Irish Bishops Conference
The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas has undertaken a global survey of its 1,100 client-base which is made up of Irish citizens imprisoned overseas. The survey provided feedback of first-hand accounts and testimonies of the experience of prison abroad, with all the additional challenges that that entails. The objective of the survey was to engage directly with clients so as to better inform the future work of the ICPO.
Commenting on the survey findings, Bishop Denis Brennan, chair of the ICPO said, “Our survey highlights the mental health difficulties experienced by Irish people who are in prison abroad. While it is widely accepted that such problems are a reality for many in prison at home, in the case of a citizen in prison in a foreign country these are exacerbated by time; distance, especially from loved ones and family; finance; isolation; language, and a myriad of potential cultural barriers. Our findings complement the ongoing feedback we receive as to the importance of outreach to people on the margins of society.”
Bishop Brennan continued, “I am concerned by the relatively high number of survey respondents indicating an absence of a clear sense of direction after their release from prison. It seems that such uncertainty is a consequence of resettlement supports being withheld from foreign national prisoners in a number of countries and the inability for many to access educational, resettlement and offender behaviour courses during the pandemic. It also serves to highlight the value of the resettlement work undertaken by ICPO staff – something which became increasing significant throughout the pandemic period.”
“I wish to commend the tireless commitment of the small ICPO team which is in regular contact with approximately 1,100 Irish citizens in prison in thirty countries around the world. In 2020 this work involved 10,000 letters, phone calls, emails and prison visits made to, from or on behalf of Irish citizens overseas. All of this is Trojan but unheralded work, and bears real witness to the Gospel mission to love God and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Our evidence-based survey results will inform the ICPO’s future service in meeting the needs of prisoners and their families,” Bishop Brennan said.
The survey asked questions under a number of different headings: ‘Life in Prison Overseas’ (including during Covid 19), ‘Resettlement’, and, ‘The Services and Supports you Receive from ICPO’. The following are the key findings and conclusions:
· 60% of respondents reported experiencing mental health difficulties whilst in prison. A significant proportion of respondents reported feelings of isolation and having little time outside of their cell (a feature exacerbated by Covid).
· A range of other difficulties and adverse impacts were identified from the pandemic including lack of visits, 23 hour lockdown in their cells, concern for their own health in a confined setting, delays in legal hearings and inability to access educational and offender behaviour courses.
· More than 70% of respondents said their primary concern arising from Covid was not for their own health but for their welfare of their loved ones at home.
· When it came to managing stress and anxiety a majority of respondents identified prayer and spirituality as the most helpful, followed by physical exercise and access to the gym.
· 42% of prisoner responses indicated they didn’t know what their plans were after their sentence overseas was completed.
· The majority of respondents were in regular contact with ICPO with 23% in contact at least monthly and a further 50% contacting ICPO at least a few times a year. The survey responses indicate that Irish prisoners overseas view ICPO as a trusted source of information and support.
Lifting of Covid 19 restrictions
The survey findings concluded that restrictions imposed in prisons during the pandemic led to considerable hardship for prisoners. Whilst some restrictions may remain necessary on a country-by-country or prison-by-prison basis, access to physical, educational and certain social activities should be provided to the greatest extent possible within national health guidelines. Covid-related restrictions should be lifted as soon as it safe to do so. They should not be permitted to become the ‘new normal’. For example, access to video-calls should continue to be permitted when restrictions are lifted but should not be used as a replacement for physical visits from family and friends.
Access to mental and physical health care
It is well understood that prison impacts negatively on the mental and physical health of prisoners and this was confirmed by the findings of the survey. The negative impacts on prisoner’s health were exacerbated during the pandemic as many prisoners were kept in almost constant lockdown, with no visits and few if any activities including access to the gym and other forms of exercise.
The report found that prison authorities must ensure that appropriate supports are in place for prisoners who are experiencing mental health difficulties. The lack of adequate mental and physical healthcare in prisons in some parts of the world highlights the importance of prisoners having an advocate whether it is family, ICPO or an Irish Consular official.
Release and resettlement
The survey shows that a significant number of Irish people in prison do not have plans for their release. This underlines the importance of dedicated resettlement services for this group of prisoners who may not be able to access offender behaviour, education or vocational skills courses or preparation for release programmes when in prison overseas. Some former prisoners will no longer have family members or support networks in Ireland, and may not have lived in this country for many years. Appropriate support is vital to ensure successful resettlement and reintegration into society.
It was recommended that well-resourced, transparent, fair and expeditious repatriation system should be put in place as a matter of urgency. This will ensure that those prisoners who wish to do so can, if eligible, return to Ireland to serve the remainder of their sentence in Ireland close to their families and be better supported in preparing for release. While long awaited draft legislation has now been published in relation to prisoners in EU states, it will be insufficient without further amendments to existing legislation and adequate resources to process applications efficiently.
ICPO has supported Irish people in prison overseas and their families for over 35 years. The findings of this survey validate the work of the ICPO in supporting prisoners and emphasises the need for its services.