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Column: 7 essential ways to fix our broken prison system

Our prisons have become pressure cookers, bursting at the seams and increasingly difficult to police. Eoin O’Carroll sets out new ideas for reform.

Eoin Carroll

THE NUMBER OF people detained in Irish prisons has grown dramatically over the past two decades.

With an absence of policy towards controlling the numbers in prison or providing comprehensive alternatives to custodial sentences, the prison population doubled from around 2,100 in 1990 to around 4,400 today. This dramatic increase raises questions about the use of imprisonment, and the principle of it being as a sanction of last resort reserved for the most serious of crimes. It is the harshest punishment the Irish State can impose on an individual and comes with an obligation on the State to provide safe and humane conditions.

Nearly every prison in Ireland is now holding numbers in excess of its original design capacity. This leads to a ‘pressure cooker’ atmosphere within prisons, with multiple occupancy of cells designed for one person and limitations on access to services such as work, training and education. The effects of overcrowding are multifaceted and hinderthe ability of the prison authorities to deal appropriately with inter-prisoner tensions and violence – so that large numbers of prisoners have to be locked up for their own safety for as many as twenty-three hours a day.

It has also resulted in the practice of ‘doubling up’ of cells designed for one; today 60 per cent of prisoners have to share a cell, more than double the percentage in 1994.

Solutions in the past to overcrowding and poor physical conditions were biased in favour of creating very large prisons, either by extending existing developments or by planning for the building of new, and large, prisons, such as Thornton Hall outside Dublin. While the original plan for Thornton has been abandoned, the current proposal (which may or may not go ahead next year) would still see a prison for up to 700 prisoners being built.

Best international practice says that small open and lower security prisons are best; a Government-appointed expert group acknowledged that a prison population should ideally be capped at 400.

‘One in five prisoners do not have access to a toilet’

In Ireland three prisons now hold around 600 people and later this year the Midland prison, when an additional ‘block’ is complete, will have a capacity to hold 916 prisoners. Overall, 80 per cent of people in prison in Ireland are detained in institutions holding more than 200. This leaning towards large institutions is at variance with international best practice, which favours the provision of prison places in smaller, and geographically dispersed, prisons.

Ireland has signed up to a number of international human rights conventions relating to imprisonment. In fact, key official statements regarding the role and function of the prison system, including the Department of Justice document, The Management of Offenders (1994) and the Mission Statement of the Irish Prison Service, clearly reflect the core principles of these conventions.

However, the gap between officially espoused principles and the reality of prison conditions is most sombrely highlighted by the fact that around one in five people in prison do not have access to proper toilet facilities, using a bedpan-style receptacle when locked in their cells.

The majority of these prisoners are also sharing cells. An additional 1,885 prisoners (42 per cent of all prisoners) have to use a toilet in the presence of others.

The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has just published a comprehensive report, ‘The Irish Prison System: Vision, Values, Reality’. Our top seven recommendations are as follows:

1. Minimise imprisonment Ireland should adopt a clear policy position that imprisonment will be used only as the penal option of last resort. It should seek to reduce, and set a limit to, the numbers in prison.

It should see it as a feasible target to get back to the rate of incarceration that applied up to the mid-1990s, when it hardly ever exceeded 60 per 100,000. This would mean a prison population of about 2,700. Its achievement would necessitate the extension of the use of alternatives to imprisonment – including community service, a clear policy of not using imprisonment for less serious offences, increased remission, and the use of early release under supervision.

2. Minimise levels of security Practically the whole of the Irish prison system operates under high security, which is extremely detrimental to the welfare of prisoners. There needs to be a gradient in security levels, with security no more than is required by the need to ensure safe custody. A target of having one-third of all prisoners accommodated in open prisons should be adopted. Such prisons are much less damaging, offer better prospects of successful re-settlement following release, and are less costly to run.

3. Transform regime standards Reinstate the principle of ‘one person, one cell’. Single occupancy of cells should be considered as the norm and should be an essential requirement of all future prison building programmes. Out-of-cell time should be increased to at least 12 hours per day.

Structured activity opportunities should be available to all prisoners – to include, education, work, work-training, drug treatment, therapy, or combinations of these elements.

Self-management opportunities should be available to at least all those in prison under sentence, with prisoners enabled to do their own cooking, laundry and other normal daily tasks, and be able to eat meals together away from their cells

4. Make smaller prisons the norm Set as the goal of all future building programmes the provision of prison places in small, geographically dispersed prisons. Such prisons (preferably with 100 or fewer prisoners) provide the possibility of less conflicted, less restrictive, but more constructive and potentially less costly regimes. Such a policy would require the abandonment of current plans for Thornton Hall.

5. Provide a system for progressive serving of sentences There should be a process, beginning at the time of entry to prison, whereby a person can progressively move towards eventually becoming re-integrated in society.

6. Ensure that no child is detained in a prison The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that nobody under the age of eighteen should be detained alongside adults. Currently, boys aged sixteen and seventeen are held in St Patrick’s Institution.

7. Comprehensive drug and alcohol detox and treatment The effort and resources currently devoted to keeping drugs out of prison should be at least matched by resources devoted to treatment and rehabilitation for those with dependency and addiction problems. All prisoners who are willing to avail of drug and/or alcohol treatment and rehabilitation should have access to such services without undue delay. Drug treatment provision within the prison system should include at least one custodial drug treatment centre.

Eoin Carroll is an advocacy and social policy research officer with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The full report can be downloaded here.

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