The Constitution recognises and declares that people living in Ireland have certain fundamental personal rights. These rights may be derived or implied from the Constitution. The Courts decide what the Constitution means.
Fundamental rights are not absolute – they can be limited or restricted by the Oireachtas on the grounds, for example, of the common good.
Ireland has agreed to follow the terms of 4 international treaties which lay out standards for the treatment of prisoners. These are:
- European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)
- European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
- Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)
There is also the Council of Europe’s European Prison Rules which give guidance on standards for prisons.
The following is an overview of how prison affects the daily life and associated rights of an individual.
Right to marry
The courts have not yet decided that you have a right to marry while you are in prison.
Right to procreate and/or conjugal rights
You do not have a right to temporary release or conjugal visits.
If you are married, you have a right to communicate with your spouse, but without privacy. You also have a right to take some part in the education of your children.
Right to vote
You have a right to be registered in the political constituency where you would normally live if you were not in prison. However, you have no right to be given physical access to a ballot box by temporary release.
If you happen to be on parole or temporary release at the time of an election, you are free to vote where you are registered.
Your rights if you are on remand are the same as if you were a convicted prisoner.
The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2006 provides procedures that enable prisoners to vote by post. If you are in prison, you can register for a postal vote in the area that you would otherwise be living in. If you are already registered to vote in that area and wish to be able to vote from prison then you should fill out a form called Form RFG. If you are not already on the register then you should complete Form RFA4 as well. These application forms are available in all prisons and should be sent to the local authority for your area.
Right to associate
You have a right to communicate with other prisoners while you are working or at recreation. However, you must communicate in an orderly way and you cannot impede the other prisoners' work.
The governor of the prison can take away this right in the interest of good order in the prison.
Right to sanitation and washing facilities
You do not have an absolute right to in cell sanitation and washing facilities. However, if it is possible, adequate sanitary and washing facilities should be provided in your cell or room. Where this is not possible, you must have reasonable access to sanitary and washing facilities.
Right to privacy
You have a limited right to privacy. For example, you may not to be stripped, searched or bathed in the presence of another prisoner. In addition, you have the right to be exposed to the public view as little as possible while being removed from or to prison. However, you may be photographed. Your right to privacy may be limited for security reasons.
Rights relating to searches and drug testing
You may be searched and you may only be searched by officers of the same sex. The search must be done with due regard to your decency and self-respect and in as appropriate a manner as possible. At no stage should you be left completely naked.
You might have to give a hair, urine or saliva sample for the purpose of detecting the presence or use of alcohol, a controlled drug or a medicinal product.
A search can only be carried out for a genuine purpose, for example, to find forbidden items. A search cannot be carried out simply to harass you.
Right to freedom from discrimination
You have the same right to freedom from discrimination as any other citizen.
Right to recreation
If you are involved in indoor work at the prison, you are entitled to daily exercise in the open air for one hour or more.
Where possible, you must be provided with access to indoor space and equipment, suitable for physical recreation, exercise or training.
Right to property
You do not have the right to keep money in prison. You are not allowed to keep all the money and effects you brought into the prison or were sent to the prison for your use. They will be placed in the custody of the governor, who will keep an inventory of them. The money will be lodged into an account for your use.
Right to bodily integrity
You have a limited right to bodily integrity. For example, a prisoner's hair cannot be cut without their consent unless the prison doctor considers it necessary on health grounds.
Right to freedom of religion
You do have a right to practise your religion. The prison will provide for basic religious needs but you do not have a right to special requirements.
When you arrive in prison, you will state your religious denomination and if there is no service provided in the prison for your denomination, the prison will allow a religious instructor visit you.
Right to food
While you are in prison, you must be given a healthy, well balanced and reasonably varied diet. Where possible, provision is made to enable a prisoner to observe the dietary practices of their religion or culture. The prison medical officer can approve a change of diet.
Right to education
You have a right to education while you are in prison.
Rights of mothers
The child of a female prisoner can be taken into the prison to facilitate breast feeding, until the child is 12 months of age. The child may not be taken from its mother until the medical officer certifies that it is in a fit condition to be removed.
Except in special circumstances, the child will not be kept in the prison after it is 12 months old.
Before taking a child out of prison, the governor must consult with the child’s mother and the Child and Family Agency as to the appropriate placement for the child.
Right to smoke
Prisoners do not have a right to smoke except in accordance with rules laid down by the governor.
You can find further information on prisoners' rights in the publication, Know Your Rights: Your Rights as a Prisoner produced jointly by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and the Irish Penal Reform Trust.