I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
In moving the Bill, I thought today was going to be a showcase to display not just the worst of what is happening in prisons, but some of the best, given we had plans this morning to have a number of currently serving and former inmates make a presentation in Leinster House, along with their partners and staff in the Irish Prison Service, about the community health care programme run by the Irish Red Cross. That programme is a wonderful example of rehabilitative measures in our Prison Service but, unfortunately, that did not happen this morning. I mention this for two reasons. The first is that I know the staff and inmates were incredibly disappointed and I want to put on record publicly that we are determined and hope, in co-operation with everybody involved, to reorganise that event in January. The second reason is to register that when we speak about the shortcomings in prison policy, such as the one this Bill seeks to address, it does not mean we are unaware of the excellent work being undertaken in some sections of the Prison Service by staff, inmates, management, professional staff and so on.
I want to start by stepping back a bit and looking at where we are going with our penal policy and asking whether it is working. Every day we have thousands of men and women who are staff, inmates, professional staff and cleaning staff locked in a bubble behind the walls of our prisons at huge cost. It is an area that is rarely discussed, except in a sensationalist manner by the gutter press. We have to ask what it is all about and whether it is working.
We know from the Whitaker report, for example, that prison is not a major or universal deterrent to crime. We know from multiple reports that prison harms people emotionally and, in many cases, physically. We know it has a major impact on families and communities and deepens exclusion. We know it increases the chances of people staying involved in a life of crime. The excellent report done by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice this year, Developing Inside, gives an analysis of who is in our prisons. Even though the data are somewhat old and varied across different periods, we can say that 52% of the prison population come from ex-homeless people, 20.3% have no education or only primary school education, 88% are unemployed, 93% come from the two lowest socio-economic groups, 90% have mental health issues, 28.8% have indicators of learning disabilities, 18.5% have an alcohol dependency, and all are victims of crime themselves. The list goes on.
What is the point in taking these people out of society for a couple of years and then dumping them back into society? Prison, if it is to mean anything, has to be an opportunity to deal with some of the many complex issues, be they drugs, behavioural problems or other problems, that put people in prison in the first place. Otherwise, it is an absolute waste of time and it undermines the efforts of the staff in the Prison Service who are doing their best against the odds. Our Prison Service falls well short in terms of the lack of support for drug treatment, mental health training, education facilities and so on, with the effect that people are being sent back out in pretty much the same way they came in, if not more damaged than they were beforehand. That is very bad for the staff, society and, obviously, the inmates themselves.
Our penal policy and our starting point has to be that people should be sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. Our prison policy is supposed to be that deprivation of liberty is the price that somebody pays, and once they are there, the time should be used to try to rehabilitate that person back into being a productive member of society. That approach, which has been taken in other jurisdictions, such as Finland, for example, has massively reduced the prison population there.
It is against that backdrop I am moving the Bill which sets about severely curtailing the use of solitary confinement. Let us be clear. Obviously, my personal belief is that solitary confinement should be outlawed entirely. However, to help the people who are in that situation now, whose human rights are being violated, in some cases for months, in some cases for years, as we sit here in this nice, comfortable Chamber, I am putting forward this Bill in the hope that the manner in which I do so will assist in getting it passed. I am taking the definition which comes from the international human rights standards on this issue. To be honest, they are pathetically limited but they will, if passed, make a difference for people in that situation.
The first thing the Bill does is to bring into Irish law for the first time a definition of solitary confinement. This is very important because we do not have the data and because, every time we ask, the answer the Minister will give is that we do not have any solitary confinement in Ireland. However, we know from statistics taken, for example, on one day in April, that there were 368 people, or 9% of the prison population, on restricted regimes. The Government can call it what it likes - restricted regimes, violently disruptive prisoner policy or isolation segregation - they are all versions of the same thing.
When we have raised this issue before, and the Bill itself centres on lock-up and solitary confinement for 22 to 24 hours, the Minister in previous replies has pointed out that the numbers are declining. It is true that the number being held in these conditions is declining, which is a tribute to the work being done by the Irish Prison Service, but I would point out that the reductions are not consistent and it depends on what figures are compared. For example, if one compares 2013 to 2016, they are going down, but if one compares 2014 to 2016, they are going up. The key point of this Bill is that this needs to be put into law because there is nothing to stop them going in up in the future.
The Bill amends section 35 of the 2007 Act, which allows the Minister to make rules to govern and regulate prisons. It is under current prison rules 62 and 63, which are made under this section, that the current system of solitary confinement is allowed. This Bill seeks to put restrictions on that practice. The definition is the restriction of a prisoner's opportunities for meaningful human interaction and communal association for 22 to 24 hours a day, whether by means of restricting the prisoner to a cell or by any other means. There is an important reason for that. We have used the definition that loosely followed the UN's revised standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners, the Nelson Mandela rules, as they are known.
