A crossroads in penal policy

Reimagining our prison system requires political courage

The resignation of Kathleen McMahon from her position as Governor of the Dóchas Centre, the largest female prison in the state, provides further evidence that Irish prison policy is not working and the situation in our prisons is reaching crisis point. It has become increasingly apparent that our prison system is dangerously overcrowded and that many of those in prisons need not be dealt with in such a manner. Successive reports from a variety of bodies, including the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, have issued stark warnings to the Irish Prison Service and policy-makers alike, yet the response thus far by those in a position to take action to remedy this situation has been slow, illusory and stale. Ms McMahon’s resignation – a courageous stand against a shambolic system rarely seen within Irish public administration – has again thrown the problems within the prison system into sharp relief. Until this kind of brave action, straight-talking and clear understanding of how to improve our prison system is evident amongst those with political responsibility for the prisons, we are unlikely to see any real progress.

Standing at 4,164 (with a further 500 prisoners at least on temporary release) our prison population has increased substantially over the last 30 years and we now have the highest numbers in our prisons since the foundation of the State. In 1960 the average number of prisoners on any given day was 461.

The design capacity of our prison system is 3,947. However, any good prison governor could tell you that the numbers of people in prison should operate at much lower figures. Operating at close to or over design capacity is itself dangerous. It also means, as Ms McMahon has pointed out, that any attempts at rehabilitation are seriously undermined in a prison in which simply finding space to sleep is a daily challenge. Health services are also completely overstretched. With very high incidences of mental health problems reported amongst prisoners, conditions such as these cannot be described as safe.

We have been in this situation before. In 1970 the average number of prisoners in the state’s prisons was 736. By 1972 it had risen to over 1000. What followed was a number of quick fix solutions as successive Governments scrambled to increase prison capacity as quickly as possible. Institutions such as Arbour Hill and Cork Prison, which had long been out of service, were pressed back into operation. The Curragh Camp was used to house IRA prisoners; extra places were built within existing prisons. Ireland went from having three prisons to having nine within the space of a couple of years.

Of course, as the evidence of continuing overcrowding shows, this policy of creating extra prison places did not work. Overcrowding continued to worsen and the climate of chaos that was created militated against the ability of prison policy-makers to think about anything other than the next crisis.

It is a major concern that we are now in a situation where the pressure on spaces will overshadow all other elements of prison policy and long-term planning for the future of our system of punishment will become impossible.

Yet the need to re-imagine our prison system is more pressing than ever before. Reports from the Inspector of Prisons and the Committee for the Prevention of Torture show that levels of overcrowding have reached dangerous proportions in Mountjoy and Cork prisons. Yesterday’s comments by a member of the Mountjoy Visiting Committee, Paul MacKay, provides further evidence that the conditions in that prison are appalling, militating against the provision of services which can help prisoners to address their behaviour and resulting in the absence of a basic level of dignity which should be afforded to all those in the care and control of the state.

Overcrowding has negative impacts on prisoners, staff and regimes. Overcrowding puts the safety of prisoners at risk.  It interferes with the ability to plan for a person’s release into the community, it affects programmes designed to assist offenders to change their behaviour. It also undermines the administration of sentences handed down by the courts. Unplanned and unsupervised temporary release completely frustrates the expectation that people should serve the sentence deemed appropriate for their crime, subject to normal remission. This reduces public confidence in sentencing, but also in the ability of the prison system to prevent re-offending on release.

At a time when our prisons are holding many more people than they were ever intended to, we must ask whether we are making the best and most efficient use of our prison system. Our prisons received 2,520 committals for non-payment of a fine last year. A Bill to eliminate this practice is currently before the Oireachtas and should be enacted without delay.

As well as debtors and fine-defaulters, we send large numbers of people to prison for less than six months: 62% of committals in 2008. 87.5% of committals were for non-violent offences. Road traffic offences accounted for 28% of all committals. 3 month sentences, which can do nothing for either public safety or rehabilitation of offenders, actually increased by 54% last year.

Taken together, the imprisonment fine defaulters, minor offenders and the proliferation of short sentences indicate that Irish prison policy has a distinctly ineffective, wasteful and unimaginative nature. Plans to build more prison spaces will only lead to more people who should not be in prison ending up there, draining resources and reducing capacity to deal with those who should.

What can we do? First, we need to stop viewing prison as a solution to our difficulties and towards seeing its use as an indication that our social and economic policies are failing. Our prison population is characterised by high levels of drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness and educational underperformance. The vast majority of prisoners return to communities marked by severe socio-economic disadvantage.

We need to re-think how, why and against whom the ultimate sanction of imprisonment should be imposed. Most particularly, we need to look outside the prison for ideas about how to respond to social problems.

The Law Reform Commission recently recommended that prison should not be an option for debt recovery.  This suggestion would be a practical means of reducing our prison population through. However, more consequential would be the recognition inherent in such action of the principle that prison is an ineffective and inappropriate way to deal with many social problems. It is easy to build more prisons and send more people to jail; recasting social and economic policy and dealing with the underlying reasons behind much offending require much more political courage and imagination. But with overcrowded prisons and limited resources, an alternative approach is urgently required. We cannot afford, in any sense of that term, to return to the chaotic days of the 1970s. It is a great shame that a real act of courage within the prison system has come in the form of the resignation of a Governor and not in political actions which could alter the future of our prison system and our society for the better.

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A crossroads in penal policy

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