New report on prisoners with disabilities

They face major human rights issues
  • Deborah Condon

Prisoners with disabilities face a number of human rights issues within the Irish prison system, including limited availability of accessibility aids, isolation in cells and limited communication with family members, a new report has found.

Making Rights Real for People with Disabilities in Prison was commissioned by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT). It addresses the experiences of prisoners with all forms of disability, including physical and/or mobility impairments, psychosocial (mental health) disabilities, intellectual and/or learning disabilities, acquired brain injuries, hearing problems, and visual impairment.

According to IPRT executive director, Fíona Ní Chinnéide, prisoners with disabilities face "significant difficulties navigating prison services".

"Since Ireland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2018, it is incumbent upon 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," Ms Ní Chinnéide explained.

She noted that people with disabilities in prison must have access to the entire physical environment on an equal basis with other prisoners.

However, the report emphasised that there was "limited understanding of disability rights within the prison population".

"Indeed, there was little knowledge among the prisoners that they had rights related to their disability - for instance, the right to reasonable accommodation under equality legislation," it noted.

The report highlighted incidences were prisoners had been confined to their cells because, for example, they could not navigate the steps in a prison.

"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," Ms Ní Chinnéide said.

She also pointed out that access to sign language interpretation for deaf prisoners appears to be "extremely limited", making communication with prison staff and other prisoners "nearly impossible for some".

Some deaf prisoners even have to rely on others to communicate with their families on their behalf because of a lack of appropriate facilities allowing them to contact family members.

"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," Ms Ní Chinnéide said.

The IPRT has made a number of recommendations to address the many barriers prisoners with disabilities face, including:
-The provision of accessible information on rights, regimes and complaint systems in prisons. These should be made available in different formats such as large print, audio files, sign language videos and Braille
-Ensuring non-discrimination and equal access to services and programmes, including accessible cells, bathrooms, the school and recreational facilities
-The delivery of peer-led training in disabilities to all people working in prisons.

"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," Ms Ní Chinnéide added.

The report can be viewed here.


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