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Wednesday 1 February 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Julien Behal/PA Wire St Patrick's Institution in Dublin
Lisa McInerney So St Pat's is to close - but that's just the first step
Report after report has documented the problems with St Patrick’s Institution – but now we need to actually deal with young offenders in a meaningful way.

SO SAINT PATRICK’S Institution is to close. It’s about time.

St Pat’s has been a focus of much concern for the past three decades. All the way back in 1985, Dr TK Whitaker, chairman of the Committee of Enquiry into the Penal System, recommended that it be shut without delay. This was “an environment that would contribute to further delinquency of the juvenile rather than any rehabilitative function.” St Patrick’s Institution was then as it is now: unfit for purpose.

It should go without saying that the purpose of any young offenders institution is to rehabilitate, rather than punish. Unless one is going to “throw away the key”, there is no point to detention if it’s not going to hand the offender back to society in better shape than he was going in. “In St Patrick’s I met many prisoners who complained that they would leave without in any way having bettered themselves,” wrote Inspector of Prisons Judge Michael Reilly in one of the reports that led to the decision to close the prison. “I am satisfied that this is true.”

Meanwhile, the Irish penal system has given us a recidivism rate of 62.3 per cent. That’s not simply an indication that Irish prisoners have rather taken to the lifestyle; it’s a stark illustration of the system’s utter failure to do what it is meant to do. This from a service that costs the tax payer an average of €65,404 per prisoner.

St Pat’s certainly fit the bill as a place of retribution. Housing young, male offenders from 17 years up to 21 years old (and 16-year-olds too, until very recently), it has been repeatedly criticised for its inadequate facilities, bad management practices, human rights violations, abundance of drugs and culture of intimidation and abuse.


For example, Judge Reilly found that the prison’s Safety Observation Cell – what you might know as a padded cell – was routinely used for punishment, rather than as a safe space for prisoners in danger of self harm. This is a direct breach of Irish prison rules.

To be placed in this cell often involved control and restraint techniques, even when the prisoner had offered to go voluntarily, forced stripping, and the obligation to wear prison-issue garments – a poncho and underwear – which, according to the firsthand reports from child prisoners in Emily Logan’s (the Ombudsman for Children) 2011 report, gave woefully inadequate protection against the cold and were seen as intensely humiliating. Judge Reilly pointed out:

Many of the prisoners in St. Patrick’s were at some period in their lives physically and/or sexually abused. It is in this context that I consider the requirement to undress when placed in a Safety Observation Cell for management purposes to be degrading and a form of punishment, intimidation and abuse.

When you consider that prison officers in St Pat’s filed, on average, 11 disciplinary procedures per prisoner from April 2011 to March 2012, that’s a lot of instances for which the Special Observation Cell may have been incorrectly utilised. That 11-per-prisoner standard isn’t necessarily proof of Ireland’s offenders being out of control; the average in Wheatfield, where the young offenders are due to be temporarily transferred, is 1.4. Even the prison with the next highest average, the neighbouring Mountjoy, has just 2.8. That’s a startling gulf.

It should be noted here that Judge Reilly attested that the majority of prison officers in St Pat’s were conscientious and doing the best they could in extremely challenging circumstances.

Life in St Pat’s

In May of this year Judge Reilly presented the Minister with his annual report and noted that conditions in St Patrick’s Institution had not improved. He went on to list instances, witnessed during his follow-up inspection, of frightened prisoners in the committal area who were denied the chance to phone home, of filthy cells unfit for habitation, of undocumented strip searches, of young prisoners sleeping on the floor in overcrowded cells whilst on 23-hour lockdown (for their own protection). In one particularly disturbing instance, a young prisoner in the committal area had been locked up without the medication he needed for a psychiatric illness.

Something else to chew over: In 2011 the prison psychologist received 145 referrals, and met 115 prisoners.

It follows that there is a definite pattern in juvenile detention in Ireland. In her 2005 report on the Children Court, Dr Ursula Kilkelly noted that the typical profile of a young offender is that of a 16 or 17-year-old from a disadvantaged background with health problems (including addiction and behavioural disorders), lack of family support (in 67 per cent of the cases she observed there was no father present in court; in 30 per cent, neither parent),and severe educational disadvantage (4 in every 10 children on custodial remand have learning disabilities; Judge Reilly later noted that a significant number of prisoners in St Pat’s were unable to read or write). In 93 per cent of the 944 cases she observed, the offender was male.

That’s blatant failure of an immediately identifiable section of our most vulnerable young people. We know that young, ill-educated, disadvantaged boys are at risk, and harsh punishments are not working. In fact, the system denies its aims with such vigour that it would be laughable if it weren’t so deeply disappointing.


So we have a definite archetype, and yet no set process for dealing with young offenders with any holistic methodology which might circumvent recidivist patterns. This doesn’t just fly in the face of your typical young offender’s rights – for those under 18, these are laid out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which we ratified in 1992 – it’s also massively detrimental to society, from the young offender’s family and community to Ireland at large.

There is absolutely no boon to be found from implementing a system of juvenile detention which seeks to break down rather than build up, and the notion that there is something to be said for degrading punitive measures is short-sighted. It’s easy to beat our chests about communities held to ransom by little thugs; we should not expect the same victimised communities to put up with the same unrepentant thugs once they’ve done their time. Tell you what’s worse craic than living next door to a “scumbag”: living next door to a career “scumbag”.

St Pat’s is to close but that’s just the first step. If Ireland is to deal with the issue of young offenders in any meaningful way, we need continual assessment and reform of our justice and penal systems; we need to tackle the social problems that make up our archetype; we need to focus on rehabilitation so as to tackle our jaw-dropping rates of recidivism.

Judge Michael Reilly, whose reports on the conditions in St Patrick’s Institution were so instrumental in having it shut down, put it in the strongest possible terms. “The name St. Patrick’s,” he wrote, “should be consigned to history”. How much better for our nation’s wellbeing if the attitudes inherent behind its walls could follow?

Read more of Lisa McInerney’s columns here >

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