By Cillian Sherlock
The University of Limerick School of Law have presented Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, with a report on the research of students into developing an Irish database on “Deaths of Prisoners while in the Custody of the Irish Prison Service”.
The report recommended that the Prison Service or Inspector of Prisons should produce a database to record relevant information regarding deaths in prison custody, increasing transparency within the prison system.
Judge Reilly, adjunct Professor of Law at UL, said, “the absence of reliable, comprehensive information on deaths in custody within this jurisdiction has long struck me as lamentable.”
The report was compiled by ten fourth-year law students at the university and supported by two academic members of staff, Professor Shane Kilcommins and Dr Eimear Spain.
It found that “the main causes of death in Irish prisons include drugs, suicide, natural causes, accidents and third party violence”, citing thirty-four prisoners that died in the period between January 1, 2012 and June 11, 2014.
“The students worked diligently and with great enthusiasm. They contributed in two important ways: conducting an extensive literature review on deaths in custody and designing a database based on international best practice,” Judge Reilly said.
“The database will be an important resource for his office and the state in years to come, and the research will be presented to Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald as a “concrete example of cooperation between the academic world and a practical inspectorate,” he added.
Dr Eimear Spain said the autonomy and freedom of the students in developing the report “bridged the gap between academia and experience.”
The presentation took place in the Millstream Common Room on the UL campus where Judge Reilly gave a lecture entitled “Prisoners, Media and Society: The Inspector’s Perspective”.
Judge Reilly spoke at length to faculty and students of Journalism@ul and the School of Law about his experiences as Inspector of Prisons in dealing with issues in media coverage of prisoners.
The lecture posed many questions about the effects freedom of expression of the press had on informing penal policy, and the rights of vulnerable people that are prisoners and their families.
He said he had “unfettered access to all prisons and prison records”, and that he made unannounced visits to prisons and prisoners on a regular basis.
“I see the despair, the vulnerability, the fear, and the acceptance by some that no matter what happens they will never complain because some people never expect anything from society.
“I know of no person who has benefitted from prison. Of course, it’s true to say that many people have been improved by facilities afforded to them in prison but everyone is blighted by the experience,” he said.
In 2009, he put forward standards on prison inspection informed by international obligations such as the European Convention of Human Rights and jurisprudence in other jurisdictions.
“This was to act as a reminder that this country has an obligation to prisoners that were imposed by domestic laws and international instruments to which this state is committed,” he said.
“The record of my inspectorate includes the exposing what the Irish Prison Service’s own regulations and audit do not, and casting a light on areas where no public light has gone before,” the former District Court judge added.
Chair of the Press Council Dr Seán Donlon said the inspector had released over 80 reports since taking the position in 2008, increasing the “credibility and validity of that office”.
Dr Donlon said the Judge’s role required integrity and cited his “personal and physical courage” and “scrupulous approach” that won confidence with successive governments and the public.
The Head of the School of Law, Professor Shane Kilcommins echoed these sentiments describing Judge Reilly as “passionate and committed to ensuring fairness for prisoners” as well as “fearless in his reports and visits to prisons”.
Judge Reilly explained many prisoners are poor, approximately 20 percent have mental health problems, many have been abused both physically and sexually, and most have little education.
He questioned the attendees on how they think prisoners should be treated, giving examples on headlines used by the Irish press; ‘Savage jail thug’, ‘Beware scumbag rapist’, ‘Vermin found strangled in cell’.
He said these reports can cause trauma to families who themselves become victims solely by their relationship to the prisoner.
Judge Reilly followed this by recounting conversations with family members affected by these headlines including a 16-year-old girl who had left school and contemplated suicide as “a way out”.
He said that few prisoners seek remedies through the Press Ombudsman either from ignorance or the belief that the damage has already been done.
Michael Donlon elaborated, “The Press Council has been used a little by prisoners. In the last eight years, 22 prisoners have complained about various aspects of media coverage. The prisoners, nor the Council, have not succeeded in moderating the coverage, in particular by the ‘red-tops’.”
Only two of these cases have settled in favour of the prisoners for a variety of reasons, including the prisoner becoming aware of the Press Council too late.
“Anybody’s good name can be vindicated by a simple, free remedy through the Press Council. The problem in Ireland, is more people are interested in financial compensation rather than clearing their name,” he added in response to questions about remedies under the Defamation Act.
Judge Reilly noted that prisoners only forfeit their right to freedom and are still entitled to their rights of dignity and a reasonable expectation of privacy.
“These people are indeed criminals, but they are also human beings,” he said.
He spoke on the history of detention and Ireland stating that laws have been passed by parliaments and politicians who did not seem to appreciate prisoners were entitled to their dignity.
Judge Reilly argued that the ordinary people of Ireland of also carried the blame, along with prison officials, for prisoners not being treated fairly.
“Professor Andrew Coyne, one of the most foremost authorities on Penal Policy has said, prisons operate on the authority of citizens and their governments and these have a responsibility to monitor what happens inside prisons in their name,” he said.
However, he said our “legislature has been proactive in recent times in bringing forward more enlightened laws” on the subject.
Judge Reilly compared the media and public’s interest in public trials, the “spectacle” of convicts being transported to prison in chains and “salacious, self-serving comments” with reports of the public’s morbid curiosity in a public execution in Limerick in September 1882.
He criticised the coverage of ‘red-tops’ on prisoners and prison facilities as an attempt to demonise prisoners and their families.
“It must be true that the majority of people who take these papers must have some morbid curiosity for these prisoners, and I suggest antipathy for such prisoners,” he added.
He argued that a sizeable body of the electorate held this view and suggested the government could be tempted to impose further laws against vulnerable prisoners.
“As a society, we waited too long to listen to the cries in the institutions that we sent our young people to, to the cries from our unmarried mothers that we banished to mother and baby homes, or to those who cried out about sexual abuse at the hands of persons in authority.”
“Now we’re listening to old people, and those who are mentally and physically abused in some of the places they are kept in this country. Like prisoners, these are vulnerable sections of society who need an external voice,” he said.