The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) today expressed disappointment at the judgment in the case of Mulligan v. Governor of Portlaoise Prison, which found against the applicant’s claim that the slopping out regime he was subjected to in that prison violated his constitutional and human rights. Speaking today, IPRT Executive Director Liam Herrick stated:
“Although the result in this case is disappointing, it is of great significance in that it sets out the most comprehensive analysis to date of the legal issues around human rights, prison conditions and slopping out. The case presents a horrific description of the reality of the humiliation and discomfort caused by forcing adults to carry our basic human functions in appalling circumstances. It also gives a further damning indictment of the persistent failure of the State to prioritise the provision of basic sanitation to prisoners.” [i]
Most disappointingly, the judgment finds the conditions of sanitation, ventilation and hygiene in this case, while “unacceptable”, were not considered sufficiently bad to constitute a violation of constitutional rights. However, the stark reality of inhumane prison conditions persists. Mr. Herrick stated:
“IPRT believes that, as a general principle, the clear affront to human dignity and the health risk to both staff and prisoners presented by slopping out, combined with a consistent failure of the State to address this issue, demands action. The decision of the Court in this case in no way reduces the urgency of this issue nor takes from the national disgrace that is Ireland’s position as the only Western European nation that persists with this barbaric practice.
“The utter lack of political will to address this issue of fundamental human rights is depressing, and the legal analysis of the High Court does not diminish that political reality in any way.”[ii]
A crucial aspect of this case is that it deals only with the circumstances of one prisoner and the conditions in which he was detained. In his judgment, Judge McMenamin refers to a number of cases before the European Court of Human Rights and one case from the Scottish courts where the combination of slopping out and prison overcrowding led to findings of inhuman and degrading treatment. He lists a number of factors which distinguish those cases from Mulligan:
- The combination of slopping out with doubled-up cells;
- The combination of slopping out and prison overcrowding;
- Chaotic slopping out and sluicing conditions;
- Particular health vulnerabilities on the part of an individual prisoner; and
- General prison regimes which allow prisoners fresh air and recreation.
In this context, it should be borne in mind that in prisons like Mountjoy and Cork, slopping out in multiple occupancy cells and severely overcrowded landings continues, often in circumstances where prisoners spend up to 23 hours in their cells each day. For example, the Inspector of Prison in a report on Mountjoy in 2009 found one, not unusual, case of seven men sharing three buckets for the purposes of slopping out.
IPRT is confident that, unless real action is taken to address our degrading and dangerous prison conditions, more cases are likely to be brought in the coming years.
[i] In his judgment, Judge McMenamin addresses how the Irish Prison Service has accepted that the practice is unacceptable since the early 1990s and made commitments to address the issue by 1999 and yet no real progress was made in the older prisons:
“One is left with the picture of the issues in question sometimes being the focus of attention, but then gradually slipping down the order of priorities as some new issue arose – often the priority of accommodation of other categories of prisoners. Addressing prison accommodation had many of the aspects of trying to reach an ever receding horizon.” (at para. 77 of the judgment).
[ii] The European committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT)’s report on its visit in 2006 reflected on the minimal changes to conditions since the 1993 visit:
“The CPT calls upon the Irish authorities to eradicate “slopping out” from the prison system. Until such time as this is achieved, concerted action should be taken to minimise its degrading effects.”
The irony that Mountjoy Prison was built in 1850 with in-cell sanitation, taken out on the then Irish authorities after 1922, should not be lost. Since that time, little efforts have been made to minimise the degrading effects.
Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT)
IPRT is Ireland’s leading non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of everyone in prison and the progressive reform of Irish penal policy, with prison as a last resort: www.iprt.ie