Overcrowding in Prisons: Statements

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 205 No. 7

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An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke I welcome the Minister for Justice and Law Reform.

Minister for Justice and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern): Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern I am glad to have the opportunity to address the Seanad on this important topic. How we deal with offending behaviour in all its guises and protect the public is a test of us as a society. Protecting victims, encouraging change in offenders and ultimately increasing public safety is a key role for me as Minister. At a time of increased pressure on resources and staffing we must strive to look at ways of increasing efficiency and ensuring that as far as possible we continue to provide offenders with opportunities within the prison system to look at their individual road to offending, to help them change through meaningful offence-focused work and to prepare them for release back to the community.

We are all familiar with the issue of overcrowding in our prisons and the effect that has on the prison system, for prisoners themselves and for prison management and staff. There is no easy solution as to how we manage our increasing prisoner population.

For my part as Minister I am determined, within the budgetary constraints upon us all, that we will take all reasonable steps to deal with these issues. As I have said before, my first concern as Minister for Justice and Law Reform is public safety. In that regard, the fact that the number of serious criminals behind bars serving two years imprisonment or more increased by over 600 between 2007 and 2009 is a cause for commendation of the Garda Síochána, whose vigilance and dedication to duty has resulted in the arrest and successful prosecution of these offenders. This trend has continued in 2010. I am heartened by the recent crime statistics published last week by the Central Statistics Office which show a continuation of the positive trends in the second quarter and reflect the Government’s initiatives for tackling crime and the work of the Garda Síochána. As I said then, the Commissioner and I are determined that this work will continue.

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I have acknowledged on many occasions that our prisoner numbers have increased quite significantly in more recent years. Indeed, this situation is particularly apparent over the past 12 months during which time the total number in custody has increased by 437. This represents an 11% increase in the numbers in custody. This increase can be traced back to a number of factors including increased Garda activity due to the large increase in Garda numbers in the last four or five years, increased courts sittings and an element of longer custodial sentences. To put it another way, it can be traced to the efforts of the Government to give gardaí and the courts the tools to do their job: strong legislative measures on the one hand and more resources on the other.

It is, of course, accepted that the Irish Prison Service must accept all prisoners committed by the courts. They cannot put up a No Vacancies sign. There is no option of refusing committals. As of 2 November 2010, there were 4,416 beds available in the prison system. On the same date there were 4,408 prisoners in custody. This represents an occupancy total of 100%. Despite the significant increase in prison spaces we are operating at our bed capacity at this time. Let me put this in context. In 2005, the average number in custody was 3,151, but by 2009 this had increased to 3,881.

All sides of the House will accept that this has put a lot of strain on the prison system. That is why I am determined to push ahead with a twin-track approach by continuing to add high quality prison spaces to the prison estate and to look at innovative ways to expand the use of non-custodial options. More than 80% of the sentenced prisoner population in custody are serving sentences of 12 months or more. In Mountjoy Prison alone, only 5% of prisoners, to my recollection, are serving sentences of less than 12 months. It would, therefore, be grossly [419]misleading to suggest prison overcrowding is caused by the imprisonment of minor offenders or that the problems can be solved overnight by the greater use of alternatives to custody. We must be realistic and acknowledge that the imprisonment option, based on the seriousness of the offence, must always be seen as a key plank of our overall criminal justice policy.

Let me turn to the issue of prison overcrowding. To begin with, the issue is not unique to this jurisdiction; rather, it is an international issue that has been widely acknowledged, including by the Inspector of Prisons. As Members will know, Ireland traditionally has had a low rate of imprisonment. The Council of Europe annual penal statistics measure imprisonment rates by prison population per 100,000 inhabitants and the European average is approximately 109 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2008, the latest year for which full statistics are available, Ireland had a rate of 84.8, well below the average figure. The United Kingdom, for example, had a rate of 152.8, well above the average figure. Based on these data, we are below most western European countries other than the Scandinavian countries. The latest Council of Europe penal statistics show that Belgium — 125%, France — 131%, Italy — 130%, and Spain — 141%, all have more severe levels of overcrowding than Ireland. The imprisonment rate in the USA is around 700 per 100,000 inhabitants. However, it is also true to state that as our prison numbers increase, so too will our position on the table change, a point of which I am very conscious.

As I have said before, there is no doubting the fact that the extensive investment in the criminal justice system, with extra gardaí, the number of whom has risen from 12,000 four or five years ago to an all-time high of 14,600 today, has had a huge effect on the increase in the numbers going to prison. There is also the targeting of criminal gangs, the appointment of additional judges and the creation of more court venues. All of these developments have led to a significant growth in the numbers of offenders coming into the prison system.

I return to the earlier statistic which is worth keeping in our minds, namely, that approximately 80% of the prison population are serving sentences of 12 months or more. We may ask what this stark statistic tells us. It clearly shows that the vast bulk of the prison population is made up of offenders who have been convicted of more serious offences. The courts which are independent in their functions deal with each case on the facts and the sentence imposed in any case, following a finding of guilt, is entirely a matter for the Judiciary. For my part, releasing serious offenders onto the streets is not an option. Public protection and safety must be paramount. Some say there are many in prison who should not be there. The statistic of 80% of the prison population serving sentences of 12 months or more clearly indicates the vast majority of those in prison are serious offenders. I repeat public protection and safety must be paramount.

The track record on capital investment shows there was a lack of investment in the prison estate for many years. I am glad we have put much needed funds into improving our prisons. The Government has committed significant resources to an extensive programme of investment in prisons infrastructure which has involved both the modernisation of the existing estate and the provision of extra prison spaces. I can only speak for the time I have been in government as a Minister. Since 1997, when I first became a Minister, close to 1,920 new prison spaces have come on stream in the prison system, which is in stark contrast with the fact that no prison spaces were provided by the preceding Government. That indicates its priorities at the time. While the two main parties opposite will criticise us for the overcrowding in prisons today, the record speaks for itself. The Governments of which I have been a member have invested heavily in the provision of new prison spaces. While we have been criticised for closing some prisons, they were closed for good reasons because they were not fit for purpose; they were Dickensian. We have provided 1,920 new prison spaces since 1997, whereas, I repeat, the Government in office prior to 1997 did not build even one prison cell.

[420]The new prisons we have built include the Midlands and Cloverhill prisons and the Dóchas Centre. We have also provided new accommodation in Limerick, Portlaoise and Castlerea prisons and at the open centres in Shelton Abbey and Loughan House. Only three weeks ago I had the pleasure of opening a new cell block in Wheatfield Prison to provide an additional 176 new cells, with the potential to accommodate in excess of 200 prisoners. Anyone who visits that prison, including a member of a prison visiting committee or a Member of the Oireachtas, will be proud of the investment made in it by the taxpayer. It is state-of-the-art and, unlike the prisons in place during the years, has not been amended and changed. It is a credit to all those involved. The new accommodation block will allow the prison to accommodate 650 prisoners. By any stretch of the imagination, particularly in these difficult economic times, this is a significant investment to improve and modernise our prisons. It is also an indication, if one was needed, of the Government’s determination to meet the challenges faced. When I was in Italy some time back, I had the opportunity to visit a similar prison and it gave me great pride to see that our prisons compared favourably, particularly in regard to the training, educational and medical facilities available to prisoners, even in some of the more normally mentioned prisons such as Mountjoy Prison. We have tremendous educational and occupational training facilities available to prisoners which compare favourably with anything I have seen in prisons I have visited abroad since.

