27th November, 2015
Good morning ladies and gentlemen, fellow speakers.
I am delighted to be here today to open the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) conference with the theme of ‘securing responsibility in the Prison Service’. I would like to begin by saying that I very much welcome the role played by the IPRT, other NGO’s, practitioners, academics and many others with an interest in the criminal justice system. Your work and the contribution you have made over the years to the debate on penal reform is appreciated.
This conference presents an opportunity to discuss and explore the possibilities that exist in this area, to take your views on board and to learn from the experience of others.
The specific theme today is securing accountability in the prison service. The term ‘accountability’ can be read in both a narrow legal sense in terms of satisfying a legal remit but also in a much broader sense in terms of striving to make sure that protection of the human rights of prisoners is central to how we run the prison system.
Responsibility for the prison system
In the strict legal and constitutional sense I, as Minister for Justice and Equality, am accountable to the Oireachtas for the Prison Service. In terms of day to day operation of the system, officials in my Department and in the Irish Prison Service are also subject to scrutiny by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts both of which play a key role in the process of public accountability. Further, all of us are subject to Judicial Review by the Courts for any actions we take which affects individual prisoners.
But there are, of course, other ways in which accountability, in a broader sense, for the protection of prisoners’ rights in our modern prison system can be ensured. The most effective of these is the putting in place of independent monitoring systems. To that end, Irish prisons are subject to inspection by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, the Visiting Committees appointed to each prison and the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT).
It’s worth saying a few words on what each of these monitoring regimes entail.
Inspector of Prisons
The primary role of the Inspector of Prisons, who is independent of the Government, is to carry out regular inspections of prisons including Deaths in Custody. The Inspector may also investigate any matter arising out of the management or operation of prisons and submit a report on any such investigation. The Inspector’s reports are published on my Department’s website.
Deaths in Custody
Since January, 2012, the death of any prisoner in custody or on temporary release is the subject of an independent investigation by the Inspector. The Inspector's investigation and reports, which are published on my Department’s website, are part of a three pronged process, the other elements being investigations by An Garda Síochána, and investigations and inquests conducted by Coroners. I am satisfied that this process ensures that Ireland is in compliance with its national and international obligations and meets the strict criteria laid down by the European Court of Human Rights when interpreting the procedural requirements of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Prison Visiting Committees
Under the Prisons (Visiting Committees) Act, 1925 and Prisons (Visiting Committees) Order, 1925, a Visiting Committee is appointed to each prison institution. They are required to report to me any abuses observed or found by them in the prison and any repairs which they think may be urgently needed. Their Annual Reports are also available on my Department's website.
The Government has approved the drafting of a General Scheme of an Inspection of Places of Detention Bill, which will include provisions to make Visiting Committees more effective, while they continue their role of visiting prisons, meeting with prisoners, and liaising on their behalf with prison authorities. A link will be established between the Visiting Committees and the Inspector of Prisons. As part of these plans, it is intended to expand the role of the Inspector. Under the proposed new arrangements, it is intended that Visiting Committees will report regularly to the Inspector.
In advance of finalising the drafting of the Bill and as part of the consultation process, earlier this week, I hosted an open policy debate on proposals for a Criminal Justice Inspectorate which I will elaborate on in a few moments. Indeed, Deirdre Malone, Executive Director of the IPRT was one of the speakers at the debate and I was interested to hear what Deirdre had to say about what the functions of an effective inspectorate should be and the need for a mapping exercise to review the overall Criminal Justice System as a whole.
The official report on their visit and the Irish Government’s Response was published on 17 November, 2015, and is available on the Council of Europe website. I was very pleased to note the CPT acknowledgement of a number of positive developments which have taken place since their visit in 2010 such as the reduction of overcrowding, the establishment of admission units along with first night procedures, improved material conditions and the ending of slopping out in Mountjoy prison. I was also pleased to note their acknowledgement of the very good co-operation they received at both central and local level during their visit.
Ireland also has obligations under the United Nations International Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Under the Convention each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
Article 19 of the Convention places an obligation on signatories to the Convention to file a report on the measures taken in their respective jurisdictions to comply with its provisions. Ireland’s First National Report was submitted in July, 2009 and our Second Report was submitted to CAT last week.
Complaints procedure for prisoners
Accountability is also empowerment. A new comprehensive prisoner complaints system was introduced in November 2012 based on a model recommended by the Inspector of Prisons who has independent oversight of the process. The intention was to have robust procedures in place which would give prisoners access to a credible complaints system that deals with genuine complaints in an open, transparent and independent way.
