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Aaron McKenna To combat crime, we must make prison softer

After taking away a person’s freedom as punishment for their crimes, we should move on to the practical question of how we can reduce their likelihood to reoffend.

THE ADVOCACY GROUP for families of victims of homicide, AdVIC, came out during the week to criticise payments given to prisoners for good behaviour while locked up. They made a fair point in that payments to support families bereaved by crime are far too low, but the wider punitive point about harsher punishment for prisoners missed the mark.

One comment I read online summed up the knee jerk reaction of many regarding the treatment of prisoners: “[They] should be given a hot meal and a blanket if they behave themselves.”

Nobody likes a criminal. The majority of people locked up in Ireland are there for doing serious harm to innocent folks. They are drug dealers, thieves, violent thugs and sexual predators, among others. They are the underbelly of society, and we all think at some point that it would be better if they would just fall off the edge of the earth or be locked in a cell with the key thrown away.

Prisoners end up back on the streets

This is not, however, how the criminal justice system works. Almost everyone who goes to prison will one day come back onto the streets. I believe that in Ireland we let some criminals out far too early with joke-like sentences, and many never see the inside of a prison until they have committed a string of heinous acts that went unpunished by courts. We do need to lock up more criminals for longer, I think.

Prison by itself is not the answer, though. The United States prison population has famously exploded in the past several decades through tough sentencing. The country locks up more of its population as a percentage than any other in the world. It is not a crime-free utopia.

What happens when people are locked up is then critical to how they reintegrate, or not, into society. On criminals, the former British justice minister Ken Clarke remarked that “It is just very, very bad value for taxpayers’ money to keep warehousing them in overcrowded prisons where most of them get toughened up.”

The reality of prison is that the majority of people who pass through it end up coming out the same or worse than when they went in, and they go on to reoffend. We spend €65,500 to house a prisoner for a year, and when they’re released 62.5 per cent go on to commit another crime within three years.

That’s a pretty poor record for our justice system. If it took in a hypothetical group of 100 prisoners tomorrow, each to serve a yearlong sentence, it would cost the tax payer €65.5 million. These prisoners will spend those 365 days in the care of the State authorities, who have a choice as to how to treat these prisoners. Afterwards, 62 or 63 of our group of 100 will come out to commit another crime.

Common complaints about prison is that criminals get access to recreational facilities, they get allowances to spend in tuck shops, they get to watch TV and hang around when they could be breaking rocks or cleaning up roads. Many people, victims of crime and others, ask if prison metes out enough punishment at all?

I would respectfully suggest that after taking away a person’s freedom as punishment for their crimes, we should move on to the practical question of how we can reduce their likelihood to reoffend.

‘Luxury prison’ produces impressive results 

Norway drew plenty of stares when it opened its new ‘luxury’ prison at Halden. Built at a cost of €160m, the prison had an €800,000 art budget and features cookery classes, jogging trails and a free standing two-storey house where inmates can house their families on overnight visits.

The prison is not designed as a soft touch for low risk offenders, a place to send TV license dodgers and dodgy accountants. It is a prison for murderers, drug dealers and other high-risk prisoners – with a special wing to house sex offenders.

It is, in short, the kind of place that might horrify anyone who thinks that an allowance to buy sweets in the tuck shop is a massive sop to prisoners who should have few luxuries beyond a cell with a bed and a pot to piss in.

Halden is the newest and most modern prison in Norway’s system, and they’re not all as bright and airy. But it is reflective of an attitude to incarceration in a country where the maximum sentence is 21 years and prison guards undergo a two year training program.

The Norwegians also spend more money on prisoners than we do. It costs about €145,000 a year to house a prisoner in Halden, where there are more guards and support workers than prisoners. The results of this high cost, low harshness regime is undeniably attractive. In Norway, the recidivism rate is less than one in four. Prison is not the be all and end all of solutions for reducing crime, but it plays a key role in keeping this repeat offence rate down.

The cost of crime is significant, let alone the cost of housing prisoners. Criminal damage, policing and court services all cost a lot more than the ticket price of a year in Mountjoy. The human cost to victims is significant, and it is understandable to see victims groups wanting harsher punishment. But the way to reduce the number of victims in the long run is to operate a more humane prison system, not a harsher one.

There is a visceral need to feel that people who commit crimes are punished. There is a strong reaction against concessions like tuck shops and allowances to prisoners for good behaviour. It is natural. But the data supports the notion that to reduce crime, and leave fewer people ruined by crime, you need to be kinder to criminals when they are in prison.

The question is, do we prefer more criminals being treated less humanely; or fewer criminals being treated more softly?

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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