I recognise that we must continue to invest in our prisons. That is why work is scheduled to commence later this year on a new accommodation block in the Portlaoise-Midlands Prison complex which will have the potential to provide 300 prison spaces in the medium term. Work is also due to commence on converting an administrative building on the Dóchas site into a new accommodation block which will provide 70 spaces in the short term. In addition, 14 refurbished cells in the female wing of Limerick Prison are complete and due to be occupied later this month. The Government remains committed to the programme of investment. To this end, I can confirm that I have recently approved the creation of 150 additional spaces at Castlerea Prison and Shelton Abbey, with tenders to be issued shortly for both projects. The accommodation at Shelton Abbey will increase by 50 spaces, while in Castlerea Prison we will be providing an additional 100 spaces in a setting which will provide regime incentives for prisoners while remaining within the secure perimeter of the prison. Again, I have asked my officials to proceed with the provision of a number of these additional spaces in Castlerea Prison, Shelton Abbey and the Portlaoise-Midlands Prison complex, despite the fact that the capital budget is under pressure in the current economic environment.

This is a clear illustration of the priority the Government accords to providing extra prison spaces, not just in the longer term, as in the case of Thornton Hall, but also in the short and medium terms. The short-term provisions include extra places in Castlerea Prison, Shelton Abbey, the Dóchas Centre, and the medium-term provisions include extra places at the Midlands Prison.

I am on record several times as having outlined the Government’s commitment to developing a new prison campus at Thornton Hall, County Dublin. Thornton Hall, which will replace the outmoded and Dickensian Mountjoy complex, will be a campus development with approximately 1,400 cells on a 130-acre site. It will be designed to meet the highest international standards with operational flexibility to accommodate up to 2,200 prisoners in a range of security settings. Work is already under way on the construction of a dedicated access route. I understand the work is nearing completion. The Irish Prison Service hopes to award the contract for the installation of the off-site services to serve the prison development in the coming weeks. The procurement process for the design and construction of the perimeter wall is also in progress and construction is scheduled to commence in the first quarter of 2011. The next [421]phase of the work will see the procurement of the first prison accommodation blocks and related support facilities commencing in the new year. This phase will provide an initial 400 cells capable of accommodating up to 700 prisoners.

The development of a new prison facility at Kilworth, County Cork, to serve the Munster region is a key element of the prisons modernisation programme. It is anticipated that the capacity of the new prison will be in the region of 450 and will also include accommodation for male and female prisoners.

It is important that we again illustrate that the priority of this Government and its predecessors since 1997 has been a clear indication of movement in respect of prison spaces in the short, medium and longer terms. Despite the constrained economic circumstances, we are prioritising expenditure on prison places. I contrast this approach with the priorities of the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government between 1994 and 1997. It decided it would not build any new prison accommodation at all and that it had other priorities. I will not accept any criticism from the other side of the House. All we need do is look at the record——

Senator Eugene Regan: Information on Eugene Regan Zoom on Eugene Regan Therefore, we can end the debate now.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern All we need do is look at the record.

Senator Eugene Regan: Information on Eugene Regan Zoom on Eugene Regan The Minister is not prepared to listen.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern I know the truth is bitter.

Senator Maurice Cummins: Information on Maurice Cummins Zoom on Maurice Cummins The Minister can only dictate.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke The Minister to continue without interruption.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern One need only look at the record, which speaks for itself.

Senator Maurice Cummins: Information on Maurice Cummins Zoom on Maurice Cummins We put the money in place for the Minister to do what he has done.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern Both parties, despite their criticisms while in opposition, decided when in government and when they had an opportunity to do otherwise to spend money elsewhere. I will not accept any criticism regarding what I and my party——

Senator Maurice Cummins: Information on Maurice Cummins Zoom on Maurice Cummins The Minister will not listen; that is his problem.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern ——have done since 1997 regarding the building of prison places.

The Irish Prison Service has introduced a range of enhanced security measures in all closed prisons to prevent the flow of and assist in the capture of contraband such as illicit drugs and mobile phones. These include advanced security screening for all visitors and staff, the establishment of a drug detection dog service, the establishment of operational support units to search and gather intelligence, the introduction of body orifice security scanner, BOSS, chairs for the searching of prisoners, and the erection of netting over exercise yards to counteract drugs being thrown over prison walls.

Other preventative measures include cell and area searches, which take place in all prisons on a daily basis. These include random targeted and intelligence-led searches. These measures have had considerable success to date. I am determined to support prison management in taking all reasonable steps to stem the flow of contraband, including drugs, weapons and mobile phones, into our prisons. I leave it entirely up to the experts in this area to determine security requirements in our prisons. It is entirely a matter for management to install whatever security [422]measures it deems necessary within the resources provided by the Oireachtas to ensure contraband does not get into the prisons.

I accept that good accommodation must be accompanied by a diverse range of facilities for prisoners. The Irish Prison Service places very strong emphasis on the provision of education and vocational training activities for prisoners. Training activities are chosen to give as much employment as possible in prison and to give opportunities to acquire skills that help secure employment on release. A wide range of training workshops operates within the institutions. There are classes available covering printing, computers, braille, woodwork, metalwork, construction, industrial contract cleaning, craft, horticulture and electronics. Training in catering and laundry services is also available.

During 2009, new workshops and activities were developed in a number of prisons and a refurbishment and equipment replacement programme continued in others. Over 800 prisoners, or 21% of the daily average population, participated in work training activities on a daily sessional basis during the year. A constant emphasis on quality assurance and care standards in work and training services and programmes was reflected again in 2009, with one prison winning a national award for hygiene for its catering operations. Arbour Hill Prison won the Excellence Ireland Quality Association Emerald award for hygiene in the public service. External accreditation of certified training is also available for a number of courses run within the institutions. Members, on visiting any of our prisons, will be very surprised by and delighted with the investment in training and educational facilities.

There have been significant developments in health care service provision in our prisons. The health care focus has been on improved quality of care, made possible through a number of initiatives, including the implementation of the recommendations in Irish Prison Service Healthcare Standards, the introduction of nurse managers and of nurse-led initiatives such as health screening, diabetic and vaccination clinics, the further development of in-reach services, the establishment of clinical multidisciplinary teams and the provision of enhanced through-care processes in respect of community services.

There has been much adverse comment about slopping out in our prison system, and I do not for one moment seek to minimise the fact that in some of our older prisons this practice still exists. That said, it must be acknowledged that our newer prison accommodation is dealing with this issue to a significant extent. At present, 72% of our accommodation has in-cell sanitation. As Minister, I want to ensure that percentage is increased as much as possible. This can only be done through the building of new, modern state-of-the-art prison cells. In this regard, I must make what one may call a political point, but a very important one nevertheless: one cannot just build a prison or prison cell overnight. Two or three decades ago, there was a certain prison design according to which prisons were built. I am thankful there is now a greater opportunity to build purpose-built infrastructure on prison sites. The Irish Prison Service has learned a considerable amount recently on foot of the rapid increase in the number of cell facilities in prisons. While the issue of procurement has been the subject of investigation by the Committee of Public Accounts, the Irish Prison Service must put cells in place as quickly as possible. It has done so to the best of its ability and has done a marvellous job. It must achieve value for money for the taxpayer and, to the best of my knowledge, has done so.

I will not accept any criticism of the staff of the Irish Prison Service regarding the way they have reacted to a situation which has come about as a result of further investment aimed at increasing Garda numbers. The latter has led to a rapid rise in the number of people being processed through and sentenced in the courts.

[423]In the context of the current building programme, with the development of new prison spaces at Castlerea and Portlaoise and the proposed extension at the Midlands Prison which is due to open in 2012, the proportion of prisoners with access to full sanitation facilities will rise to more than 80% of the total prison population. The final elimination of the remaining outdated accommodation — mainly at Mountjoy and Cork prisons and, to a lesser extent, at Portlaoise and Limerick prisons — is dependent on the progress of the Thornton Hall and Kilworth prison projects.