The system is categorised depending on the nature of the complaint. Category A complaints concern the most serious level of complaint (assault, serious intimidation by staff etc.). The other categories of complaints are of importance to the day to day living conditions of individual prisoners. In January 2013 the then Minister announced amendments to the Prison Rules to support and give effect to the new procedures for the investigation of prisoner complaints. In the main, the amendments to the Prison Rules provide that prisoner complaints under Category A will be examined by investigators from outside the Prison Service to ensure an effective and impartial investigation. The complainant will be kept informed and the reports by outside investigators are automatically submitted to the Governor in question, the Director General of the Prison Service and the Inspector.
As the Inspector mentioned on Monday, as part of his oversight of the complaints process, he is in the process of reviewing the complaints procedure currently in operation and the outcome of that review will be presented to me on completion.
Further accountability mechanisms
With the aim of formalising and strengthening governance arrangements, a Performance Agreement has recently been signed between my Department and the Prison Service which defines its role and sets out agreed key objectives and performance measurements.
I am of course open to looking at further accountability mechanisms and potential options for improving and strengthening accountability structures for our prison system. In February I indicated that I was considering the establishment of a Criminal Justice Inspectorate in this jurisdiction. The proposed inspectorate would incorporate aspects of the inspection functions of the Garda Inspectorate and the Inspector of Prisons but its remit may also cover other criminal justice agencies. Such an inspectorate, I believe would ensure that all the criminal justice agencies would be measured by the same standard and have to have the same respect for human rights.
As I mentioned earlier, I hosted an open policy debate on Monday on these proposals. The debate presented an opportunity for relevant agencies, NGO’s and academics to participate in discussions on the development of any legislative proposals for the establishment of a criminal justice inspectorate. In debating these ideas the focus was on:
- what the role and nature of independent scrutiny should be;
- is there a case for new comprehensive and broader arrangements for inspecting the various elements of the criminal justice system;
- what structure is best suited to ensuring best standards in criminal justice agencies; and
- what agencies should be included in the remit of a criminal justice inspectorate.
At this stage I have no fixed model in mind for a Criminal Justice Inspectorate and in that regard I very much welcome the contributions from participants to this debate. In terms of the next steps my Department will take time now to consider the many suggestions made last Monday and will take these into account as the General Scheme of an Inspection of Places of Detention Bill is further developed.
Inspector of Prisons’ Report: “Culture and the organisation in the Irish Prison Service – A Road Map for the Future”
An important aspect of accountability is examining the broad cultural context in which it is exercised. To that end, the Inspector, with the assistance of Professor Andrew Coyle, both of whom are here today, carried out an assessment of the current culture within the Prison Service and the extent to which it facilitates or hinders the development of the service.
The Inspector formally presented his report to me on 2nd November 2015. I very much welcome the report and would like to take this opportunity once again to thank Judge Reilly and Professor Coyle for all of their hard work in bringing this report to fruition. It is also important to point out that this is the first time that an Inspector of Prisons has embarked on this type of review into the prevailing culture of the Prison Service.
This report seeks to provide a roadmap for the future and will make a positive contribution to the reforms already underway in the Irish Prison Service. It has the potential to enhance the lives of everyone in Irish prisons – staff and prisoners alike. While highlighting challenges, I welcome the fact that the report also acknowledges the many positive aspects of the service, including the dedication of its staff. The report lists the great strides in the prison service in recent years including the reduction of overcrowding and ‘slopping out’ and a new complaints procedure for prisoners.
In terms of the report and the next steps, I have asked my officials to prepare a Memorandum to Government for information at this stage which I intend to bring to Cabinet in the next fortnight. I will bring a further Memorandum to Government at a later stage for decisions to be made. In the interim, I want to ensure that key stakeholders have a chance to reflect on the report and provide feedback.
It is also worth mentioning that the Inspector’s report will inform the new Prison Service Strategic 3 Year Plan 2015 – 2018. Change and reform will continue to be a central component of this new strategy. The Plan will focus on building relationships, rehabilitative measures, efforts to reduce re-offending and the further development of penal policy to realise the vision of a safer community through excellence in a prison service built on respect for human dignity.
With all of this going on, I look forward to further progress being made. So let me conclude by thanking you for your attention. I look forward to hearing what the other speakers here today have to say on this topic.