Opinion: The Inspection of Places of Detention Bill promises reforms but doesn't go far enough

MARCH SAW THE publication of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice’s Report on the draft Inspection of Places of Detention Bill. This Bill has significant implications across the justice, health, social care and immigration sectors. We focus on its repercussions for one of our research areas: prison oversight.

As criminologists, we believe an effective system of prison inspection and monitoring is essential to ensure basic standards are met in places of detention.

People in our prisons are vulnerable to acute, ongoing abuses that counteract efforts to reduce reoffending and prevent victimisation. Addressing these issues will help keep our communities safe and protect the most vulnerable in society.

The Bill facilitates our ratification of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT). This was promised for some time, including in the current Programme for Government.

In so doing, it establishes a new Inspectorate of Places of Detention (IPD) as a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM). NPMs are independent bodies that prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. They are common across Europe and globally, and can play an important role in reducing torture and ill treatment in prisons and police detention.

The IPD replaces and expands the remit of the Office of the Inspector of Prisons. As the NPM for all places of detention in the justice sector, it will be responsible for inspecting Garda custody as well as prisons. This is important, given the many deaths, and other harms people face, in police detention.

Relatedly, the Bill revises the framework for Prison Visiting Committees (PVCs). These are volunteers who visit a prison regularly, with access to all areas of the prison. They can hear complaints privately from people in prison, make representations to Governors, and report to the Minister for Justice, at minimum, on an annual basis.

These reforms are all to be welcomed. Still, as we argued in written and oral evidence to the Joint Committee on Justice, the Bill has several gaps that must be addressed.

Changes sorely needed

The Committee’s report deals with many of these issues. Perhaps most importantly, it recommends that ‘the legislation should guarantee the functional and financial independence’ of NPMs. Currently, the Inspector of Prisons cannot publish its reports.

This led to an impasse between the Minister for Justice and the Inspectorate regarding a report on bullying and intimidation in the women’s prison, the Dóchas Centre, which remains unpublished.

The draft Bill permits the IPD to publish its reports directly. Yet, it also gives the Minister for Justice a role in staff appointments and retains its budget under the Department of Justice. The Inspectorate must be financially independent of the Department of Justice and accountable to the Oireachtas to prevent government interference that could impinge on its (real or perceived) independence.

The draft Bill had few details on Visiting Committees, as the Department was running a consultation on reform. This is yet to be published. Still, the Joint Committee recommends greater clarity around the ‘structure, role, membership and appointment’ of Visiting Committees. This is important given concerns around their limited diversity and political appointments, as one TD mentioned in the Joint Committee meeting.

We welcome that the draft Bill provides for the Public Appointments Service to lead appointment processes for PVCs. In line with our evidence, the Committee goes further in seeking guarantees on members’ diversity and proposes that least two members should have experience of imprisonment or detention.

This would be a significant step forward, building representation and lived experience into oversight structures, and increasing these structures’ credibility and legitimacy among those in custody.

Moreover, the draft Bill sought to make PVCs accountable to the Inspectorate, which would compile Visiting Committee reports into a single report. This is problematic for several reasons, including as it compromises Visiting Committees’ independence, creates an unnecessary burden on the Inspectorate, and risks burying issues with specific prisons, such as women’s prisons.

The Joint Committee’s report recommends that Visiting Committees publish individual reports and, like the Inspectorate itself, be accountable directly to the Oireachtas.

The Joint Committee’s report has further recommendations that we support. It proposes to establish an Ombudsman for Prisons and Places of Detention, which would handle and investigate complaints. The current system – where complaints of those in custody are categorised, investigated and closed by the Irish Prison Service – is clearly inadequately independent.

A prisons’ ombudsman has long been promised and should be established by the Bill.

The Joint Committee also recommended the publication of disciplinary statistics, the right and need for people in custody to access translation services and translated materials, and the use of person-centred language – ‘person in prison’ instead of ‘prisoner’ – in the law. These reforms would reflect the culture of care and support that the Irish Prison Service and the Government say they want to develop, in line with international standards.

Society is best served by upholding the fundamental rights and dignity of all persons. An updated, modernised legal framework for the inspection and monitoring of places of detention is critical to protect the fundamental rights of people in custody. We hope the Bill will be revised in accordance with research, the Joint Committee’s report, and international standards to achieve this goal.

Dr Ian D. Marder and Dr Joe Garrihy are Assistant Professors in Criminology at Maynooth University School of Law and Criminology. Declaration of interests: Both authors have collaborated on academic research with the Office of the Inspector of Prisons (e.g. here) and Irish Prison Service (e.g. here and here). Both provided evidence to the Joint Committee on Justice in preparing its report. Marder sits on a Prison Visiting Committee.

opinion: the inspection of places of detention bill promises reforms but doesn't go far enough

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