Despite the constrained economic circumstances in which we find ourselves, we are proceeding, full steam ahead, in respect of Thornton Hall. The access road is almost complete, a number of on-site services will have to be put in place before development takes place and the building of the perimeter wall will commence in the new year. The construction of the first of three phases, which will comprise 400 cells, will then take place. I am confident that, in the context of the difficult Estimates process relating to next year and succeeding years, the Department of Justice and Law Reform and the Irish Prison Service will have adequate resources at their disposal to enable the development at Thornton Hall to proceed as quickly as possible. I am also confident that resources will be made available to allow construction on phase 1 to proceed in the not too distant future.

I am informed that a new camping-style toilet, which will assist in improving hygiene, is currently being tested on a trial basis at Cork, Limerick and Mountjoy prisons. The initial feedback from the prisoners is positive. The aim behind using toilets of this type is to try to address the situation which obtains at Mountjoy and a number of other prisons in respect of slopping out. I completely accept that the latter issue must be dealt with. As a society, we must try to ensure, to the greatest degree possible, that proper in-cell sanitation is available in our prisons. The ultimate answer in this regard is to build new prison accommodation as quickly as possible, particularly at Thornton Hall, which will provide up to 2,200 prison spaces in the future. This will be of assistance in dealing with the long-term issue of an increasing prison population.

Significant efforts are being made to ensure that an effective, multidisciplinary approach is taken to the management of offenders. The Irish Prison Service is developing and rolling out an integrated sentence management, ISM, system to ensure there will be a prisoner-centred approach to how inmates are assisted during their sentences. ISM was piloted at Arbour Hill and Wheatfield prisons in 2008, extended in 2009 and by the end of this year all newly-sentenced committed prisoners serving one year or more will be participating in the system across the entire prison estate.

When debating penal policy, it is important to remember that non-custodial or alternative sanctions offer an important menu of additional disposals to the courts. In that context, we are always considering measures to keep minor offenders out of prison. I have heard it said on many occasions that I do not possess a strategy. That is not the case. My strategy is to modernise our prison estate while ensuring that people who heretofore were sent to prison in respect of the non-payment of minor fines or civil debts should not be incarcerated. I again place my record on the line in that regard. I have taken a number of legislative initiatives to ensure that what I have outlined will no longer happen. My Department, along with various criminal justice agencies, has been examining alternatives to custody. Community service is one such option which offers a real alternative.

As Senators will be aware, the Criminal Justice (Community Service) Act 1983 provides that a court may make a community service order as an alternative to a sentence of imprisonment in respect of a person over the age of 16 years who has been convicted of a criminal offence and who consents to such an order being made. A community service order requires an offender to [424]perform unpaid work for between 40 and 240 hours, usually to be completed within 12 months of sentencing.

The community service scheme provides a very useful disposal option for the courts. A value for money report showed that it could be used much more widely. Based on this, and other recommendations contained in the review, the probation service of my Department is leading the drive to substantially increase the number of persons that could potentially be placed on community service. Initial indications from the Dublin area show a marked uptake in the scheme. This new model of community service will be rolled out nationwide in the coming months. Having regard to the independence of the Judiciary, I am confident that the work of the probation service to encourage greater use of the community service option by the courts will result in greater numbers being placed on the scheme.

I have checked the position with the probation service, which has indicated a willingness to take greater numbers of people onto the community service scheme. I was assured, during preparations and discussions relating to what has become the Fines Act, that the probation service has additional capacity and will be in a position to cope with the placing of extra people on community service. I have also indicated that I will be making an additional legislative change with regard to sentencing policy in order to make provision in respect of community service.

The Legislature has set out a range of sentencing options in respect of offences, including fines, the Probation of Offenders Act, community service orders and the ultimate sanction of imprisonment. I am of the view that there is scope for greater use of community service orders in respect of relatively minor offences and I have prepared legislative proposals in this regard. Senators may recall my comment to the effect that, under the 1983 Act, the courts may make community service orders. In the next week or so I will be bringing before the Cabinet a short Bill which is designed to ensure that, subject to certain conditions, judges will be required to examine community service as an option when they are considering imposing sentences up to a certain level of severity.

The legislative change to which I refer will be introduced in the near future and will require courts to consider imposing community service orders in cases where they envisage imposing prison sentences of six months or less. Until now, it has been entirely a matter for judges — under the provisions of the 1983 Act — to consider whether community service orders should be imposed. In the future, there will be a mandatory requirement on judges who are considering imposing prison sentences of six months or less to examine the option of making community service orders. It is obvious that not all those who appear before the courts would be suitable to have community service orders handed down to them. Judges will, therefore, be obliged to establish whether people will be suitable candidates and also whether there will be places for them.

I again suggest that Senators peruse the probation service’s annual report, which clearly outlines the type of work done by those who are placed on community service. I am sure those on all sides of the House will agree that it would be far more preferable to have certain individuals do some service to the community rather than having them committed to prison at further expense to taxpayers. I am not in any way suggesting that people should be let off scot free. If, in lieu of a prison sentence, a person is directed to carry out community service for whatever number of hours and if he or she does not comply with the terms of the relevant order, he or she would then be obliged to serve time in prison.

In the Criminal Justice Act 2006 it is provided that a court may suspend any portion of a sentence, or full sentence, on condition that the offender complies with probation supervision [425]and any other specific conditions which are intended to reduce the likelihood of re-offending. The courts frequently use pre-sentence assessment reports from the probation service in order to inform themselves of the suitability of the defendant for such an order and the conditions that might usefully be attached to supervision rather than imprisonment. In 2009 the courts imposed 528 part-suspended sentence supervision orders and requested over 6,000 pre-sanction reports from the probation service in order to inform sentencing.

I wish to draw attention to the published discussion document No. 2, entitled Criminal Sanctions, in the White Paper on Crime series, which includes an examination of the use of non-custodial sanctions generally. I am not sure whether Senators know that we are currently in a very extensive consultation process on a White Paper on crime. Submissions to the discussions on the preparation of the document regarding criminal sanctions were invited and in August 2010 my Department published reports on the submissions received and the consultation seminar held in Dublin Castle on 28 May 2010. The opinions received will feed into the development of future policy in this area.

As the House will know, the Fines Act 2010 was signed into law at the end of May this year. It provides for an innovative, balanced and more humane approach to the determination and collection of fines. Capacity to pay, equality of impact and payment by instalments are the key features of this legislation. The Act addresses the issue of capacity to pay by requiring the court to examine the financial circumstances of a person before determining the amount of the fine. The person on whom the fine has been imposed will be entitled to make an application to the court to pay it by instalment. The Act also provides for alternatives to imprisonment in the event of non-payment of a fine. In such circumstances a recovery order can be activated and a receiver will be entitled to recover the fine or seize and sell property from the person and recover the fine from the proceeds. A community service order is also an option. Imprisonment in the event of default will be a last resort.

The Act was passed some time back and I have to commence it. The reason for the delay in its commencement is that most of the amendments to the process of collecting fines were made at the very end of the passing of the legislation in the Oireachtas. I spent a lot of time with my officials, using my experience from the time when I practised as a solicitor, to go through the types of process whereby a person who is fined by a court ends up in Mountjoy Prison or another remand centre. There is a ludicrous situation that when people have not paid for a television licence or dog licence, as has happened in my constituency, bench warrants are being executed by the Garda and people are being brought to prison who have never been near a prison or in court in their lives. I am trying to stop that from occurring as much as possible. Of course we all accept that a person deserves to go to prison if he or she continuously thumbs his or her nose at the authorities and refuses to pay even though he or she has the ability to pay, but there are people who do not have the capacity to pay. A lot of time was spent going through many of the amendments to the Fines Act relating to the sequencing of what happens when a fine is imposed and what hurdles must be jumped before the ultimate sanction of imprisonment. These were only finalised shortly before the Act was finally passed by the Oireachtas. It behoves the Courts Service to set up a system to deal with the logistics and practical issues in the District Court. To my recollection, the District Court system handles about 800,000 cases in any one year and obviously needs a lead-in time.

