I am informed that 67 prisoners have died in prisons in the period from 2011 to 7 March 2019. All such deaths are the subject of a Garda investigation, an investigation by the Inspector of Prisons, and an inquest held in a Coroner's Court to determine the cause of death.
I understand that the circumstances of each death in custody and incident of self-harm are also examined by a multidisciplinary suicide and harm prevention group in each prison, chaired by the Governor. Their objective is to identify and implement measures that may reduce the risk of deaths in the future.
In addition, the National Suicide and Harm Prevention Steering Group, chaired by the Director General, reviews the reports by the Inspector of Prisons and makes recommendations that are reviewed by Prison Governors and the local suicide and harm prevention groups. This allows findings and recommendations to be applied across the prison estate.
A general review of healthcare in the prisons is being progressed and is overseen by a Working Group involving officials from my Department, the Department of Health and the Health Service Executive. This arose from a report of the Inspector of Prisons entitled 'Healthcare in Irish Prisons' in 2016.
The Irish Prison Service works collaboratively with the HSE to provide effective care for the prison population. However, the provision of appropriate mental health services to those in custody is a major challenge.
Mental health services are provided to the Dublin and Portlaoise prisons by the Health Service Executive through the National Forensic Mental Health Service (NFMHS). The HSE also provides psychiatric services for the Limerick, Cork and Castlerea prisons. I am glad to say that the HSE has confirmed approval for the appointment of a consultant-led team in these prisons to provide forensic psychiatric in-reach services. The IPS are currently engaging with the HSE with a view to expediting these appointments.
The Irish Prison Service has access to a limited number of places in the Central Mental Hospital for prisoners who require urgent residential treatment. I am informed that on average 25 prisoners can be awaiting transfer to the Central Mental Hospital. This is of ongoing serious concern but it is anticipated that the opening of the new CMH in 2020 will help to improve capacity issues for prisoners in need of in-patient psychiatric treatment.
I am informed that two dedicated areas have been established within the prisons for the provision of high support to vulnerable prisoners with mental illness; D2 wing in Cloverhill Prison (for remand prisoners), and the High Support Unit in Mountjoy (for sentenced prisoners). Both units provide a dedicated area within the prison where mentally ill and vulnerable prisoners, who present with a risk of harm to self or to others are closely monitored in a safer environment.
A psychiatric in-reach and Court Liaison Service is available at Cloverhill Prison. This diversion service ensures, as far as possible, that those people presenting before the courts, or indeed at an earlier stage of the criminal justice system, are referred and treated appropriately. This has resulted in approximately 130 prisoners being diverted to community services annually.
The IPS Psychology Service, as part of the multidisciplinary team, plays a key role in the provision of mental health services for people in custody and is being expanded in order to better meet the mental health needs of prisoners.
The Service has also developed a bespoke mental health training programme, which is currently being delivered to all staff. Since September 2016, over 1,500 staff have been trained and the programme continues to be rolled out to remaining staff. In addition, all persons in custody have access to the Samaritans Listeners Scheme.
As can be seen, the Prison Service takes this issue seriously and has a range of measures in place designed to prevent, in so far as possible, deaths in custody. However, given the number of vulnerable prisoners in custody, it remains a matter of significant concern to me and I have raised it with the Director General who assures me that all necessary steps will be taken to ensure the full and timely implementation of recommendations made by the Inspector of Prisons into deaths in custody.
I am further advised by the Director General that the matter of monitoring of prisoners on special observation, which is a concern that the Inspector of Prisons has raised in successive reports, is being addressed through the implementation of a range of new policies and procedures. The roll out of the new measures will be supported by a communication strategy to ensure the full awareness of staff of their obligations in this regard and the disciplinary sanctions which will apply where the appropriate policies and procedures are not properly adhered to.