quinn Jnr. was in the training unit he had his mobile telephone, his laptop and all the rest with him. Most of the 4,000 male prisoners would want to be where Seán Quinn Jnr. was on that occasion. Many of them are on a waiting list for entry to the training unit but they come from the wrong class, the wrong background and have committed the wrong sort of offences. Many of them probably committed much lesser offences than that committed by Seán Quinn Jnr.
When we look at this issue, we should do so in the context of two kinds of Ireland, namely, that which is class biased and in which there are two types of crime and that which treats two types of criminals very differently. That means that our compassion and understanding of the reason solitary confinement is immoral, outdated and criminal. The latter is why it is so important that we flesh out Deputy Clare Daly's Bill and allow it to proceed to Committee Stage. It is also the reason that we should take it very seriously. The Government is not doing any of us a service in the context of justice and ending class bias in this society by trying to block it.
Like previous speakers, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Like my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan, and my party, Fianna Fáil, I support the legislation.
One does not need to be from a particular class to understand injustice or to understand that a light must be shone on particular areas of society in order to highlight the deficiencies of a system.
I applaud Deputy Daly who, as is regularly her wont, is seeking to champion this issue. If it does nothing more than throw open a door into the way our prison system and prisons operate, it will get an interesting conversation going in the House but I suspect it will do more than that. The Bill proposes to restrict the practice of solitary confinement and not just the restriction necessarily to a physical space. She also seeks to address other issues such as the denial of human contact during such confinement. The briefing materials we have received from organisations such as the Irish Penal Trust and Members in their contributions to the debate, not least my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan, have expressed a desire to have a conversation about this issue, which should include all sides in the debate.
I have given the Bill a cursory reading. It is necessary for the House to examine its provisions on behalf of our citizens. The Bill proposes that "no prisoner shall be held in solitary confinement for any reason for more than 30 days in any year". Many people would be shocked that this happens and that, in some cases, prisoners are confined for twice that duration. The Bill also provides that "no prisoner with a diagnosed mental illness or disability shall be subject to solitary confinement". I do not know whether there is evidence that this happens but this was adverted to by my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan. I reiterate his point that if an inmate had a physical illness or had been subject to physical harm resulting in a broken arm or leg, for example, it is unlikely he or she would remain in solitary confinement, yet there is a possibility that someone with a diagnosed mental illness would be treated differently. If that is the case, it is illustrative of the gap in the thinking in this country when it comes to mental health issues.
The legislation proposes that "prisoners shall be visited by a doctor and by a mental health professional within 24 hours of being placed in solitary confinement and shall be visited by same every day that they are so held". This is a practical, pragmatic and reasonable provision and, at the very least, we need to debate it. It further proposes that "prisoners held in solitary confinement for any reason shall have access to work, training, education, rehabilitation, and other services, and insofar as is possible this shall be in association with other prisoners". The Minister of State seemed to say, in his response on behalf of the Minister, that in an ideal world if we had endless resources etc. this might be possible. However, the Minister seems to lack any engagement with this issue.
We cannot forget about the rights of prison officers in this regard. Deputy Wallace alluded to this and there is no need for me to go over this ground, as he has engaged much more than I have in this area. I am only setting out in this area but it interests me. We have to be conscious of the rights of prison officers. A number of them are constituents of mine, as will be the case for every other Member. One or two of them have suffered horrendous injuries at the hands of prisoners in the course of their daily duties. Theirs is one of the toughest physical jobs and it is intimidating to undertake. The public needs to understand that support for the legislation is not based on a soft, pink, liberal stance, which does not take into account the rights of everybody involved, most particularly prison officers who are charged with the daily task of caring for prisoners. The greatest champion in my lifetime of prison reform was the former Governor of Mountjoy Prison, Mr. John Lonergan. Nobody would be considered more iconic than him in respect of the need for reform. I would like to hear what the Prison Officers Association and the Irish Prison Service have to say on this and, as the Bill proceeds to Committee Stage and beyond, they will have an opportunity to do so. I want to understand the reasons beyond the obvious, to which the Minister of State referred, a person would be put into solitary confinement.
I find it most disturbing that a prisoner who is vulnerable to physical intimidation by other prisons can be put in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day for his or her protection. It is a frightening concept for anybody to grasp. Regardless of our age, a number of iconic movies revolve around issues relating to solitary confinement of prisoners such as "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Cool Hand Luke". Solitary confinement was designed to kill the rebel spirit apparently but we know from the narratives in those movies that was far from what it did. As a public representative, I have to be careful and I do not suggest prisoners in our system are similar to the characters in these movies. They are in prison for a reason. They have broken the law and they are serving a sentence, and we also need to consider their victims. I am alive to the predominance in prisons of people from particular postal addresses or areas of economic disadvantage in this county and country.
