Overcrowding in Prisons: Statements (Resumed)

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 205 No. 7

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Senator Dan Boyle: Information on Dan Boyle Zoom on Dan Boyle On those grounds, may I cede the speaking slot to Senator McDonald? If that is in order, I will return to the debate on its resumption.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Pat Moylan Zoom on Pat Moylan That is fine.

Senator Lisa McDonald: Information on Lisa McDonald Zoom on Lisa McDonald I welcome the debate and congratulate and compliment Senator Bacik on consistently pushing for it for some time. It has been quite a challenge to arrange it and it is noteworthy that it has attracted such interest that there are more speakers than could be accommodated in the time allotted.

The net issue of overcrowding in prisons and the combination of the slopping out and doubling up in prison cells must be addressed. In general terms, when Ireland goes before the United Nations Human Rights Council next year, it will be questioned under the universal periodic review on its record in respect of human rights in its prisons. Ireland will be required to give an account on the standards of the human rights in its prisons and on the steps being taken to improve them. I am unsure whether the Minister stated the Government had a strategic plan but he certainly said he did and that he had given this issue much thought. Having listened to him speak during the debate on the Fines Act in particular, which I appreciate has yet to be commenced, it is clear he is committed to taking out of the prison system people convicted for petty crime and misdemeanours and is considering other ways of rehabilitation and of punishing people in a more appropriate way in order that the punishment fits the crime.

In itself, it is expected that this will reduce numbers in Mountjoy Prison by at least 5%. While I acknowledge that this will mean some overcrowding will persist in that particular prison, the economic hard times have had a severe impact. I recall the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, was in this Chamber when Members discussed the plans for Thornton Hall and how it was planned to build it in such a rapid manner. As this has been put on the back burner, Members must think outside the box and find other ways to alleviate the pressure on the prison service without being obliged to build such state-of-the-art prisons as were and are planned. While I do not doubt such plans still exist, at the same time one must now consider other ways. We might look at the model in England where harsher sentences were introduced in 2003. The public is crying out for harsher sentences. This is becoming more and more apparent since the Rebecca French case and since Larry Murphy, a serious offender, was released so rapidly. These cases have brought the issue into focus in the public’s mind. How can we ensure we deter people from committing the more serious crimes against the person while also having a criminal law code that affects the minds of people in order that they will not offend? That is a difficult balance to strike.

We must review our system of sentencing and how judges impose sentences on persons found guilty of crimes. We need to allow judges to consider the following: the need to deter a person from reoffending, the need to rehabilitate a person in order that he or she will not reoffend, whether the crime requires public or other retribution and how can we stop a person from reoffending, thereby preventing future crimes. A judge should be able to take all of these factors into consideration and decide on the main aim of the sentence. He or she must decide whether there is a risk of reoffending or if rehabilitation offers a better route. We do not give enough consideration to this formula in sentencing. If we had greater sentencing guidelines, it would follow that people would be given the prison sentence they deserve.

[441]Senator Quinn has suggested buildings controlled by NAMA should be used as low security prisons. That suggestion is worth following up. Could some NAMA buildings be used to house women prisoners, making Mountjoy Women’s Prison available for some of the minor offenders now in Mountjoy Prison? The Thornton Hall project will not be finished for some time, as we have a funding problem and must be realistic. Why not look at other options for removing people from the prison system and putting them in different places?

We need to review immediately the issue of slopping out. The judgment in the case of Mulligan v. the Governor of Portlaoise Prison declared that the practice was not a violation of the particular prisoner’s constitutional rights, but that is not to say the practice, in general, is not. Mr. Mulligan had a single cell and access to the exercise yard and spent many hours attending classes. However, there are many prisoners in Mountjoy Prison who might succeed if they were to take a similar action. That door is open and leaves scope for further cases to be taken. Given that Ireland is the only country in western Europe where slopping out is still practised, it is only a matter of time before someone takes such an action. There must be sentencing options for judges, allowing people to be incarcerated for the more serious offences and a sliding scale of punishments.

What the Minister said about community courts was interesting. There is a need for community sanctions and I look forward to seeing how the pilot scheme planned by the Dublin City Council joint policing committee will work. Community courts would establish a more humane approach to dealing with offenders with drug or alcohol related problems, for example. The economic recession should not deter us from dealing with the issue. It would not cost an arm and a leg to sort out some of the prison issues. How much do visiting committees cost, for example, and are they needed in their current form? Do we need county councillors or political appointees on such committees? There are enough philanthropists and interested persons in society to allow the committees to be placed on a different footing and the system to be changed. Members of the committees are paid considerable mileage expenses. Could the committees be re-established in a different format in order that they would not cost so much but do the job equally well?

I welcome much of what the Minister said and some of the criticisms of him were unfair. He is committed to taking civil debtors and those guilty of the non-payment of fines out of the prison system. We do not have hundreds and thousands of such persons in our prisons. They constitute 0.2% of all prisoners. Therefore, let us keep the matter in balance.

We must examine the issue of juvenile detention, seek methods of rehabilitation and try to stop people from offending in the first place. Let us be realistic and acknowledge the fact that crime rates are going up because we are in a recession. The more heinous crimes, including drug-related crimes, are on the increase. This also has much to do with the fact that the Garda is securing more convictions, on which it must be complimented. It would be much worse if we had empty prisons and people offending on the streets.

Let us keep the matter in balance. Most of those in jail are there for a reason. Society wants people to be punished for taking away the liberty of others and committing heinous crimes. However, Senator Bacik is correct. We need to balance how we punish people for lesser offences.

Senator Maurice Cummins: Information on Maurice Cummins Zoom on Maurice Cummins We have been waiting a number of months for a debate on prisons. This debate is confined to the issue of overcrowding, but I do not intend to confine my remarks to that matter. We should also be discussing the reports submitted by the Inspector of Prisons, including that on the use of special cells in Irish prisons and the one entitled The Irish Prison Population — An Examination of Duties and Obligations Owed to Prisoners. We must compliment the inspector, Judge Reilly, on the forthright and clear manner in which he has outlined his reports. When we see the work undertaken by him and his visits to various [442]prisons both day and night, it is clear that we owe him a debt of gratitude for the excellent job he is doing which needs to be acknowledged in the Seanad.

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

Senator Maurice Cummins: Information on Maurice Cummins Zoom on Maurice Cummins The figures have been mentioned by other speakers. In his 2008 report Judge Reilly indicated that there were 3,926 people imprisoned in that year. On 29 July this year the figure had risen to 4,473, which does not include prisoners on temporary release.

The rate of imprisonment is 93 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants compared with 80 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants in 2000.

I listened with interest to the Minister’s lengthy speech. Informative as it was, he should have read the last paragraph of the report of the Inspector of Prisons which states: “It would be wrong if this report was to be used as a vehicle for hysterical outbursts, irrational debate or point scoring”. It would be beyond the Minister to have a debate without engaging in political point-scoring; that is what he indulged in for quite an amount of his speech which is par for the course for him.

The Inspector of Prisons sets out a roadmap for immediate action and minimum standards and safe custody limits for each of the 14 prisons. Aspects that receive particular attention include slopping out, multi-occupancy cells, overcrowding, with particular emphasis on the Dóchas Centre and the Limerick female prison, and the need for refurbishment across the prison estate. Critically, the inspector cites overcrowding as a key issue behind the increase in violence which he describes as endemic in Mountjoy Prison.

Sitting suspended at 2 p.m. and resumed at 3.15 p.m.

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