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'If prison does not serve and rehabilitate offenders, they will return to life as before, or worse'

I think some people baulk a little when they hear reports of major improvements being made to prison conditions, and of resources being spent on education and training, writes Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.

BEING IMPRISONED IS not pleasant. It is not an experience most people want to think about, never mind encounter. But getting the prison system right is really important.

Prisons are very much more than places of detention. As someone who lives in Portlaoise, I suppose I am particularly aware of that. After all, Portlaoise Prison dominates our town. It borders our streets, it employs our people, it’s part of what we are.

But it’s also part of a wider Irish Prison system which has at its core a mission to keep us all safe. And not just by keeping offenders inside.

I think some people baulk a little when they hear reports of major improvements being made to prison conditions, and of resources being spent on education and training.

‘Aren’t conditions supposed to be harsh?’ they ask.

But what we need to remember is that the vast majority of offenders do complete their sentences.

If the prison system has not served offenders, has not prepared them, has not rehabilitated them, then they will return to life as before, or worse.

Indeed, an offender who is not ready to, or capable of, living a life without crime will most probably be more dangerous on completion of a sentence than he or she was before serving it.

On the other hand, every single offender who comes out of an Irish prison capable, either because of what happened inside, or because of the supports provided outside, of living a productive, crime free life, represents a gain for all of us.

That is why I so welcome the annual reports of both the Irish Prison and Probation Services, which will be launched tomorrow.

I believe they demonstrate that our staff are striving to balance the need for safe, secure custody with the provision of regimes that promote rehabilitation and reintegration, in conditions which are humane.

The reports show that real progress is being made.

We have almost eliminated slopping out. It is still an issue in Portlaoise but Mountjoy Prison has been completely refurbished with in-cell sanitation installed in all cells.

There have been other structural improvements throughout the service too – a new prison was constructed and opened in Cork in 2016 and a procurement competition for the development of new prison facilities for both men and women at Limerick is at an advanced stage with construction expected to commence before the end of this year.

I am particularly happy to see that St. Patrick’s Institution has finally closed.

Its demise means that children are no longer accommodated within the adult system and I know that in tandem with the closure, targeted measures are being taken to rehabilitate young offenders and promote their effective and safe transition from custody to community.

That that transition would be safe is hugely important to all of us of course, which is why I welcome the figures in the reports on temporary release.

They show the numbers have been reduced by 70% with prisoners now only granted temporary release if it is to structured release programmes.

They report too the welcome news that the Community Return Programme and the Community Support Scheme have continued to be a success due to the careful selection of prisoners. And consideration is currently being given, we’re told, to broadening the eligibility criteria for these schemes.

At the other end of the prison population meanwhile, are those subjected to solitary confinement. This can sometimes be necessary, but the action taken by the Irish Prison Service towards eliminating it for all but a few exceptional cases has had a huge impact on the lives of those prisoners.

So things are improving, as they should be, for our prisoners.

But it is just as important that they should improve too, for staff.

That is why I so welcome the points made in the report about valuing, recognising and investing in staff. I know it is happening through additional recruitment and in training and development, I know a major refurbishment of the IPS College in Portlaoise, nearing completion, will enhance the learning experience of all and I know that additions such as counselling services and mental health training will ensure that staff are supported.

I hope each and every one of them feels appreciated too – as I know they are – as they continue to go about the valuable and difficult work they do, for which we are all so very grateful.

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