The Bill is a welcome start to an important conversation and I am glad my party is part of it. I am grateful for the Minister of State's attendance to outline the Minister's response but I am sorry that the Government benches are empty. It looks like he will be the only contributor from his side, although I hope he is not. The Minister's response lacks any interest in, or engagement with, the issue and it smacks of having been farmed out to the relevant agencies to respond with facts and figures. There is no heart in the response. There is not even a semblance of a willingness to get involved in the conversation. I am disappointed by that but, as the Bill progresses, with Fianna Fáil support, perhaps she will become more politically and personally engaged with this issue.
I thank Deputy Clare Daly for raising this important topic. I welcome the views of the various contributors to this debate and the many compelling testimonies that were put on the record of the House by many Deputies. The Bill cuts across a range of important issues which includes the treatment of prisoners and control, discipline and sanctions in a prison context. These are central issues to the maintenance of good order and safe and secure custody for all prisoners and staff in prisons. As I outlined in detail earlier, the issues are both complex and far-ranging. Balancing the rights of all prisoners with the regimes and resources available whilst maintaining good order and security is complex and requires a careful assessment of all of issues involved. Much of the discussion is focused on the Mandela rules which are an evolving entity. The rules acknowledge that not all of the rules are capable of application in all places at all times due to the great variety of legal, social and economic conditions throughout the world. With this in mind, it is imperative that any proposed solutions are flexible enough to respond to development in the areas of human rights legal case law and policy. To instil such rights in primary legislation by way of this Bill would remove this flexibility. It would also severely curtail the governor's ability to ensure good order and safe and secure custody. The Irish Prison Service could not meet the commitment to ensure that all prisoners in such circumstances are assured access to work, training, education and free association with other prisoners.
I appreciate the seriousness of intent behind the bringing of the Private Members' Bill on the issue of solitary confinement. The Government, specifically the Irish Prison Service, shares that intent. That is why there has been such a dramatic reduction in the number of prisoners subject to 22-23 hour lock-up as explained in my opening remarks. This came about because of the structured system of looking at a problem and solving it incrementally. It is important to place these developments in the wider context of prison reform, as I said earlier. Huge improvements have been made to prison conditions in recent years. Capacity issues in the Dóchas Centre are also being addressed as well as the other issues raised earlier. In conjunction with the Probation Service the Irish Prison Service has continued the national roll out of a community return programme which is an innovative, incentivised scheme for earned temporary release under which carefully selected offenders can be granted structured temporary release in return for supervised community service. In addition to this programme, community support services are schemes that have been set up in Cork Prison, Mountjoy campus, West Dublin campus and Limerick Prison, the aim of which is to reduce recidivism rates by arranging for additional support structures and provide for a more structured form of temporary release. This aim is supported by the release of the recent recidivism study by the Central Statistics Office which showed a reduction of recidivism rates of 2.4% from the previous year's figures. This vindicates the policy on penal reform in recent years and shows that a more enlightened approach to how we treat prisoners is entirely compatible with public safety. Future developments such as the development policy on solitary confinement will ensure further safeguards are put in place to protect the rights and treatment of prisoners, to ensure compliance with international developments such as the Mandela rules, to maintain good order and safe and secure custody and ultimately to make society safer.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality will certainly be taking on board the views that were expressed this evening across the House and will be considering them in detail. She has been working with the Irish Penal Reform Trust and good progress has been made in the area of penal reform. She has recently published the latest report of the implementation and oversight group which has overseen the implementation of the penal policy review group. There has been imaginative innovation such as community return, which involves the structured temporary release of prisoners. As I said earlier, the end of slopping out in the Irish prison system is in sight and this is an enormous achievement. The Tánaiste acknowledges there are issues with people who come into contact with the criminal justice system. An inter-Department group exists to address this and the first interim report was recently published on the website of the Department of Justice and Equality. This deals with what happens from the first encounter with gardaí to the courts.
Given the willingness of all to co-operate with this Bill, I will not push it to a vote. The Tánaiste has taken a most progressive approach and I am sure she will work with the committee to meet the Mandela rules. I compliment Deputy Daly on her Bill.
I will start by adding our voices to the condolences expressed by the Minister of State on the untimely death of the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly. From our point of view, he was an outstanding Inspector of Prisons. Whoever comes after him will have very big shoes to fill. The best tribute we could pay to his work is to take on board many of his very useful reports on the prison service.