I hope to commence the sections of the Act by 1 January. We have to set up the receiver system and that will take time. There is a tendering process in that respect which the Courts Service must complete. From 1 January the Fines Act will clearly stop a lot of cases in which judges impose fines and say “three months in default”, which means people who do not pay the fine will get three months’ imprisonment. The Fines Act will contain a sequence whereby people can pay by instalments. If they do not pay within the due date, a receiver will be [426]appointed. The court receivers will go out to a person’s premises and seize goods and sell them in lieu of the fine. If they cannot get any goods from the person the courts can impose a community service order if the person is fit, and if after all that the person does not pay the fine, there has to be the ultimate sanction of prison.

We changed the law some time back on civil debt and now, to the best of my knowledge, there are no people in prison for a civil debt. One will find very few people in prison for owing fines or civil debts. If they are, it is because they have the ability to pay but refuse to pay for whatever reason. It is to be hoped that will do away with the myth. On any given day only 0.2% of the prison population, which is one of the highest proportions in recent times, is in prison for non-payment of a fine. There is a myth that there are a lot of people in prison because they have not paid a fine.

We are also testing the use of electronic monitoring technology on a small group of about 20 prisoners. The test phase will run until Christmas and will then be evaluated to see how it may feature as a management tool for offenders, having regard to cost and the overall findings of the evaluation. The issue of electronic monitoring, while it seems simple and I would support it, is not simple in practice. We have looked at the experience across the water, elsewhere in Europe and in the US and if we are spending taxpayers’ money on it, we want it to work properly.

Some of the systems in use abroad are not fit for purpose and there are extreme difficulties with some of the systems that are held up as examples of what could be used. In the pilot phase we are using the latest technology and GPS rather than a fixed line model which is used in the UK and less than satisfactory. When the pilot scheme is finished and evaluated, we will then decide whether we can roll it out further. Value for money from the taxpayers’ point of view will be examined.

On oversight of prisons, it would be remiss of me not to mention the important role prison visiting committees and the Inspector of Prisons play in the performance of valuable functions in the oversight of our prison regime. We need to welcome the reports which are received from the Inspector of Prisons and prison visiting committees. In some commentary people decry prison visiting committees. I am a fan of them. In recent times when budgets were constrained I examined the possibility of abolishing them because we now have a dedicated Inspector of Prisons who is doing an excellent job, which I very much welcome. He can arrive at prisons without notice and inspect prisoners and is independent of his functions as a District Court judge. I considered the possibility of abolishing prison visiting committees to save money but under an Act of 1925, I understand, any member of a prison visiting committee can knock on the door of the prison to which the committee of which he or she is a member is attached and demand to see the prison. When I became aware of that fact I said prison visiting committees have an important role to play because they comprise Joe and Mary Citizen with no particular experience of prisons. They are entitled to go into prisons and they do a very valid job. They do not pull back from any criticism of what may or may not be going on in a prison. Between them, the Inspector of Prisons and prison visiting committees fulfil an important function. Recently there was a parliamentary question on prison visiting committees which, if my memory serves me correctly, cost approximately €250,000 to run. The cost has dropped from approximately €700,000 in recent years as there has been a dramatic saving in areas such as the payment of expenses.

On prison staff, when we mention the emergency services such as the ambulance service, the Garda, the fire service and staff in accident and emergency departments, we tend to forget that staff in the Irish Prison Service work on a 24 hours a day, seven days a week basis. Working in a prison environment is not easy. It requires a mix of skills to support in a humane way the [427]day-to-day prison regime while being mindful of the ethos of the Irish Prison Service to keep offenders in safe custody. I express my appreciation of the work carried out in the prison system. I have witnessed at first hand the work staff do and have been incredibly impressed by the way in which they interact with prisoners and particularly, as I stated, the way in which training and vocational facilities are made available to prisoners.

Senator Bacik welcomed the fact that this debate was taking place. When I heard that statement, I remembered the time I was last here for a debate, if my memory serves me correctly, on the Criminal Procedure Bill 2009 in which we provided for a maximum sentence of five years for a particular offence and the Senator proposed a longer sentence of ten years. When we had a debate in the House, the Senator——

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik On a point of order, it was a minor offence and I think there was a difference of three months in the sentences proposed.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern I thought it was years, but the Senator may be correct. She took my point that the more we in the Oireachtas reacted to events — prompted by the media in some cases when the first thing we do is rush into both Houses to state we need longer sentences — the more we put pressure on the prison estate. In 1977 the average length of time served by prisoner handed down a life sentence was seven and a half years, whereas today it is somewhere in the region of 17 years. We are passing legislation to provide for longer sentences, which means prisoners are staying longer in prison and there is not a continuous throughput in the way we would like. Given, as I stated, that we cannot put up “No vacancy” signs and the Irish Prison Service must accept everyone and the clear facts which are not acknowledged by anyone in either the media or the Opposition that the Government has invested heavily to put gardaí on the streets by increasing garda numbers from approximately 10,500 in 1997 to 14,600 today and has spent €250 million on new, extended and renovated courthouses and another €250 million in the past ten years on new, improved and renovated Garda stations, it is the case that in recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the numbers being sent to prison, virtually all of them for serious offences.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik On a point of order, the record of the House will show that I sought to withdraw the amendment referred to as it had appeared on the list of amendments by mistake.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern I meant to say that.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik The Minister had already accepted it and it had become a Government amendment.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern My recollection is that the Senator withdrew her amendment and left the sentence as it was. I am sorry for honing in on her, but I thought some of the points made in her statement were a little ironic. Recently Deputy Ruairí Quinn stated there should be internment for gangland crime.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I do not recall him saying that.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern He did. I can find the reference for the Senator afterwards. When I see a statement from her criticising the Government on the issue of prison spaces and then see a leading member of her party who should know better proposing internment without trial for gangland members, I wonder where would we find the prison spaces for all those we would round up without trial.

[428]Senator Eugene Regan: Information on Eugene Regan Zoom on Eugene Regan We would not want gangland criminals to be rounded up; that would be terrible.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern Perhaps Labour Party Members should speak to each other before they criticise the Government for not having a strategy. I deny completely that we do not have a strategy. I have stated previously that we are dramatically increasing the number of modern prison spaces available and that we are making legislative changes to stop people being placed in prison who should not be there in the first place. I will not, therefore, accept any criticism. I suggest to the Labour Party that it should get its act together and that perhaps its members should communicate with each other in order that the Senator will know exactly what its policy is on sentencing and prisons.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik It is flattering that the Labour Party is receiving so much attention from the Minister.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern I read the Senator’s statements.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I am glad to hear it.

Deputy Dermot Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern Like her party leader, she wants to have it every way.

Senator Eugene Regan: Information on Eugene Regan Zoom on Eugene Regan I thank the Minister for his comprehensive statement on overcrowding in our prisons. He paints a rosy picture. It is one of utopia in which everything is okay, the Government has done everything necessary and there is no basis for any criticism by or observations from the Opposition. However, the Minister does have a case to answer. What he has outlined is as convincing as the statements of the Minister for Finance on the economy, that everything is under control in dealing with the banking crisis and the public finances. The reality is that the record of the Minister is dismal. There is still massive overcrowding in the prisons, as highlighted by the recent disturbance in Mountjoy Prison. Therefore, the Minister is on his own in saying it had nothing to do with prison numbers, practices such as slopping out and low standards in the prison which, to my mind, amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.

The Minister has stated there were 677 prison inmates, yet the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, to whom the Minister did not refer in this regard, stated in his report of last July that, on examination of the duties and obligations owed to prisoners, in the case of Mountjoy Prison there were no factors that could be accepted by any reasonable person in suggesting the prison could accommodate in excess of 540 prisoners.

On the Thornton Hall project which has been an unmitigated disaster from the beginning——

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik Hear, hear.

