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Imprisonment should only be reserved for the most serious offences and for those offenders who present an ongoing risk to society. This is one of the core messages of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, and to that end, we have welcomed recent legislation which seeks to end the futile practice of imprisoning people for failure to pay court-ordered fines, by way of the Fines Act 2010 and, more recently, legislation aimed at decreasing the use of imprisonment for more minor offences by requiring judges to consider community service orders instead of custodial sentences.

Prison service: Issues

However neither of these measures addresses the more urgent issues of chronic overcrowding, slopping out, drugs and increasing inter-prisoner violence which combine to make prisons unsafe for prisoners and prison staff alike. In February 2009, the Inspector of Prisons was so concerned about overcrowding in Mountjoy prison that he raised it as a potential matter of life and death in a letter to then Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern. In his report for that year, the Inspector further pointed out that overcrowding in Cork Prison was proportionately worse, and he found conditions in Limerick Women’s Prison to be “inhuman”, with women prisoners regularly sleeping on floors. The Inspector concluded that many of the progressive initiatives taken by the Irish Prison Service in recent years were being frustrated by the chaotic overcrowding situation.

Little has improved since 2009. The most recent annual report for the Irish Prison Service (published August 2011) reveals an increase of 10 percent in the daily prison population on 2009 figures and a 15 percent rise in sentenced committals. There is a steady increase over the past 6 years from 5,088 sentenced committals in 2005 to 12,487 in 2010 – and the number of prisoners entering prison continues to rise in 2011.

Solutions

One thing is certain: building more cells will not solve the problem. The past 15 years have seen over 1,900 additional prison spaces built, but despite this huge expansion, overcrowding has worsened with little or no effect on rates of crime. Yet, in the face of this irrefutable reality, the previous Government put forward as a solution to overcrowding the building of a ‘super-prison’ which would accommodate 2,200 on an over-priced site in north County Dublin.

From the outset, IPRT has been opposed to the proposed panacea of Thornton Hall as a white elephant, one that not only demands major capital expenditure in a time of strained resources, but that further commits the Irish taxpayer to ongoing expenditure into the long term by way of the increase in prisoner capacity. IPRT believes that any new prison building to address poor prison conditions must be matched by a commitment to closing unsuitable prison accommodation. We have consistently raised our objections to the Thornton Hall project on the basis of size, location, security-levels, and plans to co-locate facilities for young offenders, women offenders, those detained under immigration law, and the Central Mental Hospital (as originally proposed.)

Thornton Hall review group

In May 2011, upon publication of another damning report by the Inspector of Prisons, the newly appointed Minister for Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter TD, announced the establishment of a project review group to examine the need for new prison accommodation and to advise whether work on Thornton Hall, on which more than €40m of taxpayers’ money had already been spent, should proceed. 

The final report of the Review Group on the Proposed Prison Project at Thornton Hall in July 2011, IPRT welcomed the group’s unequivocal message that overcrowding “will not be solved solely by building more prisons”. The group’s statement that the deplorable physical conditions and overcrowding levels in Cork and Mountjoy “expose the State to significant reputational, legal and financial risk” was also highly significant. Following years of scathing reports from the Council of Europe European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), as well as reviews by the Inspector of prisons and most recently the UN Committee against Torture’s concluding observations on Irish prison conditions, IPRT wholly agreed with the Review Group that “doing nothing” is not an option.

Concerns

The group’s emphasis on alternatives to custody, possible home detention and an incentivised early release scheme (including community service) is progressive. As part of a package of measures to reduce the prison population while ensuring public safety, IPRT has previously recommended incentivised early release as a way to reduce prison numbers in a safe and structured manner.

However, in recommending that a smaller development go ahead on the Thornton Hall site, which would accommodate up to 500 prisoners, along with a further 200 spaces in step-down facilities, with no commitment to close Mountjoy Prison in the short or medium term, the report recommendations still represent further prison expansion. 

Another issue of serious concern is the significant expansion already underway across the system, described in the report, to which IPRT is steadfastly opposed: current prison building projects will see the Midlands Prison increase its capacity to 916, while Wheatfield Prison now accommodates 700 prisoners.

We only have to look at the disastrous experience of the United States and Britain to see that increasing the size and numbers of our prisons only serves to increase the numbers of prisoners; it has no effect on lowering rates of crime, and it does not make society safer. The stark economic reality is that we cannot afford to build more prisons. What we need instead is an alternative view of how to tackle crime at its sources.

Coherent crime policy

In Ireland, we know that our prison population is made up in significant part by young people who slip through the cracks of our care system, our education system and our mental health services and who come largely from a small number of extremely poor urban communities where economic policies has failed. An economic analysis of crime would lead us to investing in those communities and services as the most prudent way to avoid the long-term costs of an inflated prison system.

What we need is a coherent crime policy, as recommended by the Review Group, which joins the dots between the need for prevention and early intervention strategies, principled sentencing policies, alternatives to custody (including gender-specific models for women) and meaningful reintegration supports. We also need better community policing, better services for young people, and better supports in dealing with alcohol and drug problems. 

Increasing the size of and numbers in our prisons cannot, and will not, reduce levels of crime. It will merely serve to increase prisoner numbers. We will always have prisons, but in a society that seeks to prevent social problems and build stronger communities, prison should only be used as a last resort, and resources should instead be directed towards early intervention and diversion, alternatives to custody, and ensuring the humane treatment of prisoners where imprisonment is deemed necessary.

Liam Herrick has been the Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) since November 2007. IPRT is Ireland’s leading non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of everyone in prison and the progressive reform of penal policy, with prison as a last resort. See: www.iprt.ie

This article first appeared in the October 2011 edition of the PAI monthly Journal. For more information on the Journal and how to subscribe, click here.