I have succumbed to the inevitable look-back over 2010. This one – about the prison system – is unlikely to feature on any TV tonight. But then again, this one is also unlikely to mention Chilean miners, Mary Byrne or snow. I can’t guarantee the absence of fiscal crises, austerity or the IMF though.
Happy New Year particularly to all those involved in the prison system in whatever capacity.
In years to come, those writing the history of prison policy in Ireland will view 2010 as something of a watershed. Probably the biggest and most enduring story of the year was that of prison numbers nad continuing overcrowding. 2010 was the year in which the prison population breached 4,000 for the first time since the Civil War, standing now at 4,347. This represents an increase of over 400 prisoners during the past 12 months and comes on the back of year on year increases over the recent past. We now have 101 prisoners per 100,000 population in Ireland and we are creeping up the international league tables, having been well behind many of our European neighbours.
The overcrowding situation in many of our prisons worsened again this year. The Dóchas centre for women, having previously had some of the best accommodation in the system, witnessed regular doubling up and the use of inappropriate space in which to house prisoners. Administrative buildings were earmarked to become living accommodation, a stop-gap measure which betrayed the crisis of numbers and the pressure on penal administrators. Overcrowding was criticised once again, and in strident terms, by the Inspector of Prisons.
The Inspector produced an impressive set of reports this year, paying particular attention to overcrowding, space, slopping out and international human rights standards. In a year in which we were still waiting for the publication of the McMorrow report, with news that Ms McMorrow is no longer being paid due to the lack of funds, this was a glimmer of hope in terms of accountability in our prisons.
The Mulligan judgment which held against the applicant’s claim relating to slopping out in Portlaoise was disappointing in this regard, but has paved the way for a likely successful action to be taken by a prisoner in a more overcrowded establishment. Slopping out was also debated in the House of Lords this year, and the Independent Monitoring Boards of England and Wales were critical of this unacceptable practice.
The pressure on space led to a pragmatic response in the form of plans to eliminate imprisonment for fine defaulting and to increase the use of community service orders. These were two very welcome developments in 2010, both of which were seriously overdue. Hopefully they represent a principled commitment to ensuring prison is always and only a measure of last resort, but it may be that the simple lack of space in our system is driving these changes. Either way, they brought good news.
Two departures shook things up a bit two. Kathleen McMahon resigned as Governor of Dóchas in April, criticising what she saw as an increasing tendency by the Irish Prison Service to impose a more punitive regime in the prison and a higher level of interference in the work of the Governor. John Lonergan retired shortly afterwards. Outspoken and never shy of upsetting those making the policy he was charged with implementing, he described Mountjoy as a ‘warehouse’, in which conditions were ‘appalling’, full of people from disadvantaged backgrounds. His analysis of successive Ministers for Justice in his book Governor: The Man who ran Mountjoy is succinct and often searing. After his departure, a much trumpeted ‘zero tolerance’ approach to drugs was announced for Mountjoy, though much less interest on the demand side of this equation was apparent.
And, of course, the sceptre of Thornton Hall loomed large this year again. In my view the field is another monument to Celtic Tiger Ireland, big, expensive and not that well thought out. This year Minister Ahern announced that a prison at Thornton will be built, though nothing on the scale of that originally planned. In very disappointing news, it is planned to house 700 prisoners in 400 cells, representing officially sanctioned and planned for doubling up. Apart from that, policy makers were fairly quiet about the project, much quieter than usual.
Penal Predictions for 2011 (feeling brave) …
- Talk of Thornton Hall will continue to recede
- Further practical initiatives along the lines of community service to reduce the prison population will be proposed
- Financial pressures will place a spotlight on the cost of the Irish Prison Service and value for money
- There will be pressure to see prison in a broader social context
- There will be criticism of accountability structures in Irish prisons, particularly regarding deaths in custody
- The prison population will continue to rise
- A change in government may create a ‘policy window’ in which a lot of penal change could happen quite radically – penal reformers get ready with your proposals and ideas!
I’ll also be looking forward to this!
One big, encouraging and exciting thought for 2011: the research I did for the above had one overarching theme I kept encountering: penal change is possible, but it’s the actions of brave and visionary individuals which have created it. Here’s to some of those coming to the fore in prison policy this year!
All the best for 2011.