Senator Eugene Regan: Information on Eugene Regan Zoom on Eugene Regan ——in respect of which there was no proper planning——

Senator Mary M. White: Information on Mary M. White Zoom on Mary M. White It is not the Minister’s fault.

Senator Eugene Regan: Information on Eugene Regan Zoom on Eugene Regan ——and a rush to acquire a site when various other locations within existing prisons could have been availed of, the inspector states he is conscious that the intention is that the new prison will replace Mountjoy Prison and that it might be considered understandable that in the interim little has been done at Mountjoy Prison, but this cannot be taken as an excuse for denying prisoners their basic human rights pending the building of the new prison.

[429]An important point with regard to standards in Mountjoy Prison and other prisons such as Cork Prison concerns the practice of slopping out. The Minister throws out figures, but this is not good enough or acceptable. He knows we are at risk, as the Inspector of Prisons points out, of litigation in this regard not only in the Irish courts but also in the international arena.

The Minister referred to drugs and mobile phones in prisons. Again, there is no control. He also referred to gangland crime. The priority of any sane prison, sentencing and justice policy should be to ensure those guilty of the most serious crimes are prosecuted and committed, where appropriate. However, we have a situation — the Minister knows this, although he never admits it — where gangland crime is out of control. He referred to the Fines Act and has made various excuses as to why it has not been commenced. The fact is that we sentence people for minor crimes and they are clogging up the prisons, while we fail to imprison the serious gangland crime perpetrators, despite a series of rushed legislative measures last year which the Minister stated were imperative because he wanted to round them up before the end of the summer.

I will refer to a number of points made in the Minister’s statement. He gave figures for the numbers in prison — 3,881 in 2009. However, the report of the Inspector of Prisons issued in July stated there were 4,478 people in our prisons. The Minister has mentioned it is misleading to suggest problems can be solved overnight by the greater use of alternatives to custody. However, no one is suggesting they can be solved overnight. On numerous occasions in his report the Inspector of Prisons points out that one does not expect the problems of overcrowding and low standards in our prisons to be solved overnight. However, the appropriate policies need to be adjusted.

The Minister went on to state he would turn to the issue of prison overcrowding. However, he did not address it; rather, he spoke about the rates of imprisonment, which is a different question altogether. He avoided the very issue we are here today to address. He referred to the priorities of previous Governments. What are the priorities of the Government? He mentioned the new criminal courts complex built on Parkgate Street. What are the priorities if one compares standards in our prisons, the need for prison spaces and proper facilities in prisons with the extraordinary expenditure on the new criminal courts complex?

The Minister has stated releasing serious offenders onto the streets is not an option. Here, once again, he picks up on an argument that has never been made. Who suggests such a thing? What has been suggested is that we should look at the overall prison population, its composition and whether the system can contain and accommodate such numbers with standards that comply with constitutional principles and our international obligations.

With regard to activities for prisoners, the Minister spoke about a wide range of training workshops operating in the institutions and listed some activities. However, again, he made no reference to the report of the Inspector of Prisons which stated:

In prisons where workshops and educational facilities are provided it should be assumed that relevant structured activities are available for all prisoners in such prisons. This is not always the de facto position as such facilities may not be operating to their capacity or may not be operating at all. An example of the latter can be found in Portlaoise Prison where new workshops, finished to the highest standard, have been built in the new C wing. Apart from two, these workshops have not been commissioned.

The inspector went on to state, “Having regard to the matters outlined in this chapter I have concluded that relevant structured activity should be available for all prisoners wishing to avail of such activities for a minimum of five hours each day for five days a week”. The standards and overcrowding in our prisons and the problems they create in terms of the ability of prisoners to [430]avail of proper facilities, have reasonable standards of accommodation and leave open the prospect of rehabilitation and not reoffending when they are released from prison are matters the Minister has not addressed.

To return to the Thornton Hall project, the reality is that the Minister has suspended many projects, particularly with regard to Mountjoy Prison, because it all depends on the Thornton Hall project providing a panacea for the problems of overcrowding and standards in our prisons. However, this is so far from reality — notwithstanding the Minister’s statement today — that it does not exonerate the Government in dealing with the current crisis in Mountjoy Prison as highlighted by the recent disturbance.

The Minister is a late convert to the idea of community service as an alternative to handing down prison sentences for minor crimes. However, again, we are waiting and all we have is promised legislation. The Fines Act, to which I referred, was signed into law at the end of May but has not yet been commenced and no good reason has been provided as to why this is the case.

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To return to the report of the Inspector of Prisons, what he states is that all prisons must satisfy three criteria, namely, appropriate accommodation, adequate services and regimes, and prison safety. The prison population must be reduced to the point at which all three conditions are satisfied. This seems to be a good starting point. The inspector states a policy needs to be adopted at Government level to limit prison numbers and strive to keep the population below a level at which these basic standards can be adhered to. In many ways, this is a self-evident proposition, but instead we have the ad hoc approach adopted by the Government, with serious overcrowding which is detrimental to the standards applied to prisoners, the possibility of their being properly accommodated and the provision of opportunities to avail of education and rehabilitation.

The inspector makes the very good point in his report which I welcome, that he has received total co-operation from the Irish Prison Service and management in all prisons. They have been open to suggestions to deal with the issues he has raised and highlighted in his reports. He calls for a two-pronged approach encompassing the stabilisation of the prison population and a building and refurbishment programme to meet our obligations as set out in the report. This is the way forward. The Minister alluded to a two-pronged approach, but I do not think it is the same approach suggested by the inspector.

We have the Fines Act and a commitment from the Minister on the need for community service legislation. We have to look afresh at the sentencing policies which are propagated by the Oireachtas, especially with regard to sentences imposed by the District Court as distinct from sentences imposed by a higher court. Perhaps the parole system needs to be put on a mandatory basis in order that early release or non-committal for minor offences can be accommodated.

The two-pronged approach suggested by the Inspector of Prisons is the way forward in light of the standards the State is obliged to effect in its prisons. The sentencing policy such as the community service alternative to committal for minor offences is very important. When the Minister has the time, I suggest the commencement of the Fines Act would be a good start to minimise committals to prisons.

Senator Denis O’Donovan: Information on Dennis O'Donovan Zoom on Dennis O'Donovan I welcome the Minister to the House and this debate on prisons in general. I have been a Member of the House for 17 years and in the period 1994 to 1997, the coalition Government made a decision to cancel all capital expenditure on prisons, the [431]effect of which was to leave the incoming Government in 1997 playing catch-up in the provision of prison spaces and prison development. This is a matter of record.

This debate on prisons should be placed in context. I acknowledge there are difficulties in the system. I refer in particular to Mountjoy Prison, its capacity and its physical and other failings. Our prison system should be placed in an international context. I have visited prisons in America, Asia and the southern hemisphere and prison facilities in this country are well ahead of the average prison in Europe and throughout the world. I dealt with the case of a European national who served some time as a remand prisoner in one of the southern states of the United States and who was released without charge after 14 months. He was an elderly gentleman from a European country and the story of his incarceration was frightening as he described the experience of being locked up and the lack of facilities. Prisoners are much better treated in this country. I refer to the statistics from Belgium, France, Italy and Spain which show that Ireland is well ahead of the United Kingdom in terms of the provision of prison spaces and in terms of the number of prisoners per head of population.

A substantial number of prison spaces have been provided since 1997 when the Fianna Fáil-led Government came into office but there may not be sufficient spaces to meet current needs. There has been a tendency to imprison people and to create statistical difficulties by incarcerating people for minor offences. I welcome recent legislation which provides that committal to prison will be a last resort.

I have some questions for the Minister. Is it possible to entirely stamp out the supply of drugs within prisons? I welcome the recent installation of security nets and the general improvement in security measures in Mountjoy Prison in particular. I was deeply concerned when I visited Mountjoy Prison in my capacity as a solicitor on three or four occasions and as a member of the visiting committee. I noted the availability of drugs and mobile phones within the prison and this was of great concern to me. I also visited the Midlands Prison a few years ago. I commend the significant measures introduced by the Irish Prison Service to ensure drugs are not brought into the prisons and that mobile phones are not freely available to inmates.

