Prison: inspecting while conditions deteriorate

Prison: inspecting while conditions deteriorate

by Village 2 November, 2012

Conditions in Irish prisons are worse than T.K. Whitaker reported 27 years ago. Prison Inspector, Judge Michael Reilly, seems satisfied with inferior standardsKevin Warner 

Imagine three men locked in a cell together in one of our more ‘modern’ prisons, say Cloverhill Prison (where three-to-a-cell is the norm, in no more than 12 square metres). To make the image more real and human, think of three people we all know – let’s say Alan Shatter, Dermot Ahern and Michael McDowell, three explosive Ministers for Justice – sharing.

They would be kept locked in this cell for at least 17 hours each day and have only limited activity in restricted space when unlocked. Whenever one of them wished to go to the toilet, he’d have to do so in the cell, right in front of the others. So cramped are these cells, that one of the bunk beds is undersized, so there could well be a row as to who ends up in that smaller bunk (and you’d have to be concerned here for poor diminutive Alan). However, these three men have all defended this standard of accommodation, can’t see anything wrong with it. ‘Redefining standards’ is the current slogan of an insurance company. Clearly, the company is claiming to drive standards upwards. Yet, that phrase neatly encapsulates the official approach to conditions required in Irish prisons – except that, in their case, standards have been seriously eroded. This can be said of the Inspector of Prisons in particular.

The 1985 Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System, known as the ‘Whitaker Report’,  worked from key penal policy principles such as “minimum use of custody, minimum use of security and normalisation of prison life”. On the basis of this thinking, the Whitaker Report stipulated “basic living conditions” for those held in prison, which they said “should correspond broadly to those available to persons with an average disposable income”.

Three Whitaker conditions are especially important. The report said prisoners should have:

“Normally (and always where a prisoner so desires) private sleeping accommodation in a single cell”;

“Ready access to toilet facilities at all times”;

“Much more out-of-cell time (at least 12 hours)”.

Despite Whitaker’s advocacy of ‘normalisation’ as a cornerstone of penal policy, and of living conditions in prison being related to those outside, conditions in Irish prisons are now, in general,  much worse than in 1985. We can see this by examining these three issues in turn.

In Whitaker’s time, nearly all those in prison were in single cells. Today, 60 per cent must share cells. Those who understand the effects of imprisonment have long recognised that single cells are critical to ensuring safety, dignity and humanity for those in prison. John Lonergan, former governor of Mountjoy Prison, stresses how people in prison need “privacy, their own space and above all personal safety… people crack up when they don’t have their own space”. Peter McVerry, who founded the trust for the homeless, speaks of personally knowing 40 young men who acquired a drug-habit in prison, as a result of being forced to share cells with drug-users. Obliging men or women in prison to share cells degrades them and fosters stress, violence and drug abuse. It is for such reasons that Whitaker and the Council of Europe insist on single cells.

Up to the mid-1990s, it was also Department of Justice policy to try to have single cells for all. That aspiration was abandoned with the construction in the 1990s of Cloverhill Prison, which typically has three to a cell, and where over 400 prisoners are squeezed into space originally earmarked for just 80.  Since then, doubling-up has been a feature of most prison planning, including proposed new prisons at Thornton Hall and Kilworth, where 80 per cent or more in the main parts of these prisons would have to share cells.  Reports of a new section to Cork Prison, announced in March 2012, now refer to “berths” rather than cells, and it is expected 80 per cent will have to share cells there.  The sub-standard has become the norm.

The Whitaker Report also said prisoners should have “ready access to toilet facilities at all times”. Today, 20 per cent are required to ‘slop out’, i.e. defecate and urinate in pots that must be emptied at unlock time. This happens mainly in Cork, Mountjoy and Limerick prisons.

While this fact is reasonably well-known and condemned, fewer people are aware that a further 44 per cent are, in the words of Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice and Equality, “required to use normal toilet facilities in the presence of others”. This arises, of course, from the prevalence of shared cells. The Inspector of Prisons conveys this reality for women in Limerick Prison who share cells which have normal toilets: “When there is more than one prisoner in a cell a prisoner attending to her sanitary or washing requirements does so within feet and in full view of her fellow prisoner. The situation is far worse when there are three prisoners in a cell” .

