Skip to content

The Irish Penal Reform trust and the elephant in the room

The Irish Penal Reform Trust is an independent NGO that works to improve the Irish penal system through advocacy, lobbying, reports, studies, and public awareness campaigns. Its many valuable achievements include improvements in regard to overcrowding, education and training, and the housing of younger prisoners in adult units.
However, alongside this valuable work, the organisation has also campaigned on other issues which, while successful, it prefers to remain largely silent about.
After reading the IPRT’s 2022-2023 Annual Review, Gearóid Ó Loingsigh, The Countess Consultant on Prisons, questions this silence.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust held its AGM in August 2023, when it looked over its work for the year 2022-2023. The IPRT 2022-2023 Annual Review gives an overview of the organisation’s activities and advances made in the area of penal reform, for some of which the IPRT rightly claims credit.

There is an elephant in the room, or perhaps just a hippo that identifies as an elephant, but it is there nonetheless and the IPRT does not mention it at all: men in women’s prisons.

In the blurb that accompanies the report a list is given of those advances to which the IPRT believes it made a significant contribution – as indeed it did. The list goes from the extension of the Inspector of Prison’s remit to include investigations into deaths in prison custody in 2012 to the reduction in the degrading practice of slopping out in prisons in 2023.(1) No mention is made of the housing of men in the female estate, something in which the IPRT played a significant role, advocating it long before Gabrielle Alejandro Gentile, AKA Barbie Kardashian, and Seán Kavanagh, AKA Shauna Kavanagh, became household names. In fact, if it hadn’t been for IPRT advocacy on the issue, these men might never have graced cells in the female estate. You might think that the IPRT would want to stand over and boast of this particular advance, proposed by the organisation in Out on the Inside, a disgraceful document in which it argued against what it terms as “genitalia-based placement”.(2)

While the Annual Review refers to meetings held with the Governor of Limerick Prison and the Trust’s work on the issue of children and women in prison, it makes no allusion to the housing of a male child sex offender in Limerick Prison, nor indeed to the fact that the IPRT believes that this is the appropriate place for him to be held, or even how this might conflict with some of the admirable work it has done towards reforming the penal system. It is simply not mentioned. While the issue does feature in the IPRT Progress in the Penal System (PIPS) report, published in May 2023, it is granted no more than a banal statement:
“While no policy on transgender people has been published at the time of writing, the IPS has affirmed its commitment to developing a policy that the Minister for Justice has stated will be will be [sic] ‘informed by best international practice’.” Additionally, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) has delivered a presentation to a number of IPS staff on vocabulary, definitions, statistics, relevant legislation and supportive actions that are useful in the context of daily life.(3)

You would think that an organisation that had seen the partial realisation of its demands would be cock-a-hoop about Kardashian and Kavanagh, as well as a third male, convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse and cruelty against a child, being housed in the female estate. But no boasts are made, nor even a complaint about Kardashian being sent back to the male estate following rape threats he made against female prison staff. Nor is the issue a major concern or part of its strategic plan.(4) Again, you would think that an organisation that had at long last seen at least three male offenders claiming to be women housed in the female estate would feel encouraged to build upon this work.

But no. In practice the Irish state is doing what the IPRT has advocated, though the statutory basis for this is, at best, dodgy. You would think it would call for that to be strengthened. However, the website blurb on the Strategic Plan states: IPRT’s two strategic goals for 2023–2026 are:

“1. We campaign for a progressive criminal justice system that upholds human rights. We do this through research, advocacy and changing attitudes.

2. We continue to develop a sustainable, well-governed, independent organisation. “

IPRT has identified the following as the areas for action to bring about the long-term goals we wish to achieve:

” 1. Upholding human rights and respect for human dignity in Ireland’s criminal justice system for adults and young people.

2. Promoting effective alternatives to prison, where prison is only used as a measure of last resort.

3. Championing a criminal justice system that has social integration at its core.

4. Changing attitudes and challenging misconceptions about people in the criminal justice system among the public, policy officials, politicians, media and the legal community, including the judiciary.

5. Creating and sharing innovative solutions through strategic engagement, networking, and mobilising others.

6. Maintaining transparency and good governance in how we operate internally as an organisation and with members, our Board and stakeholders.

7. IPRT will be a great place to work with a high-performing team and where staff feel valued.

8. IPRT will continue to be a sustainable and independent organisation.”(5)

Not exactly a high priority. Though it has gone relatively quiet on the issue, the IPRT has not yet given up the ghost; it is just not openly boasting and bragging about how it managed to get three violent males into women’s prison or how it managed to get child abusers and sex offenders into the female estate. It may be a case that Dr Frankenstein is looking at the villagers coming to burn down the castle with the monster inside and, rather than standing aghast as he does in the cinema versions of the novel, is rather hoping that they dig him out of a hole completely of his own making.

However, it has attempted one last roll of the dice. In its submission to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the IPRT managed to include references to what it calls transgender women in prison, i.e., men in women’s prisons. While it laments that the state has no policy in place, it does not boast about the “progress” made in housing violent males and sex offenders in the female estate, rather going on to complain:
“IPRT is concerned that, while the policy is in development, the small number of transgender women in prison may be subject to inhuman treatment, with reports that these women have been (and may continue to be) subject to prolonged solitary confinement.”(6)

Whilst it is true that housing such prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement is tantamount to torture, it is a situation of the IPRT’s making. They are held separate from the actual female population because they represent a clear and overwhelming danger to female prisoners, something the IPRT has never acknowledged. Hopefully, the fact that IPRT is not as vocal about a child sex abuser’s right to wander freely amongst the female prisoners and their children in Limerick Prison is a sign that they are slowly marking off a distance from the dogmas of the religious trans cult they signed up to. Though I have my doubts. Most people frequently get the monster and the doctor mixed up in the Frankenstein films (not so much those who read the novel). The doctor is Frankenstein, not the monster. However, I wonder whether the IPRT is both monster and doctor in this case and whether it is moving away from its defence of the indefensible. Some clarity from them would be appreciated. They were noticeably silent when Kardashian was transferred back to the male estate, something they were led to believe couldn’t happen. They have yet to say anything about Shauna Kavanagh who seriously assaulted a friend and was later arrested for beating up a woman in a women’s refuge and is now housed in the Dóchas Unit for women.

This is the policy they advocated for and are remarkably silent when it comes to boasting about the “progress” the IPRT has made on the issue. The reality of it all doesn’t look good, does it? Especially for female prisoners, one of the cohorts the IPRT claims to defend.


(1) IPRT (2023) Annual Review and Financial Statement.

(2) IPRT (2016) Out on the Inside. IPRT.

(3) IPRT (2023a) Progress in the Penal System (PIPS): A framework for penal reform (2022) p.78

(4) IPRT (2023b) Irish Penal Reform Trust Strategic Plan 2023 – 2026. IPRT.

(5) See’s%20two%20strategic%20goals%20for,research%2C%20advocacy%20and%20changing%20attitudes.

(6) IPRT (2023b) Submission by the Irish Penal Reform Trust to the 88th Pre-Sessional Working Group of CEDAW (30 October – 3 November 2023) p.9