Putting people into prison for minor offences such as non-payment of civil debts and small fines is inappropriate. I am pleased we are moving away from this practice and the Minister is pursuing a policy to ensure this will be the exception rather than the rule. From my knowledge of the District and Circuit courts, it used to be the practice that people would be committed for 14 to 28 days for the non-payment of relatively minor fines. This involved the cost and logistics of conveying them from west Cork to Limerick or Cork Prison only for them to be released a matter of days later.

I raised the following matter in previous debates in the House. I was very concerned at the lack of counselling and psychotherapy services available to prisoners. My interest stemmed from a chance meeting with a clinical psychologist who worked in a prison. He outlined to me that his work was very limited in the prison as he only attended one day a week for three or four hours. He acknowledged that such treatment is not appropriate for all prisoners but others welcomed it and he believed it had a very positive effect on their rehabilitation. We have a duty as a society to ensure rehabilitation of prisoners takes place. Treatment is essential and should be provided for those with drug or alcohol addictions or for those suffering from mental disorders such as depression. I represented a person both in the District Court and on appeal. It was obvious to me within an hour of taking instructions from him that he had suffered from abuse as a young lad. He was very depressed and turned to alcohol as a crutch. Committing him to prison was probably not the best idea but he had committed a crime and was convicted. Before he was taken away he begged me to help him as he was a young man and he wanted [432]to get his life in order. He was sentenced to seven years and this would not help his rehabilitation. The provision of psychologists and other experts for prisoners should be considered.

I recall an incident, probably 25 years ago, if not more, involving three or four individuals. A fisheries officer boarded a small fishing vessel. A row broke out and the fisheries officer got a belt of a gaff, which is like a stick for hauling pots. The case of one of the men, who I believe never should have gone to prison, was handled badly. He was not a criminal but was just on a boat when a row developed and his participation in it was minimal. When I asked him how he got on in prison, he said he was told how to rob and break into cars, how to rob a till if a barman or shopkeeper had his or her back turned and how to lift televisions and so on. He was amazed that was what he learned in prison. That was a long time ago but people who do not have a criminal background are sent to prison for relatively minor crimes and are incarcerated with prisoners who are career criminals and they do not come out rehabilitated. Fortunately, the man about whom I spoke is alive and well and was in no way contaminated by his three-month stay in prison.

What was the running cost of our prisons in 2008 or 2009 compared with 1996? What does it cost the taxpayers to keep a prisoner in prison for a year? We should be mindful of costs due to the recession.

From my knowledge of and practice in the legal profession, the use of the probation of offenders legislation has worked very well. I compliment the work of juvenile liaison officers in ensuring young people at the periphery of crime are taken aside and given a proverbial kick up the backside. From my knowledge of how they work with local gardaí, they have a huge success rate with young lads who might have committed relatively minor offences.

Could community employment schemes be used in some way in tandem with community service orders? Such orders are great but they must be extended. Could people who do community service for no pay be in some way integrated into a community employment scheme? In my neck of the woods in west Cork, they would be involved in maintaining waymarked ways, hill walks, playgrounds and so on. They could get involved in the community and do some productive work.

I welcome the debate on this very important issue and acknowledge the major steps which have been taken not only by this Government but by Governments since 1997 in the provision of prison places and legislation to improve the lot not only of prisoners but of people who should not be in prison and who are dealt with by the probation of offenders legislation or by community service orders and so on. Significant strides have occurred in the past 13 years since I was elected to this House in 1997.

Senator Feargal Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn Zoom on Fergal Quinn I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews. The Minister for Justice and Law Reform’s contribution was very interesting and I learned much from it. He said 1,900 new prison places had been created in recent years. I saw a television programme the other night called “Bad Fellas”. Afterwards, I spoke to a former Garda Commissioner who updated me on some of the figures. The figures jolted me in that back in the 1950s and 1960s, there was almost no crime. In one year, there were four murders, none of which involved guns. The way the situation has changed in recent years is quite dramatic and, therefore, I understand the need for more prison places and the fact we do not have enough.

I welcome this debate which is timely because we need to examine how we implement new ways of administering justice given the state of our prisons. I was struck by the description by the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, to whom Senator Regan referred, of the chaotic slopping out of cells each morning in Limerick and Mountjoy Prisons where up to three people share cells designed for one person.

[433]In July, Limerick’s male prison held 75% more prisoners than it was designed to hold and the Dóchas women’s prison in Dublin held almost twice the number it was designed to hold. It is fair to say that conditions in overcrowded prisons have the ability to torment inmates with noise, violence and the lack of any semblance of privacy or breathing room, and greatly reduce the capacity to rehabilitate offenders. We need to place that higher on the agenda than we have in the past. It is difficult to believe this inspection of prisons found there is no clear policy to deal with the issues of overcrowding, drug use and the reporting of deaths in prison. Overcrowding was highlighted as by far the biggest problem.

In 1994, on the first occasion I spoke on prisons — I had just been elected to the House the year before — I said there were reasons for prisons, namely, to deter people from criminal activity, to protect society, to administer punishment and to rehabilitate the offender, although not necessarily in that order. It is a very difficult task to cover all those areas. There is an argument to be made that overcrowded prisons cannot rehabilitate. Overcrowding does not give the inmate the proper chance to reflect. Owing to the conditions in the prison, it may make them think of themselves more as victims than perpetrators.

Work is being done and it was interesting to hear the Minister talk about it. I was chairman of an education committee which visited Wheatfield Prison some years ago. I am ashamed to say it was the only time I was in a prison and I really must learn a little more about them. I was impressed by the amount of work being done on education and training. Work is being done, about which the Minister spoke; therefore we must not paint everything with the same brush and say it is not possible to educate. Senator O’Donovan spoke about a man he knew who went into prison but who was educated on how to break into houses and steal cars. There is a difficulty in terms of how we handle this.

One of the areas we should debate urgently is the early release of certain prisoners due to limited space. I was impressed by the case of an American, about whom I read, who was given a 27-month sentence, plus 1,500 hours of community service and a $400,000 fine. He was deemed a non-violent criminal. What was interesting was that he was instructed that his 27-month sentence could be served at home. Such criminals are supervised at home which includes testing them for drugs, including alcohol. Not only does this make more room in the prisons, it also saves money. Some criminologists believe that if criminals saw a clear distinction between the sentences violent and non-violent criminals receive, they might make less violent behaviour choices. I do not believe we have taken that into account in our sentencing.

Could we use some of the NAMA apartment blocks to house some prisoners based on the open-type Scandinavian model which would see prisoners moved from overcrowded prisons to empty housing estates and being supervised in making the transition back to normal society? Senator O’Donovan’s story of the man who went to prison and ended up being taught more about how to commit crime is a reminder that we must rehabilitate in some form or another. Could the Government consider using some empty apartment blocks or houses in the way I describe to alleviate some of the pressure on the prison service? This proposal is also related to the use of electronic tagging. The Minister said an experiment on testing it is being carried out involving 20 people and that the Government will examine its use here. The measure has allowed other countries to reduce dramatically their prison populations. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that some steps have been taken in this respect and that the Government is examining this option, but what is holding us back from progressing in this area? We have been talking about this measure for many years and it has been in place in other countries for many years, yet the Minister said it does not seem to work and a very limited test of its use is being carried out.

[434]Should we seek to use some of the money saved from imprisoning people on therapy and counselling services and on investing in the work of probation and welfare officers? It is in society’s interest to help offenders to cope. Every prisoner the prison service is able to keep on the straight and narrow is a saving in money terms and a protection for society. We must bear in mind the effect of media pressure on imprisonment and overcrowding. Tabloid newspapers unjustly highlight and hound judges who they deem to pass, or even seek to justify, lenient sentences. Due to the fact that most people’s experience of the criminal justice system is quite limited — certainly it is in my case — such coverage strongly influences the public mood and some say it even influences the way judges make decisions.

