Anywhere between 21 and 33 people with severe mental illnesses were being held in prison in any given month last year due to a lack of space at the Central Mental Hospital.
The extent of the waiting list for the facility, the only institution for holding and treating people with acute mental health conditions caught up in the criminal justice system, is outlined in a report published today by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT).
It said the practice of incarcerating such people due to a lack of access to community hospitals or space in the Central Mental Hospital was “one of the biggest failures of the State in terms of caring for the most vulnerable”.
Details of the waiting list levels, contained in the IPRT’s ‘Progress in the Penal System 2020’ report, come just two months after the issue was highlighted in the High Court.
Lawyers for an “actively psychotic” murder accused challenged the legality of his detention in prison in circumstances where they said he was suffering from homicidal thoughts and not getting the treatment he needed.
Although suitable for entry to the Central Mental Hospital, there were others in the queue ahead of him who were considered more deserving. Ultimately the court ruled his detention in prison was lawful.
“If we are to learn anything from Ireland’s history of inappropriate institutionalisation of our citizens, incarceration as an alternative to healthcare must end,” said IPRT executive director Fíona Ní Chinnéide.
“The solution is one that requires leadership at all levels in the State, but operationally, the Department of Health must work hand-in-hand with the Department of Justice to end this practice.”
The IPRT report described progress in the area of mental health as “mixed”, with numbers on the waiting list for transfer to the Central Mental Hospital similar to those seen in 2019. The report also said that while the Irish Prison Service should be commended for taking a public health-led approach to infection control and keeping the prison population largely Covid-free, there has been less progress in the area of mental health.
One positive from the pandemic was the alleviation of overcrowding. Within a month of the pandemic being declared the prison population was reduced by 10pc to 3,807.
This brought about a near end to prisoners sleeping on mattresses and a move towards single-cell occupancy.
However, there have been significant downsides as well.
A letter from the Justice Minister in April 2020 indicated some prisoners were locked in their cells 24 hours a day while awaiting coronavirus test results, with no access to showers during this period.
Limited out-of-cell time has been a feature of the Covid-19 restrictions, with the general prison population locked up for an average of 19 or more hours a day in some prisons.
The report advocated increasing remission periods for people imprisoned during the pandemic.
“Men and women detained in prison during the pandemic have received a level of punishment that could not have been anticipated in their initial sentencing,” it said.
“Indeed, some court cases in England, Wales and Scotland have taken into account the impact of Covid-19 restrictions as a relevant factor in sentencing. However, there has been a notable absence of debate on this issue in Ireland.”
The report also highlighted what Ms Ní Chinnéide described as “a clear gender bias” in the use of prison for pre-trial detention and short sentences. Although much less likely than men to commit violent offences while on bail, over 26pc of women detained on remand were in prison for theft and related offences, compared with just 13pc of remanded males.
She called for “an honest assessment” of apparent gender discrimination in the use of imprisonment.