The only qualification or addition is that we have put in meaningful human interaction and communal association because it is not just a question of restricting somebody to a physical space. When we have made this point about prisoners in that situation, the Minister has said they get out, they can go to the gym or to the yard but the point is they are denied any human contact and that is incredibly dangerous. This Bill restricts that to a maximum of 15 days. The evidence is very clear that any solitary confinement beyond that period is profoundly damaging. It can induce psychiatric disorder characterised by hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia and a litany of other physical and psychological problems. Assessments of men in solitary confinement indicate high rates of anxiety, nervousness obsession, violent fantasies, nightmares, trouble sleeping, perspiring hands and heart palpitations. This Bill includes a number of severe restrictions on the time and manner in which people can be isolated. It puts the onus back on prison management.
The purpose of the Bill is to put an end to a human rights violation. What we are putting some people through in some instances is State-sponsored torture. The restrictions outlined in the Bill put the onus on the authorities to find alternatives. It is relevant because Ireland will appear before the UN in July when we will have to answer for our lack of effort in this regard.
When we have raised this issue it is justified by the prison authorities and the Minister under several criteria, mainly those outlined in rules 62, 63, 64 and 67 of prison regulations, according to which people can be placed in solitary confinement either at their own request or at the request of the prison authorities for their own safety or the safety of others, the good order of the prison, or medical and disciplinary reasons. Our Bill outlaws it for anybody with mental health problems and as a disciplinary mechanism. Under the present regime, depending on the circumstances, there is no limit to the length of time somebody can be kept there. That is a human rights violation.
Prison officers are entitled to a safe working environment. Last year almost 100 prison officers were injured at work. Thankfully, no prison officer in the history of the State has died but prisoners have died at the hands of other prisoners. Prison can be a violent place. There are at least two prison officers who have been permanently incapacitated because of what happened to them at work. That is not on. When we talk about the rights of prisoners, that does not mean we are blind to the rights of prison officers. All rights have to be respected. Putting people in solitary confinement does not make prison safer for those people or those who work with them every day or for those in society to which they will be returned after a short time.
There are many people in our prisons with serious mental health problems. One of the causes for that is the lack of psychiatric beds in the community. The Prison Service has had to release people and drop them at hospital accident and emergency departments telling them not to leave until they get a psychiatric bed. Under the violently disruptive prison policy and the arrangement with the Central Mental Hospital the hospital takes only one prisoner at a time. Others are left in prison with staff who are not qualified or equipped to deal with them. There are many acutely psychotic people in prison who should not be there. Solitary confinement is not the answer. We know from prison officers that some people have been put in there either at their own request or allegedly for their own protection and have come out violent, paranoid and worse than they were. These issues need to be tackled. Our Bill puts the onus back on the Prison Service to come up with an alternative. I do not blame the Prison Service. We and the Government are the ones who must come up with an alternative. The Prison Service does pretty well given its lack of resources. If we do not address this, not only are we violating the human rights of prisoners, we are affecting broader society.
We and our colleagues in the cross-party group have met many prisoners since being elected to the Dáil. We got involved in the case of one young man who had an incredibly troubled upbringing with grave parental neglect. He was brought into State care and was seriously let down by the State from the age of four, suffered serious abuse, was homeless as a young teen, has been incarcerated for most of his adult life and has spent most of that time in solitary confinement. He has no contact with other prisoners and limited access to education. This has had a profound effect on his life. I asked him what solitary confinement means to him. He said:
I am currently being held in solitary confinement for the past three and a half years. It has such a[n] effect on me ... My whole life has changed. I can't even mix with people without being overwhelmed. I get extremely paranoid, when you spend so much time on your own you become disconnected from reality. You find when meeting people here and there too much you're [sic] anxiety is through the roof. Always looking for threats that aren't there, it's like being stranded on an island on your own no where to go and no one to say how are you today because there is no one there to answer you back it is so lonely even if you were the hardest person on the planet you would crumble in solitary confinement. I wish I wasn't in isolation it has ruined my life as far as mixing is concerned I have done nothing wrong being treated like this. If only the powers that be could walk in my shoes for a day week month year what do the powers that be want from me or any other prisoner in isolation. To take away their basic ... rights as humans it is immoral what we have to put up with will continue ... if things don't change ... Days are so long. How much more do we have to endure I am a human not a dog.
If we treat people like animals they will behave like animals. Respecting the human rights of some of the people who would be considered the most lowly in society means vindicating the human rights of all.