Clare’s Bill to ban prolonged solitary confinement to be debated in Dáil on Thursday (1 December)

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Dáil Issues, Justice, Prisoners

This Thursday (1 December) Clare’s Prisons (Solitary Confinement) (Amendment) Bill 2016 will be debated in the Dáil.

The Bill creates a definition of solitary confinement in Irish law for the first time, and, if passed, would place statutory restrictions on holding prisoners in isolation for long periods.

Currently in Ireland there is no definition of solitary confinement – instead, prisoners are held on ‘restricted regimes’ or ‘on protection’. The Minister for Justice stated last September that ‘there is no provision for solitary confinement in the Irish Prison Service’. But the reality is that prisoners being locked up for 22 to 24 hours a day and deprived of meaningful human contact – the internationally accepted definition of solitary – does happen in Irish prisons, and the State can’t ignore its human rights obligations in regard to the practice by pretending it doesn’t.

Data obtained in October by The Detail show that prisoners in Ireland may be held in solitary confinement for months, and in some cases over a year. Commenting on those figures, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, said: ‘There is no question to me that those people are suffering what constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and perhaps depending on the gravity of their suffering – even torture.’

This Bill restricts the length of time a prisoner can spend in solitary to 15 consecutive days. Longer periods in solitary confinement have serious and long-term psychological effects including hallucinations, paranoia, panic attacks, hypersensitivity to light and sound, and difficulties with concentration and memory. The UN’s Revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners – or Nelson Mandela Rules, as they’re commonly known – which were published in 2015, state that no prisoner should be held in solitary confinement for more than 15 days, and that isolating a prisoner should be an exceptional measure of last resort. The UN Committee Against Torture and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) have called on states to codify the rules around the use of solitary confinement in law.

The Irish Prison Service has already undertaken work to reduce the use of solitary confinement in Irish prisons, which is very welcome. This Bill complements that work, creating a clear set of rules and principles in law governing the practice.

Ireland will be appearing before the UN Committee on Torture in July 2017. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has already put the Government on notice that the issue of solitary confinement in Irish prisons will be raised at that meeting and that they should come prepared to say how they are dealing with it. This Bill does that, and the Government should accept it rather than face yet more criticism from a UN Committee over Ireland’s human rights record.