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Inspector of Prisons Judge Michael Reilly. Photograph by Oisin McHugh True Media.

Breaking new ground in prison law

A proposal to introduce a database that would record details of those who have died in Irish prisons has resulted from research conducted last year by ten University of Limerick law students, among them Cratloe woman Róisín Cahill.

Now graduates, the group worked closely with Judge Michael Reilly, Ireland’s inspector of prisons, to compile the report, which is to be issued to Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald.
At an event hosted by the School of Law in UL, Judge Reilly, the country’s first and only inspector of prisons, released the report, which highlighted the importance of having a system to record and learn from deaths that occur in prisons.

He said Ireland is only now getting to grips with prison law, highlighting that it is only since January 2008, when the Prisons Act 2007 was enacted, that his independent judicial appointment was made to oversee prisons.

To date there has been no system to accurately record prison deaths in Ireland and without the work of Judge Reilly, much of what transpires within prison walls would remain locked behind its gates.

He commented on the merit of such a database being available so that we, as a country, might learn from the deaths that occur. Judge Reilly recalled a number of times when he personally has met, grieved and shed tears with the bereaved families of prisoners who have died in the Irish prison system.

Having a database, similar to those designed by Róisín Cahill and fellow UL law graduates, would be “an important resource for the State,” he noted.

It would be used to inform public policy and ultimately reduce the number of people dying in prison.
“The absence of reliable, comprehensive information on deaths in custody within this jurisdiction has long struck me as lamentable,” he said.

The project emerged from a discussion Judge Reilly had with Professor Shane Kilcommins of the UL School of Law in 2014. Having identified the potential benefits of a comprehensive database on deaths of individuals that occur while in the care of the Irish Prison Service, Judge Reilly was not in a position to conduct the research, given the constraints of his own office.

A team of researchers from the UL School of Law got involved, including Róisín Cahill, Bláthnaid Christian O’Shea, Maire Ciepierski, Caoilinn Doran, Cillian Flavin, Niall Foley, Michelle Kavanagh, Luke Mulcahy, Rachel O’Carroll and Stephen Strauss Walsh.

Clare woman Róisín outlined how the report came about.

“When we were in our final year, there were a number of different projects that we could apply to be involved with. This one was pitched and I thought it was an interesting opportunity to collaborate on the criminal justice sector that could effect policy decisions into the future. First we looked at different common law jurisdictions and investigated how they record deaths in prison custody.”

She looked at the model operated in Australia, which has a clear way of recording deaths in prisons.

“A lot of our template that we proposed was quite heavily based on the Australian database. Some of the other jurisdictions wouldn’t have had a database as such, they were recorded bit by bit. We took what we considered to be the best practice and made up a template for how we propose Ireland records deaths in prison custody going forward. It will be presented to Frances Fitzgerald [Justice Minister] and the aim is that Ireland takes it on and actually starts recording deaths in prison custody in this database. That’s the goal,” she added.

Of particular concern to Judge Reilly in his role as inspector of prisons is the ability to test the mortality rates within prisons against the general population, and also against prison populations in other countries. Having a database, Róisín explained, will facilitate this.

“It will allow us to identify risk factors and make comparisons of risk factors with other international norms. The goal will always be to reduce the number of prisoners dying in custody. It would also encourage evidence-based policy, which would also provide transparency within the prison system as regards deaths in prison custody.”

She noted the idea of a database is not complicated and that providing one would form the basis for clear policy decisions. She said it would therefore make sense to introduce this system in Ireland.

“It’s very straightforward to record information when something happens in a clear database. It’s not a complicated system but it is so important because based on that, decisions can be made that will affect people’s lives,” she said.

While the existence of a database itself is not revolutionary, it would provide the opportunity to break new ground in prison law in the country.

“These decisions cannot be based on anything or nothing because the information wasn’t there to provide those statistics, so at least now [if this is introduced] there will be a solid source of information that you can say this amount of people died in prison for this reason. They can determine risk factors and therefore make decisions based on that. The report itself won’t be ground-breaking but, hopefully, the decisions that will come about as a result of the information provided in the report will be,” she said.
In compiling the report and knowing it will be submitted to the Tánaiste, Róisín added that she would be encouraging Minister Fitzgerald to introduce a database system.

“We need to have the highest standard that we can and we should be on par with these other jurisdictions. There is no reason that we should be behind,” she said.

Róisín graduated last year from UL with a degree in Law and Economics. In January, she will graduate with a masters in International Commercial Law, also from UL.

At the launch, Judge Reilly commended the researchers adding, “This will be an important database for the State and my office. The students conducted an extensive literature review on deaths in custody and designed a deaths-in-custody database, based on international best practice. This database will be an important resource informing stakeholders and it is hoped, public policy”.

Judge Reilly then delivered a speech from his perspective on prisoners, media and society.
In it he reflected on the frequent use of derogatory slang in reference to prisoners in the media, particularly across “the red top” titles, as he put it. He referenced terms like ‘savage’, ‘scumbag’ and ‘vermin’, which he had pulled from headlines and asked those present to ponder on the idea of whose interest these terms served, other than selling newspapers.

He stated the prisoners involved had their liberty withheld from them for the crimes they committed and such headlines impacted more people than the prisoners themselves, causing a ripple effect of more pain and suffering.

In his capacity as inspector of prisons, Judge Reilly said he meets many relatives of prisoners and recalled being told by one distraught woman that she had to take her son out of school because of something that was written about his dad.

He also shared another story of a 16-year-old girl who told him she contemplated suicide following a newspaper report. He said, in this instance, her father had served his time and was being released from prison but the media had chosen to revisit the story in a salacious way. She came to Judge Reilly asking him was it fair to print what her father had done after he had served his time.

He also commented on a headline in which a prisoner who had died in custody was referred to as ‘vermin’, reflecting on the time he spent with the man’s mother in the wake of his death.

“I meet all the families of those who die in prison and ask them if they have any questions. One mother said to me, ‘my son was referred to as vermin in the press’. I had no answers for her. Both she and I were very distressed. All mothers do the best they can for their children,” he added.

As a society, he said we cannot forget that criminals are still human when they enter the prison system. “They forfeit their rights to freedom but nothing else,” he noted.

He concluded by posing a number of questions including: “Do they [prisoners] deserve dignity? Think again of the lady who lost her son, what remedies have they?”

By Carol Byrne

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