Perhaps we should also consider more the option of community service — we have taken the first steps in that direction — when it comes to sentencing instead of locking people up. We must also examine ways of speeding up trials instead of letting people linger in prison. Many other options are open when it comes to addressing overcrowding. Given the current inadequate conditions in place in many prisons and taking into account the finances of the State, we must consider some of the alternatives without delay.

We cannot solve the problem of crime but we can solve the problem of overcrowding in prisons. We need to find and guide those who can best benefit from supervised releases.

I was pleased to hear, although I know others would not agree with me, that the Thornton Hall project is to go ahead. There is huge disagreement on this but at least a step is being taken. The project will take some time to complete. If we are to achieve what we set out to achieve, we must make sure we have a better prison service than we have had in the past.

The Minister’s contribution was interesting, particularly regarding the number of prisoners imprisoned. If those figures are, as I understood the Minister to indicate, much lower than other countries, the problem is not as big as I thought it was compared to others. However, it is still a big problem and a difficulty.

There is a big fuss in Britain because European regulations have insisted that prisoners must have a vote. We have passed such legislation some time back. The Minister might remind us of the position on that. This issue is a big fuss in Britain because the British do not like being told what to do by Brussels. I am pleased to think that at least we have a system in operation, to the best of my knowledge, that enables our prisoners to have a vote and be full citizens.

I am delighted Senator Bacik sought this debate. It has been useful. It forces us to give our attention to a topic that has not got the attention it deserved over the years. Senator Bacik has sought this debate on a regular basis for some time. I am pleased the Minister came into the House and gave us almost a full hour of information on this area which I found very educational. I welcome the debate. It will help to influence the decisions the State makes in addressing this serious challenge.

Senator Mary M. White: Information on Mary M. White Zoom on Mary M. White I welcome the Minister. The question of prison and our policy on imprisonment is a societal one. It feeds into our view of prison as a primary tool in reforming people or punishing people. It is a societal question because there are financial costs involved. According the Irish Prison Service’s annual report, the average annual cost of providing a prison space in 2009 was €77,000 and there are the non-financial implications for family and community structures.

Progress is being made on the issue of our prisons but I draw attention to specific issues. The first issue is alternatives to prison. Imprisonment, as far as possible, should be a criminal sanction; however, I understand that in certain instances and in particularly grave situations it should be a resort of the civil law procedure.

[435]I compliment the Minister, his staff and in particular the Probation Service on a comprehensive analysis on the operation and effectiveness of the community service scheme. In its 2009 annual report, and the report entitled Value for Money and Policy Review of the Community Services Scheme, the authors set out clearly the advantages of community service as an alternative to imprisonment. These include the ability of offenders to remain in work or education, to remain within the family unit and the community, to learn basic skills and to deliver reparation for the offence. The community also benefits from the work that would otherwise not be done.

The existing scheme operating at full capacity could provide supervision services to three times as many offenders. It is currently operating at only 33% of its potential. Community service schemes cost appropriately 15.6% of the cost of imprisonment on a full cost basis.

Last night at our pre-budget meeting the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, stated he would push forward the issue of community service for offences, which is a relief and, thankfully, he will do that.

On the issue of imprisoning debtors, we got a comprehensive response from the Minister. The Fines Act 2010, passed at the end of May, provides for an innovative, balanced and more humane approach to the determination and collection of fines. The Minister has promised us that this Act will be implemented with effect from January next year. That is definite progress.

Every person in Ireland is conscious of the terrible conditions in our prisons, of which we hear constant reports. There is no defence. The Irish Penal Reform Trust in its briefing on overcrowding in prisons states the following:

Overcrowding is an exacerbating factor for other systematic problems such as poor cell conditions, poor regimes (limited education and meaningful activity among others) and inter-prisoner tension and violence. The State has a duty to provide safe and humane custody for all prisoners.

This is all the more apparent when we recall recent rioting in Mountjoy Prison. The Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, pointed out that there were 316 prisoners in Cork Prison on 23 July last but it has only capacity for 194. He said numbers in Castlerea Prison should be kept at 300 but had 414, while Wheatfield should have 378 but had 470. He said Dóchas women’s prison had 107 in rooms designed for 78. We have had the controversial resignation of Kathleen McMahon, the former governor of the women’s prison, and the pre-emptive retirement of John Lonergan. He appeared on “Tonight with Vincent Browne” last night and gave an extensive interview. I am still not fully informed of what has been happening, what has been attempted and what has not been achieved.

I have visited the Midlands Prison to defend the human rights of prisoners. I have also visited St. Patrick’s Institution on a formal basis and learned of the activities young people are engaged in every day. The tragedy of St. Patrick’s Institution is that almost 90% of the young men I met there came from gangland families. I do not know how young people from gangland families, especially those from Limerick, will be able to escape the vicious circle into which they have been born. While staff of the Irish Prison Service are doing their best in St. Patrick’s Institution, it is morally wrong that children are being imprisoned in the facility alongside adult prisoners. I am disappointed that, according to the most recent information, it has been decided not to proceed with the project to replace the institution with a new facility in Lusk.

I am sure 99% of prisoners come from families that are less well off and do not have access to top barristers to get them out of their predicament. Tragically in this country, people are not sent to prison for white collar crime. This is in stark contrast to people born into socially and economically disadvantaged families who are imprisoned.

[436]I have no doubt the Minister is doing his best and I hope he does not take personally my view that he was excessively optimistic and defensive about the current system. I remain opposed to replacing Mountjoy Prison with a new facility at Thornton Hall. A new prison should have been provided on the existing site. I also opposed the decision to relocate the Central Mental Hospital to Thornton Hall. Given that most of those in prison are less well-off, the requirement to travel some distance to the Thornton Hall site will create additional costs and cause greater inconvenience for prisoners’ families. The move is not a positive one, whereas the reform of the Fines Act is a civilised and positive measure. I look forward to Senator Bacik’s contribution.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I welcome this debate for which I, Senator Cummins and others have called for some time. It is important the House debates overcrowding in the prison system, although I hope the focus of this debate will continue to extend beyond overcrowding and into more general areas of prison policy. I am pleased many colleagues spoke about issues other than the important issue of overcrowding.

I listened attentively and with increasing incredulity to the Minister. Like Senator Regan, I was stunned to hear his rosy, almost utopian vision of Irish prisons which is 1 million miles removed from reality. Even if one does not go into the prisons to observe the reality, the Minister’s vision is also far removed from the reports about prisons which have been produced in recent years, as it is from the experience of prisoners and those working in the prisons.

It is important that we highlight the difficulties and problems facing the prison system. The starting point is to tackle the Minister’s point that the Government has a strategy. To be fair to him, the problem with the system has been around for much longer than the current Minister. That Ireland does not have a coherent or consistent approach to imprisonment, sentencing or penal policy generally is the fault of the Executive and Legislature.

It is laughable for the Minister to claim the current Government has a policy. Its prison policy can be summed up in two ways. The first aspect of its approach is to throw legislation at problems. The result has been a large amount of rushed and problematic criminal justice legislation in recent times. I have described some of it as “July” legislation reflecting the fact that it was rushed through at the end of a parliamentary session when there is little prospect of thoughtful debate or amendments. This rushed legislation is creating problems in prosecuting offences in the courts. That is the first aspect of Government policy, such as it is.

The second feature of Government prison policy is to throw more prison places at the problem. This is not a real solution. The Minister referred to 700 new prison places coming on stream, including 170 places he recently opened in Wheatfield Prison. The Minister’s figure does not include the supermax prison, as such prisons are known, in Thornton Hall, although it is not certain that project will ever be completed. It is disappointing that the Minister is throwing more prison places at a problem without questioning the reason so many people are being sent to prison or studying in any depth the types of offences for which people are being sent to prison or whether alternatives are available.

