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Column: Building a bigger Cork prison with doubled-up cells is completely senseless

The new prison in Cork is being built to hold more prisoners, even though our crime rate is decreasing, and cells are being planned for doubled-occupancy. This goes against internationally-supported standards, writes Fiona Ní Chinneide.

Fíona Ní Chinneide

THE BUILDING OF a new prison to replace the current Cork Prison, which is completely unfit for purpose, is long overdue. Since 1993, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) CPT’s description of conditions at the prison in 2010, makes for stark reading:

The poor conditions were exacerbated by the lack of in-cell sanitation. The situation was particularly bad in those cells being used to hold two or three prisoners on protection, as they could spend up to 23 hours locked up together in the cell. The air in a number of these cells was rank and humid. In one cell in C Block, three prisoners on protection who were accommodated together did not possess a chamber pot and had to share a bottle for the purpose of urinating; if necessary, they defecated into a plastic bag. In the CPT’s view, apart from representing a health hazard, such treatment is degrading.

It’s worth remembering that prisoners also eat all their meals in these squalid conditions. In this context, action on Cork Prison is urgent, welcome, and should not be delayed any longer.

However, the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) is dismayed that the opportunity to align with best practice and plan for single occupancy of cells has been missed. Coming at a time when crime rates are decreasing and the numbers in prison are being reduced, IPRT strongly believes that the decision to build a larger prison, with doubling-up planned for most of the cells, is misguided.

Building bigger prisons

There are two main issues here. The first is that replacing a prison designed for 146 prisoners with one which can hold up to 310 prisoners represents penal expansion. International and national evidence shows that if you build more prison spaces, they will be filled – prison numbers are dictated by policy, not crime rates. (The sharp acceleration of numbers being imprisoned in Ireland, which occurred from 2007 to 2011, is directly attributable to mandatory sentencing for drugs and firearms offences – a ‘tough on crime’ policy which had no demonstrated impact on reducing drugs or firearms crime.) If you build bigger prisons, you create a bigger burden on the taxpayer, with negligible impact on reducing crime.

Doubling-up of cells

The second issue is the planning for doubling-up in cells. Of the 170 cells planned for the new Cork Prison, only 30 are designated for single-occupancy. This is at odds with plans for Mountjoy Prison, which will be run at single-cell occupancy once refurbishment is complete. The Dóchas Centre, once hailed as a ‘model prison’, was designed for single-cell occupancy. Clearly, single-occupancy of cells is considered best practice by the Irish Prison Service itself.

Cell-sharing also runs contrary to international standards, including the European Prison Rules, which stipulate that single-occupancy should be the norm. These standards are not based on some kind-hearted notion of making the prison experience easier for offenders – the standards exist for reasons of prisoner safety, prison management, and the better reintegration of prisoners on release.
Although there are circumstances where prisoners prefer to share cells, for example vulnerable prisoners at risk of self-harm (rates of self-harm are much higher in prison than in the community), a prison system in which doubling up is the norm increases risks of intimidation, drug use, and violence.
Drugs in Prison

Cell sharing makes the control of contraband into and around a prison more difficult to manage, putting pressure on prison staff. It increases the likelihood of drug use, as non-drug users or those who are trying to come off or remain off drugs, can be placed in close proximity to drug users. On a very basic level, cell-sharing is hardly conducive to positive efforts by prisoners to address their drug use. As the CPT observed in 2010:

“…a number of cases of prisoners at Cork Prison who had not been provided with any support as they underwent drug withdrawal and who were clearly suffering. In several cases, the prisoners in question were sharing a cell with one or two other persons which, given the symptoms of withdrawal (including vomiting and diarrhoea) and the lack of in-cell sanitation, made the process all the more unpleasant.”

Cell-sharing can also lead to intimidation of prisoners to bring drugs into prison. This in turn impacts on families, who, under threat of serious violence against their loved ones inside, come under pressure to bring drugs into prison – drawing already marginalised communities deeper into a negative cycle of crime and punishment.

Protection

Cell-sharing can escalate tensions between prisoners, and consequently increases risks of violence for prisoners and staff alike. Concerns for safety in turn leads to high numbers of prisoners being held on ‘protection’ regimes: locked in cells for up to 23 hours a day, with little access to training or work. It is known that prolonged physical and social isolation of individuals within prison can have significant – and irreversible – negative effects on their mental health, so the use of protection must only ever be a temporary measure. A policy of single-cell occupancy as the norm would go some way towards addressing the over-reliance on protection regimes to ensure prisoner safety in Irish prisons.

Safer prisons, safer communities

IPRT has called on the Irish Prison Service to set targets for achieving the principle of single-occupancy across the prison system over the medium term. This would decrease drug-use and violence in prison, and reduce the need for ‘protection’ regimes, thereby contributing to better reintegration of prisoners on release – making society safer for everyone.

Fíona Ní Chinnéide is Campaigns & Communications Manager with the Irish Penal Reform Trust: www.iprt.ie

Read: New Cork prison will be “cramped and oppressive”

Read: 249 prisoners to be released from Irish jails over Christmas

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Fíona Ní Chinneide

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