Improving Prison Health: Using Advocacy Tools to Affect Change

Fíona Ní Chinnéide

Presentation at Inside Reform, Policy Event, National Gallery of Ireland, 2 June 2017 

In her presentation Fíona Ní Chinnéide, Acting Director of the Irish Prison Reform Trust (IPRT), focused on advocacy tools, provided a case study on solitary confinement, and finished with a word of caution on the possible unintended consequences of reform campaigns. Defining the IPRT as an independent campaign organisation focused on progressive policy change, Fíona stated that in regard to prison healthcare the organisation has focused on the equivalence of care principle, the promotion of preventative services and continuity of care following discharge.

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The Failures of Social Policy

Fíona argued that the failures of social policy contribute to higher prison populations – a point underlined by the fact that the Irish prison population is characterised by poor health, poor socio-economic backgrounds and the experience of social marginalisation. Some 70 per cent of male prisoners and 85 per cent of female prisoners have substance addictions. There is also a high proportion of poor mental health amongst prisoners and some 20 to 30 prisoners are currently in Cloverhill Prison awaiting transfer to the Central Mental Hosptial Dundrum.

IPRT Campaigns

Fíona then outlined the general workflow for IPRT campaigns. In the first instance they identify an issue and this identification may derive from the expertise of IPRT board members, from communication with individual prisoners, from research, from inspection reports or by monitoring prison issues that emerge internationally. Once an issue is identified, the IPRT, as a solution focused organisation, then seeks to develop evidence-based policy proposals. These proposals are first promoted through constructive advocacy by making submissions, engaging in process and building capacity in other organisations. If constructive advocacy yields no dividend, the IPRT then go to the media, particularly using international monitoring processes, such as the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, to embarrass the Irish government, if necessary, on the world stage.

A Sea-Change in Irish Penal Policy

The IPRT has successfully used these processes to achieve significant reform, resulting in a sea-change in Irish penal policy since 2011 and a substantial reduction in prison numbers. The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice has recently stated that prison should only be used as a last resort. The end of the imprisonment of children has almost been achieved. In terms of prison healthare, the IPRT has focused more on the needs of discrete groups within the prison such as women, travellers, and LGBT and older prisoners. Yet, thanks to the Committee on the Prevention of Torture, we know that healthcare in some Irish prisons is currently in crisis. The IPRT ‘think’ that prison healthcare might be better if it was under the control of the Health Service Executive (HSE) but acknowledge that the international evidence is mixed and that the HSE itself, as it is in a state of permanent crisis, might not have the resources for such a transfer of responsibility.

Solitary Confinement

Fíona’s paper then focused on the IPRT’s campaign against solitary confinement in Irish prisons. From 2011 to 2013 there were about 800 or 900 men in Irish prison in ‘so-called protection’. These were prisoners who were locked-up for up to 23 hours a day, apparently for their own safety. Anecdotal evidence indicated that some prisoners had been held under such conditions for years. Attempts to garner further information on this population were largely unsuccessful. In 2011, the UN and the Council of Europe issued statements on the prolonged segregation of prisoners. These statements, focusing on the prolonged isolation experienced by prisoners rather than the reason for their isolation or whether it was experienced with a cell-mate, redefined it as a form of solitary confinement. Also in 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, proclaimed that the ill-effects attendant to isolation for periods of over 14 days was irreversible.

‘Restricted Regimes’

This reframing of ‘protection’ as solitary confinement provided an opportunity for the IPRT to construct a reform campaign around the issue. This they did by creating a briefing and focus around an event where they gathered 100 people into a room to concentrate on and discuss the issue. Subsequently they applied pressure through the media, utilising the narrative of a former prisoner willing to speak out anonymously. The Director General of the Irish Prison Service addressed the issue and the immediate result was that a quarterly census on what were now termed ‘restricted regimes’ was published for the first time. The number of prisoners in solitary confinement dropped substantially thereafter and currently (April 2017) only 44 prisoners are reported as being held under ‘restricted regimes’.

A Word of Warning

Fíona finished her presentation with a word of warning. The IPRT had successfully campaigned for the needs of elderly prisoners to be addressed by the Irish Prison Service. This, however, led to the closing in March 2017 of the only semi-open prison facility in Dublin, the Training Unit in Mountjoy Prison. This reduction in the already meagre open prison capacity in Ireland to accommodate the opening of the unit for older prisoners in the same facility