A report on the experiences and rights of foreign nationals and ethnic minorities in the Irish penal system is the first of its kind in Ireland, write researchers in the School of Law and Criminology
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) recently launched an exploratory research study on the rights and experiences of foreign national and minority ethnic groups in the Irish penal system, entitled, "Sometimes I'm missing the words": The rights, needs, and experiences of foreign national and minority ethnic groups in the penal system.
The research was conducted by a team of researchers in the Maynooth University School of Law and Criminology: Dr David Doyle, Dr Avril Brandon, Dr Joe Garrihy, Dr Amina Adanan and Prof Denis Bracken.
Published on 27th April, the report examines the experiences and rights of foreign nationals and ethnic minorities in the Irish penal system and is the first of its kind in Ireland. The examination was carried out through a literature review, an examination of the relevant law and policy that exists at a national, European, and international level to protect the rights of minority ethnic and foreign national prisoners (FNPs), and complements these ‘top-down’ approaches to protecting the rights of minority ethnic and foreign national prisoners with a ‘bottom-up’ analysis rooted in the experiences of prisoners and persons with experience of the Probation Service, and analysis of sentencing data and Probation Order data.
The report makes the case that if the Irish government is serious about practically implementing the obligations imposed by international, EU, and domestic law, they must have access to accurate statistical data and information on the background, lived experiences, and needs of minority ethnic and foreign national prisoners and persons with experience of the Probation Service in the Irish penal system.
The analysis of the statistical datasets, as well as interviews with professional stakeholders undertaken as part of this project, indicate significant problems with respect to the collection of data on foreign national and minority ethnic prisoners.
At present, the Irish Prison Service (IPS) publishes statistics on prisoners’ nationality. However, this information does not give an accurate depiction of the ethnic, cultural, and religious landscape of the Irish prison population. It is imperative that data on the ethnicity and religion of the prison population be gathered and made publicly available in order for the State and non-State groups to respond effectively to the cultural and religious needs of such prisoners.
Most importantly, ethnic equality monitoring must be rolled out across penal data collection systems, inclusive of a standardised ethnic identifier (in line with the national census) and ethnicity should be recorded for all committals, based on human rights principles. Analysis of sentencing data revealed that sentencing differences occurred between foreign national and Irish nationals, and between those of White ethnicity and those of an ethnicity other than White, for certain offences.
The interviews with both minority ethnic and foreign national prisoners and professional stakeholders found that foreign national prisoners experienced significant challenges in areas such as language and communication barriers, limited or no contact with family and friends, access to services, respect for different religious backgrounds, and instances of racism or abuse on the grounds of ethnicity, and discrimination.
Many of these challenges have significant implications including but not limited to isolation, mental health, and self-harm, and place this cohort of prisoners in a particularly vulnerable position. The equality of treatment is inexorably linked to legitimacy in policy and practice. Thus, the imperative that people feel fair, decently and in this context, equally treated are brought into sharp relief.
Interviews with both prisoners and persons with experience of the Probation Service found that if their experiences with other parts of the criminal justice system have been negative then any representative of ‘the system’ such as a prison or probation officer, would be treated with suspicion. This has implications for willingness to access services both while in prison and upon release.
This research has shown that there are similarities in the experiences of minority ethnic, foreign national, and migrant prisoners in Ireland and the experiences of such groups in the prison populations of other countries. International academic literature shows that foreign national prisoners are more likely to face discrimination in the functioning of the criminal justice system; for example, they are less likely to receive non-custodial sentences and to receive bail. In the Irish context, more research is required concerning these and other issues.
The report features many proactive and positive strategies and informal practices in prisons and among prison staff. Furthermore, the right to practice religion and the freedom of expression are formalised in law and the Irish Prison Rules 2007. However, the facilities for practicing diverse religions should be formalised so as not to rely on the goodwill, discretion, and/or ad hoc actions of local management or staff.
All persons interviewed for this research, who were asked about the IPS complaint system, spoke negatively of the current complaint system. As well, all of the professionals interviewed who represent minority ethnic community groups, spoke of discord between them and prison staff when engaging with IPS. Those interviewed spoke of a lack of communication following their requests to prison authorities and said they were not taken seriously by many prison staff. Given that these community groups are often the only means of a prisoner’s direct contact with their community, it is imperative that there be clear and positive channels of communication between minority ethnic community groups and the IPS.
The research and recommendations presented in the report should be seen as a starting point in terms of how the challenges presented by foreign nationals and ethnic minorities are met by the Irish penal system. The report is available to read here. The research findings also received coverage in the Irish Examiner, Irish Legal News, Irish Times, and The Journal.
The research was funded by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) under the Human Rights and Equality Grant Scheme 2020-2021 and the Maynooth University School of Law and Criminology.