Human Rights in Irish Prisons

AuthorClaire Hamilton - Ursula Kilkelly
PositionBarrister and Lecturer in Criminology at the School of Social Sciences and Law, DIT - Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University College Cork and Chair of the Irish Penal Reform Trust
Judicial Studies Institute Journal [2008:2
The Irish prison system is currently undergoing significant
reform. Old and dilapidated prison buildings are finally being
replaced with new ones at Thornton Hall in Dublin and Kilworth
in Cork, and while they have many problematic elements, not
least the scale and location of what is proposed, the new prisons
will bring improved conditions for those detained there.
The revision of the Prison Rules and the establishment of the
Prisons Inspectorate on a statutory basis are also welcome
developments, insofar as they aim to introduce greater regulation
and accountability into this much neglected area of Irish law.
Ireland is bound by several international instruments in the
area of prisoners’ rights and penal policy, and the ongoing reform
in the Irish prison system means that the time is opportune to
consider the extent to which these legal obligations are currently
met, and to evaluate what needs to be done to ensure greater
compliance. The aim of this article is thus to examine Ireland’s
record in prisoners’ rights against international standards, and to
determine where reform needs to take place in order to ensure full
respect for the rights of prisoners in Irish law, policy and practice.
It begins with a commentary on the importance of international
International law on prisoners’ rights and penal policy is
wide in scope and detailed.1 From an Irish perspective, four
* Claire Hamilton is a Barrister and Lecturer in Criminology at the School of
Social Sciences and Law, DIT. She is former Chair of the Irish Penal Reform
** Dr Ursula Kilkelly is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University
College Cork and Chair of the Irish Penal Reform Trust.
1 See further Owen, MacDonald and Livingstone (deceased), Prison Law, 4th
ed. (2008).
2008] Human Rights in Irish Prisons 59
treaties create binding obligations relevant to the treatment of
the Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and
Degrading Treatment from the Council of Europe, the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and
the Convention against Torture (CAT) from the United Nations.
Each has been ratified by Ireland, meaning that the State is
required legally to implement and observe its provisions.
The ECHR is the only instrument of these four to have effect in
Irish law, by virtue of the ECHR Act, 2003, and as a result, its
standards have added value in the domestic legal system.
Also important are the Council of Europe European Prison Rules,
not binding per se, but nonetheless an important source of
detailed and comprehensive guidance in this area also.
Each of these instruments is enforced in different ways,
although the most popular method used is monitoring by an
expert committee, such as the Human Rights Committee which
monitors the ICCPR, or the Committee for the Prevention of
Torture (CPT), which monitors the Convention for the Prevention
of Torture. These processes offer the Government an important
opportunity to engage with international experts in a constructive
and co-operative manner, with a view to achieving greater
implementation of the relevant standards concerned. While this
method enjoys varying degrees of success in bringing about
change, however, it does not offer a remedy to individual
complainants, making these instruments difficult to enforce in
legal terms.
In this regard, it is welcome that the ECHR, and the
Optional Protocols to the ICCPR and the CAT, offer a remedy to
individual prisoners whose rights have been infringed.
These remedies are limited to the terms of the individual treaty,
and in all cases they require that domestic remedies be exhausted
prior to an application at international level. Despite the
importance of making such international remedies available to
prisoners, therefore, these limits, and the fact that such
mechanisms are slow, mean that they offer only residual
protection. Even in the case of the more effective systems of
individual complaints, like the European Court of Human Rights
(ECtHR), international mechanisms are no substitute for ensuring

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