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January 15, 2020 IPRT - disabilities in prison
IPRT publishes report examining rights for people with disabilities in prison

Prisoners with disabilities face discrimination within prison services

Isolation in cells, limited availability of accessibility aids, lack of appropriate information on prison services, and limited opportunities to communicate with peers and family members are just some of the barriers and human rights issues facing prisoners with disabilities in the Irish prison system. That’s according to Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), Fíona Ní Chinnéide, who was speaking today (15.01.20) at the launch of the IPRT research report ‘Making Rights Real for People with Disabilities in Prison’.

“Our report addresses the experiences of prisoners with all forms of disability, including physical, intellectual, sensory and psychosocial; and the significant difficulties they face navigating prison services. Since Ireland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2018, it is incumbent on the State to ensure that the rights of prisoners with disabilities are met. However, our report highlights that prisoners face widespread discrimination and human rights violations which greatly affect their ability to participate fully and equally in prison life,” said Ms Ní Chinnéide.

The ‘Making Rights Real for People with Disabilities in Prison’ report presents the findings of a small-scale exploratory study, commissioned by IPRT, with the objective of examining the rights, needs and experiences of prisoners with disabilities. Research undertaken comprised an international literature review, legislative analysis, stakeholder interviews, and interviews with people in prison.

Commenting on the report, Ms Ní Chinnéide added: “Even at the most basic level, people with disabilities in prison must have access to the entire physical prison environment on an equal basis with other prisoners. Our report highlights incidences of prisoners being confined to their cells because they cannot navigate the steps in a prison, for example. This results in unnecessary isolation, which has a negative impact on mental health.  A lack of professional support also means that some prisoners must rely on their peers for assistance with their disability, compromising their right to privacy and confidentiality.

“Access to sign language interpretation for Deaf prisoners is also reported as being extremely limited, making communications with prison staff and other prisoners nearly impossible for some. A particularly poignant finding is the lack of appropriate facilities for deaf prisoners to contact their family members, with some prisoners describing having to rely on other people to communicate on their behalf.

“Another concerning issue highlighted by the report is the inadequate provision of information about the prison in accessible formats. This has a knock-on effect for all prisoners when it comes to knowing their rights, navigating the regime, and using essential services, including health and education. Furthermore, some prisoners with disabilities reported being in breach of prison discipline due to lack of understanding of prison rules, and being punished for disability-related behaviour, which is unacceptable.”

Based on the research findings, IPRT has formulated 16 recommendations for addressing barriers facing prisoners with disabilities in Ireland; they include:

 The implementation of the Public Sector Equality and Human Rights Duty across the prison system: To fully meet its obligations under this Duty, the Irish Prison Service (IPS) should undertake accessibility audits of all prison settings and engage in a disability equality analysis of its service.

  • The provision of accessible information on rights, regimes and complaint systems in prison: The IPS should develop information on the rights of prisoners, the prison regime, and complaints processes in different formats including large print, easy-to-read, electronic formats, audio files, sign language videos, plain language and Braille.
  • Ensuring non-discrimination and equal access to services and programmes: People with disabilities in prison must have access to the entire physical prison environment on an equal basis with other prisoners – this includes accessible cells, bathrooms, gyms and recreation facilities, the school, workshops, medical and rehabilitative facilities, offices, etc. Reasonable accommodations should be made to ensure prisoners with disabilities have equal opportunity to access programmes.
  • The introduction of human rights-based disability assessments: A full assessment of the support, accessibility and reasonable accommodation needs of a person with disabilities should be conducted upon admission to prison and/or when a disability is first disclosed or diagnosed.

Commenting on the report’s recommendations, Ms Ní Chinnéide said: “The Irish Prison Service has taken positive steps towards meeting its obligations under the Public Sector Equality and Human Rights Duty, including the recent appointment of an Equality and Diversity Lead. We welcome this appointment, as well as the IPS’s positive engagement with this research and its facilitation of the research team. However, as evidenced by this report, prisoners with disabilities face significant barriers in Ireland, which need to be addressed. While the recommendations in this report should be a starting point, they should be expanded with the direct involvement of organisations for people with disabilities, as well as prisoners and former prisoners with disabilities, who are often best placed to determine the changes required.

“Adaptations to prison rules, the provision of supports and training of prison staff are necessary, but these steps can only be a foundation for more fundamental changes required throughout the criminal justice system as a whole to address the discrimination faced by people with disabilities.”

The research was commissioned by IPRT from the Centre for Disability Law and Policy (NUIG) and was led by Professor Eilionóir Flynn. It was funded by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

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