The Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, addressed the Seanad today on overcrowding in our prisons.
During his speech the Minister referred to the addition of prison spaces during the life-time of Fianna Fáil-led governments since 1997.
It is interesting that the Minister noted that over 1900 prison spaces had been built by such governments since 1997. John O’Donoghue, who became Minister for Justice in 1997 famously promised 2,000 extra spaces by the year 2000. See more on this here. That promise seems to have been forgotten and we should not advocate for its resurrection. Building our way out of the penal crisis is not a sensible option, investment in the prevention of crime and social policies we know will reduce prison populations is the only logical way forward.
Similarly, the Minister stated that the rainbow government had not built a prison space between 1994 and 1997. That is the case, but it is not true to say that government did not decide to build any prison places. During its tenure it issued a tender for the building of what became Cloverhill, it re-activated plans its predecessors (pre 1994) had to build a prison at Castlerea and, overall, projected that prison places should increase by 800. The Government’s publication Tackling Crime contained these promises, published in 1997.
It should not, however, be a source of pride for any government that it built more prison places than anybody else. The UK government has now realised that the cost and consequences of extensive prison building are not desirable. In that regard, it was most heartening to see Minister Ahern dedicate the bulk of his speech to plans to make greater use of community service. Prison building might get the headlines, but it won’t get the results.