Two reports on the prison system published yesterday give rise to major concern.
The Annual Report of the Irish Prison Service reveals a prison population which is increasing steadily and significantly year on year, with the average daily prison population now at 3695. In 1960 this figure was 461. More shocking, however, are the statistics which disclose who we are sending to prison. 62% of all committals are for 6 months or less, while 87.5% of all committals are for non-violent offences, which figure rises to 93% in the case of female offenders. Last year, the number of sentences of less than 3 months handed down increased by 54%.
These figures must be placed in the context of a chronic overcrowding problem within our prisons. A much less publicised report of the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, was also released yesterday. Judge Reilly found, in an inspection of Mountjoy Prison on February 24 2009, that there were 660 men in custody. Even allowing for doubling up (in itself highly undesirable) the bed capacity of that prison is 573. What this means in practice is that prisoners sleep on mattresses placed on the floor, in cells which are not for the purposes of accommodation and in reception areas. Prisoners share cells without proper in cell sanitation facilities, which the Inspector has characterised as inhuman and degrading treatment. Cork prison has a design capacity for 168 but on February 13th 2009 was holding 308 prisoners.
Judge Reilly’s report outlined the impact which this overcrowding has on a daily basis. Such was Judge Reilly’s concern about Mountjoy that he wrote to the Department of Justice and the Irish Prison Service about the possibility of “possible serious injury or loss of life” which may result. Our ability to fulfil our obligations to vindicate the right to life under the Constitution and Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights is being compromised as a result.
Facilities are also placed under severe strain by such overcrowding. Effective planning for release is undermined, educational and training programmes are affected, staff are placed under additional pressure and the already limited ability to provide purposeful employment while in prison is reduced.
Such conditions combine to create increased tensions within the prisons, leading to violent incidents. The Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the Prison Chaplains have also expressed their concern about these matters.
This litany of problems could be a counsel of despair, however it is possible to change both the present and the future of our prison system.
While conditions need radical improvement, building more prison places, such as those proposed for Thornton Hall, is not the way to deal with overcrowding. Since 1997 we have added Castlerea, the Midlands Prison, the Dóchas Centre and Cloverhill to our penal estate. Overcrowding remains endemic and we continue to play catch up with prison population increases. Building more places only allows for the penal system to expand further.
Instead, we need to re-imagine our prison system, how we use punishment and how we use our resources to best effect.
Our prison population is characterised by a large number of people serving short sentences. In Scotland, legislation is currently being debated which will contain a presumption against any sentence of imprisonment for less than 6 months. Prison should become the exceptional alternative to community-based sanctions in these circumstances. The Fines Bill 2009 should also be implemented without delay to ensure those who cannot afford to pay fines (a growing number) do not go to prison.
Prison is expensive. We could do much better to reinvest some of the resources expended on the prison system in crime prevention at an early stage, social policy responses and within communities suffering from neglect and deprivation which research has shown most prisoners are drawn from.
While these are practical solutions, what is most sorely needed are the more intangible qualities of courage and vision amongst those whose decisions have led to the current state of the prison system. Imprisonment is inherently a matter of social, moral and political choices. The reports published yesterday demonstrate that those choices are now a matter of particular urgency.
The reports can be accessed here: www.irishprisons.ie; http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/Publications_prisons_and_probation