Charity seeks fair system to return Irish prisoners

The Irish Council of Overseas Prisoners has called for a well-resourced, transparent, fair and rapid repatriation system to allow overseas prisoners to serve the remainder of their sentences in Ireland.

The charity said restrictions imposed on prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic had caused «great suffering».

Early last year, the International Criminal Police Organization distributed 1,100 questionnaires to Irish prisoners abroad for the first time.

They issued 114 anonymous answers.

Respondents reported experiencing mental health difficulties, feelings of isolation and spending short time outside their cell.

This has been exacerbated by Covid-19.

Other difficulties and negative effects of the pandemic included lack of visits, confinement to their cells for 23 hours, concern for their health in a confined space, delays in legal hearings, inability to access educational sessions and the offender’s behavior.

The majority of those who responded said their primary concern arising from Covid-19 was not their health but the well-being of loved ones at home.

The International Criminal Police Organization (ICPO) said that while access to video calls should continue to be allowed when restrictions are lifted, they should not be used as a substitute for physical visits from family and friends.

Established 35 years ago, the International Criminal Police Organization (ICPO) is funded by the Irish Catholic Bishop’s Conference, the Department of Foreign Affairs through the Immigrant Support Program and the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.

Before Covid-19, she ran a visit program to prisons in Britain and elsewhere.

The charity continues to provide information to prisoners and families about repatriation and deportation.

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It is estimated that at any given time there are as many as 1,200 Irish people in prisons abroad in about thirty countries around the world.

The vast majority of them are in prisons in the UK, with relatively large numbers in the US, Australia and all over Europe.

Irish persons imprisoned abroad can apply to be transferred to an Irish prison to serve the remainder of their sentence, provided that the country in which they are sentenced is a signatory to the Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners.

The convention’s policy, which is based on humanitarian considerations, is to overcome the difficulties faced by prisoners serving sentences in foreign jurisdictions, such as lack of contact with relatives and differences in language and culture.

The government’s policy is that, whenever possible, prisoners should be allowed to serve their sentences close to their families according to the Department of Justice.

Last year, there were no internal transfers to the state and five prisoners were transferred out of the state.

Since the Transfer of Convicts Act came into effect in November 1995, 154 prisoners have been transferred from abroad and 194 prisoners have been transferred, according to a report by Secretary Helen McEntee published last year.

In 2016, relevant Supreme Court rulings raised the question of how best to adapt and manage a foreign sentence that contains features not found in Irish sentences.

To address this, the government approved the general outline of the Transfer of Convicted Persons Bill in 2019 to amend the Transfer of Convicted Persons Act of 1995 and 1997.

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Council Framework Decision 2008/909/JHA supersedes the Agreement on Transfers between EU Member States.

This will be changed by the Criminal Justice (Mutual Recognition of Prison Sentences) Bill, published in July of this year.

The Minister of Justice intends to obtain government approval to include the required amendments to the Transfer of Convicted Persons Act 1995 in the Criminal Justice (Mutual Recognition of Prison Sentences) Bill 2021.

The ministry said the minister also intends to move forward with the bill as soon as possible after the summer recess.

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