I thank the Deputies who participated, particularly those who have supported the Bill and I echo their comments in my disappointment in the Government's reaction to this situation. I note the Government will not vote against the Bill. It would go through anyway and the reasons the Minister of State has put forward for not supporting it do not stack up. The first reason for that is that human rights cannot wait. The idea that this proposal is somehow being put forward to micro-manage in primary legislation the running of a prison is not true. This is the only part of prison rules which would be put in primary legislation. There would be total flexibility in terms of everything else. The reason for that is that it is sufficiently important to warrant that it be so. International human rights legislation states that we should be putting it in law. The UN Committee against Torture has said that any isolation of prisoners should be strictly and specifically regulated by law in terms of maximum durations, conditions and so on. That is exactly what our Bill attempts to do. The European Court of Human Rights has recognised prolonged solitary confinement as a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The revised Nelson Mandela rules also say that states should codify these practices in law. It is not inflexible: it is best international practice. It is worth pointing out that a prisoner in Wheatfield last January won a case in the High Court against a protected regime he was under. It was found that his constitutional right to bodily and psychological integrity was breached because he was held in solitary confinement, a breach that was neither necessary nor proportionate to the alleged and perceived risk to him. That decision was overturned by a higher court but nonetheless the High Court took that view in the case. Human rights are not optional. Human rights dictate that we address this situation. The Minister of State said the Bill would restrict the rights and obligations of the prison governor to ensure good order and safety. It would not; it just means he or she has to do it in a different way. It does not remove the power from governors to remove a prisoner for his or her own safety or the safety of others on a short-term basis, immediately for 24 hours or so. It absolutely allows that but what it does not allow is for those people to be left there. As other Deputies have pointed out, if we told them to put them in, break their legs so their legs can never be repaired and they will be wheelchair bound, we would have people out on the streets. It has been proven that being in solitary confinement for more than 15 days does irreversible psychological damage and we are harming people's health. It should not be allowed in any situation. Reasons have been put forward for justifying this practice, for example that under rule 63 some of these people have requested the measure for themselves. That is true but it should be immediately ringing major alarm bells that somebody would want to be insulated from all human contact. That person is already, by being in that situation, calling out for help. To say that prisoners are a danger or open to threats from other prisoners is to say we have not adequately resourced our prisons to deal with safety. Judge Reilly did an excellent report on bullying in prisons - it exists and can be dangerous for staff and prisoners. That means we have to do the job better. It does not mean we have to violate people's human rights. The Bill, as other Deputies have said, puts very specific provisions in place, such as the prohibition for prisoners with mental or physical disabilities. Deputy Lahart was very concerned that people with mental health problems would be in this situation but they are. They are there tonight and they should not be there at all. Let us be clear about it. These people are there because the Central Mental Hospital does not have the capacity to take them.
The Irish Prison Service is left with a situation where it has quite a number of seriously psychologically damaged prisoners under its watch at the moment and it can do nothing for them because the Central Mental Hospital will only take one at a time. There are people there who are acutely psychotic and need serious medical care. Perhaps one prisoner might be taken to the hospital and he or she would be lucky to be there for three or four weeks but then he or she would be sent back.
It is pie in the sky for us to pay lip-service while this is going on. The longer we avoid legislating for this, the more we are allowing this to continue. It is intolerable. We cannot have this logjam. It is not only about the inmates; it is about the staff in the prison who interact with them as well as the other prisoners. It goes against all human rights obligations and it is abhorrent in the modern age.
It is true and well known that the Irish Prison Service has done some excellent work in this area. The working group is in place and its members have examined practices in other regimes. There is advanced talk of setting up a challenging behaviour unit in the Midlands Prison to deal with some of these cases. It would involve a unique team of prison staff working on a volunteer basis as well as psychologists and so on. That is the route we need to go but it is not going to be delivered straight away and the plan is no good for the people who have already been damaged by the regime in place. We need to move urgently on this. Human rights cannot wait when it comes to these matters. I accept that work is being done, but unless we move provisions like this, there is no way the Irish Prison Service will get the support it needs to push this situation further. That is one of the reasons we need the Bill to progress.
The Minister of State says that the Prison Service would be unable to meet its commitment to ensure that prisoners would get access to structured activity and so on if the Bill was passed. I see where the Minister of State is coming from but the provisions are in the Bill for good reason. All studies indicate that structured activity and intervening with people while they are in prison are the only ways to get to a situation where those people can be rehabilitated. The Whitaker report recommended that people should be out of cells for 12 hours each day. In other jurisdictions, the view is that out-of-cell activity time should be as long as is necessary for people to engage in full human interaction, structured activity and so on. Countries like Finland and Germany take that approach. Developing an alternative to incarceration whereby people would be rehabilitated and restorative justice is delivered and so on is far preferable.
I accept this will put pressures on the Irish Prison Service and I certainly do not expect the management or staff to shoulder that burden on their own. I expect the Dáil to deliver the resources to allow them to move to a more humane and better situation.
In that light, the reason we are moving the Bill is twofold. I am delighted we are discussing prisoner issues today. I do not believe this legislation jumps the gun on anything. The Minister of State intimated that the Government agrees with what we are doing but that it is doing this in a different way, in its own time and suggested that it will get there in the end. That is not good enough for the people in these situations tonight. Some people have been in these situations for months and years and have already been damaged.
One good thing is that we have given some of these people hope with the contributions today and the fact that the Bill is going forward. It allows for a belief not only among prisoners but staff who have been working in this area that there is an appetite for reform and for a new prison policy where human rights of all in that bubble or prison world can be respected. It allows for a belief that we can deliver a system whereby citizens who have spent time inside can come out and be able to contribute to society in a far better way than before rather than perpetuate the revolving door system. It is useful to be here discussing these issues. I hope the Select Committee on Justice and Equality will take this forward as a serious project of work for the year ahead. I thank all Deputies for their support.