I strongly welcome the Minister’s assertion that we need to focus on community-based sanctions. I am also pleased to note he is introducing legislation requiring greater consideration to be given to the application of community service orders. While all Senators on this side welcome the Fines Act, which will result in less imprisonment of fine defaulters, it is disappointing that the legislation has not yet been commenced.

Welcome as they are, none of the initiatives to which I referred amounts to a coherent prison policy. I am not making a standard political attack, as one would expect from a member of the Opposition. The argument that we do not have a coherent prison policy has been made consist[437]ently by many commentators who do not have a political axe to grind, including the Irish Penal Reform Trust, academic commentators on prisons and, most recently and very powerfully, the former governor of Mountjoy Prison, Mr. John Lonergan, about whom Senator Mary White spoke. Tribute must be paid to Mr. Lonergan for making such a powerful critique of the prison system, for his reform proposals and for the humane manner in which he tried to improve conditions.

Notwithstanding the particular difficulty of seeking innovations in prison policy in recessionary times, the recession also presents us with an opportunity. For example, the Irish Penal Reform Trust has pointed out that penal reform is under the spotlight in Britain precisely because of budget cuts. The UK minister for justice, Mr. Ken Clarke, has proposed to reduce the prison population by a combination of legislative and policy initiatives. This is a progressive consequence of the need to make cutbacks in the prison budget. One of the precedents for Mr. Clarke’s move was set in Canada where, in the 1990s, the government reduced public expenditure on prisons by 20% and the prison population by 11%. It also addressed the unnecessary use of custody and invested in community interventions. These steps had a progressive effect on penal policy generally which now has an increased focus on rehabilitation and the prevention of re-offending. Such a focus is lacking in our system.

I do not wish to sound as if I am being soft on crime. I accept, as all Senators do, that prison must remain a reality for serious offenders, particularly those who commit offences against the person. Nevertheless, we must also be aware that many people are serving time unnecessarily for minor offences, including the non-payment of fines, or offences for which community-based sanctions offer a better prospect of rehabilitation. In terms of the needs of victims, which we must always remember, it is vital that we invest more in rehabilitation and the prevention of reoffending.

I propose to refer to some of the figures cited by the Minister in support of his case that we have a utopian prison system. The Minister focused on the number of persons in prison on any one day. Clearly, it is important to consider the detention rate, which has increased significantly in recent years. Currently, approximately 4,500 people are in prison on any one day. The figure has increased significantly since the mid-1980s when we had a peak in the crime rate and the Whitaker committee, despite the high crime rate, recommended we cap the number of prison places at 1,500.

In 2005, slightly more than 3,000 persons were in prison on any one day, yet a mere four years later the figure stands at 4,500 and continues to rise. Moreover, the new prison places coming on stream will further increase the detention rate. The figure cited by the Minister was low because it was based on 2008 data. On any one day, the detention rate now stands at between 93 and 101 persons per 100,000 of the population. This is much higher than the figure cited by the Minister. King’s College recently estimated Ireland’s detention rate to be 101 per 100,000 of the population. That alone misses the much higher rate of committals in our system and the Minister did not talk about this. The Irish Prison Service report for 2009 shows that the committal rate represents the number of committals to prison in any one year. That is a far higher rate than the rate of detention and it is because so many prisoners are in prison for such a short period that although on any one day one might have relatively low numbers proportionately, we are committing much larger numbers. A total of 15,425 committals to prison were made in 2009, which was an increase of almost 14% on 2008, and the trend has been for year-on-year increases. Of those committals, almost one third, that is, 4,806 were committed for non-payment of fines. This was a massive increase on the numbers committed for non-payment of fines in 2008, which itself constituted an increase. While it is to be hoped this will change once the Fines Act is commenced, it is certainly of great concern.

[438]The Minister has pointed out that the numbers serving longer prison sentences have increased, which is true. So too have the numbers of persons committed under sentence of less than three months, and 5,750 of the aforementioned 15,000 committals in 2009 were committed for sentences of less than three months. Those are the people and committals that must be examined. If a person has been sentenced to less than three months, it is likely that he or she will be turned around through an overcrowded prison system in a matter of weeks or sometimes days. There is no prospect of rehabilitation and Senator O’Donovan noted that the only learning will be learning to commit more crime. There will be no real attempt to address the problems faced by many prisoners in respect of mental health, addiction, chronic poverty, unemployment and so on. There will be no attempt to address any rehabilitation aspects nor any attempts at treatment. The question must be asked whether we would be better served by changing our focus and by making imprisonment the sanction of last resort and by insisting instead that when considering sentences of such short duration, judges would consider non-custodial sanctions first. I am glad to note the Minister accepts this and proposes such legislation. There is also a financial imperative as, according to Irish Prison Service figures, it costs approximately €77,000 per annum to keep someone in prison for a year. The cost of an offender being placed under a community sanction is far less. While I do not have an up-to-date figure to hand — the Minister of State might provide one — I understand it is a much lower figure of approximately €2,000 per year.

The knock-on effect of providing more prison places or locking up increasing numbers of people without questioning the reason for it or whether any real public need for safety is being served by so doing has been serious overcrowding. I wish to focus on this point because the Minister again suggested this was not such a problem. Members know this is a problem and have seen the riots in Mountjoy Prison. Moreover, the recent Inspector of Prison’s report stated that Mountjoy is operating at a bed capacity of 573 with bunks in the cells. Mr. John Lonergan has pointed out that the worst thing he ever did was to suggest that bunks might be put in cells because it enabled the doubling up of prisoners, thereby resulting in less safety. Even with doubled-up cells, however, 660 to 680 prisoners routinely were kept in Mountjoy Prison through 2009 although structured activity is only possible for slightly more than 300 prisoners. The inspector himself recommended a maximum of 540 in the prison but clearly this number has been exceeded routinely and has led to real issues for the safety of prisoners and staff in the prison.

Slopping out is another factor about which the Minister spoke. There has been litigation on this practice recently that I believe will require the Government to change its procedure. It is appalling that in 2010, almost 30% of prisoners still must slop out. While the Minister stated that 72% of prison accommodation has in-cell sanitation, that means 28% of prisoners still slop out. This affects prisoners in Mountjoy, Cork and Limerick prisons and in his recent report, the Inspector of Prisons was trenchant in his criticism of the slopping out practice which he described as inhuman and degrading treatment. He suggested a highly practical cost-neutral solution, which was to operate a toilet patrol throughout the night. This already is being done in Mountjoy up to 9:30 p.m. and could be continued after that time, which would be a short-term solution.

Clearly there are more long-term solutions. As the Minister noted, Mountjoy Prison is Dickensian and it is clear some change is needed. The proposed prison at Thornton Hall is not the answer. If a new prison is to be built, consideration should be given to increasing the capacity of open prisons, which stands at only 6% of prison places. A far better approach would be to consider the redevelopment of Mountjoy Prison on-site. I note that plans for so doing were at an advanced stage under the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law [439]Reform, Deputy O’Donoghue. This point has been documented in Mr. John Lonergan’s book and has been known about by many Members. Has consideration being given to renewing those plans and redeveloping on-site and then using the Thornton Hall complex for other progressive innovation in prison policy?

I urge the Minister of State to consider a bolder and more progressive solution to developing a prison policy based on the idea that prison should be a sanction of last resort and that the focus should be on rehabilitation, prevention of reoffending and genuine initiatives such as the former Connect Programme, which had been rolled out across prisons with some success. Such a policy might be focused on trying to address serious reoffending issues within the prisons. There is a high rate of recidivism among the prison population, which constitutes a serious problem for victims and for society in general, and this is what should be addressed. Simply throwing more prison places or legislation at it is not the answer without a coherent policy based on greater use of community sanctions and less use of prison.


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