So, the majority of men and women in prison today must share cells and put up with undignified toilet arrangements. This situation is then made all the worse by the very high lock-up times most of those in prison are subject to nowadays.

When the Whitaker Committee reported, most prisoners were locked up for 16 hours a day, which the Committee regarded as “excessive”. They said people in prison should be out of their cells for “at least 12 hours” each day. Since then, rather than improving, the norm of eight hours out of cells has been eroded, and is often only six or seven hours now. In addition, hundreds of those in prison are kept in cells for much longer, some for 23 hours or more.

Judge Michael Reilly, the Inspector of Prisons, has criticised aspects of the prison system, such as overcrowding and slopping out. However, he appears to lack sensitivity to the effects of imprisonment on men and women – this despite many years spent sending people to prison. He has compromised on several of the clear and basic standards set out in Whitaker. This is a serious departure, because the Irish Prison Service and the Minister for Justice have taken to citing the Inspector’s much lower standards to justify policies, while they ignore the Whitaker Report and the European Prison Rules.


There have been dramatic regulatory failures   in Ireland in recent years. The approach of the Inspector of Prisons to the three issues mentioned indicates another failure of regulation. In a comprehensive 2010 document  on the duties and obligations owed to prisoners, Judge Reilly concluded that cell sizes should be a minimum of seven square metres for single occupancy, with an extra four square metres for each additional person. Thus he justifies cramped multi-occupation of cells.

In reaching these conclusions, Judge Reilly claims to have considered the European Prison Rules. He cites one such rule, which sets out a principle: that prison accommodation “shall respect human dignity and, as far as possible privacy, and meet the requirements of health and hygiene”.  However, he fails to mention other rules, which are much more specific. For example, one rule states: “Prisoners shall normally be accommodated during the night in individual cells except where it is preferable for them to share sleeping accommodation”. This omission by Judge Reilly seems very odd.

The failure of regulation in the matter of cells is matched by another in relation to sanitation. Brian Keenan, held captive in a shared cell in Beirut with John McCarthy, wrote about the indignity both suffered when guards failed to turn up just once to allow them out to use a toilet.  Yet this is what most prisoners in Ireland deal with every day. Having lowered standards in relation to cell-sharing, Judge Reilly is obliged to accept what is, given the architecture of most Irish prisons, one of the inevitable consequences of this compromise. If you are in prison, you sleep with others in the cell, sit about together in the same cramped space for most of the day, and go to the toilet in each other’s presence.

The Whitaker Report said that men and women in prison should be out of their cells for “at least 12 hours” each day – which is now a very common arrangement in many Western European countries, and in Nordic countries in particular. Such unlock time enables one to work or take part in education for a full day, and to do normal things like cleaning, cooking and taking exercise.

In his 2010 document, it seems at first sight that Judge Reilly supports this Whitaker 12-hour standard, as he makes several references to people in prison being “unlocked for the greater part of the day”, needing to be “out of the cells for most of the day” and so forth. However, it becomes clear from the context that his concept of “most of the day” is not the 12 hours-plus envisaged in the Whitaker Report, but something much weaker. It appears that the present norm of about seven hours unlock time satisfies him. This is a far cry from what Whitaker proposed, and another disturbing example of redefining standards downwards.

The deterioration in prison conditions in Ireland in the past 15 years, and the corresponding collapse in accepted standards, should be seen in the context of a serious hardening in penal attitudes and policy. This ‘punitive turn’ is evident in the numbers in prison, in the worsened conditions just described, and in more negative attitudes towards those who are sent to prison.

The Whitaker Report took a very different approach, especially in its description of minimum ‘basic living conditions’. It is not surprising, then, that various Ministers and the Department of Justice have studiously ignored this official government inquiry. It is more surprising, however, that the supposed watchdog of the prison system, the Inspector of Prisons, has so neglected Whitaker, the seminal report which demands that those who are imprisoned are afforded basic levels of dignity, privacy, safety and activity.


Kevin Warner worked as national co-ordinator of prison education from 1979 to 2009, and has written extensively on prison issues. In 2009 he received a PhD from UCD for research into Nordic penal policy

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