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Opinion Repurposing Mountjoy's Progression Unit - a short-term solution to a long-term problem

The senator works regularly in prison settings and says the use of the Progression Unit for sex offenders is a mistake.

THERE ARE MANY things broken and in need of repair within our society, and this is reflected too in our criminal justice and penal systems.

We frequently hear about repeat offending and overcrowding in the system, but in most cases, we don’t ever have the conversations we need to affect the meaningful change necessary to address these issues.

As a result, we as a society don’t have a clear idea of what function we want our prisons to serve, a place of rehabilitation, or a place for detainment and punishment. In recent years despite notable exceptions, politicians and the judiciary have focussed on detaining huge numbers as a means of punishment, as opposed to the community facilitating them in a programme of rehabilitation. It almost goes without saying that this has not made our communities safer places.

Instead of having these difficult conversations, we leave prison and people in prison out of sight and out of mind and so we leave the Irish Prison Service in the position where it has to make impossible decisions about space.

Progression Unit

The Progression Unit in Mountjoy Prison, formerly St Patrick’s Institution for Young Offenders, is a designated facility on the prison campus which accommodates people in prison on enhanced regimes and those nearing the end of their sentences.

The Unit prioritises preparation for life post-release and the individual’s meaningful reintegration into society; an integral part of the rehabilitative process, and an important mechanism by and through which recidivism can be reduced. Transferring to the Progression Unit is not a given in prison, requiring real commitment to developing oneself in several ways, including through education, addressing addiction, receiving no P19s (punishments) and overall good behaviour. It gives the men something to strive for and a sense of achievement; opportunities offenders are rarely presented with in our penal system.

Where there are glimmers of hope within the system, like those that exist in the Progression Unit in Mountjoy, we must celebrate them, and commend those responsible for their visionary design and implementation. Especially when such measures are contrary to the rhetoric of mainstream political discourse and society as a whole. We all know how difficult it is to go against the grain, and sometimes under sufficient pressure, even those responsible for initiatives such as The Progression Unit can lose sight of their value, and we must work to remind those responsible of the intrinsic value of the original intention despite changed circumstances.

Shutting the door to a vital service

In March of this year, a decision was taken by the Irish Prison Service to close the Progression Unit on a phased basis, to facilitate its use as a bespoke accommodation for sex offenders within the prison population, due to severe overcrowding in the prison network.

According to the Justice Minister Helen McEntee, this decision was made because the Unit is “self-sufficient”, meaning the people accommodated within it are not required to interact with those accommodated in the main jail.

These decisions are not made in isolation and we must not ignore the many factors that contribute to overcrowding in the first place. Ireland has recidivism rates that are quite high, according to CSO figures. The answer to this problem will never be found through the delivery of more, and more severe, punishment. Despite this, I regularly hear many short-sighted statements in the halls of power about the relationship between crime and punishment, and the ‘need’ for harsher sentences and greater prison capacity. Would it be too much for us to ask ‘why’? Why the crime? Why the return to prison? Why so many short sentences? How can we prevent crime at a social and societal level rather than the penal one?

Punishment and prisons have never solved the problem of criminality; they exacerbate it. Because of this, prisons have become self-sustaining entities whereby the conditions within the prison and the obstacles a person faces on their release reinforce, even compound, the social struggle, the poverty and the trauma which has been imposed on communities through decades of poor policy development and neglect by the State.

Recidivism doesn’t happen in the prison, it happens in society and while we point to individuals to ‘rehabilitate’, we ignore the conditions that drive crime in the first place.
But there are initiatives within the Irish Prison Service that do have merit, and, when implemented to a good standard with adequate State support, have a real chance of delivering tangible positive outcomes for individuals currently within the prison system, and our shared society by extension. Success, however, also relies on real leadership within the political and judicial spheres, to choose to address the conditions which create the breeding grounds for crime, which in turn overpopulates the prison system.

The prison and its efforts to create opportunities end up soaking up the failures of society as whole, and not to mention the large numbers of people who should not be in prison in the first place, those who need mental health services, not incarceration.

Prison — the last resort

Prison is and should always be a place of last resort. Endless criminological and sociological evidence demonstrates the failure of criminal justice policy in this regard. Still, it is Foucault I often return to help contextualise my own thinking on criminal justice. I am reminded of a section of his book ‘Discipline and Punish’, where he traces the shift from public displays of punishment, such as executions in town squares, to its disappearance from public view in the advent of trial, sentencing and the prison wall.

The evolution from public displays of punishment to an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach doesn’t mean that we have created a system that has embedded its true potential for reduced criminality, or the ability of one to grow and exist in the world in a safer way. The high walls and invincible omnipresence of control never end, and now the punishment follows you like a shadow that never disappears, even with the change of light.

In a recent response to a Parliamentary Question posed by Deputy Ivana Bacik on the repurposing of the Progression Unit, the Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee TD, stated,

“The Irish Prison Service must make the best use of all available prison capacity, particularly at this time when severe overcrowding is being experienced”.

In my view, this approach is a short-sighted one which demonstrates a lack of understanding about overcrowding and how to address it. Suppose the Minister really wished to address the very real issue of overcrowding in our prisons. Why not support practical measures that will immediately alleviate pressure, including expanding the use of our existing open centres, or providing greater opportunities enhanced remission?

The decision to close the Progression Unit isn’t likely to have any tangible impact on overcrowding, but it will almost certainly interfere with the rehabilitation of the many men who will now return to the main jail on account of the repurposing of the Unit.

While it must be said that the Progression Unit has its own difficulties and is in need of investment and improvements, the development of a strategy to help it meet its objectives would have been preferable to its closure for anyone with an interest in penal reform, and the interests of the men that reside within it.

It was working

The potential of the Progression Unit is well laid out in a 2022 report from the Office of Inspectorate of Prisons, which put the Unit’s capacity at 108. During the first quarter of 2022, just four prisoners in the Progression Unit were approved for temporary day-release training programmes. Three additional prisoners attended an external grounds work party, while 11 prisoners were granted day release from the prison to work in the staff mess [canteen] contained within the Mountjoy Prison Campus.

Beyond the educational and professional opportunities created by the Progression Unit for the men nearing the end of their sentences, it is also a place where many of the men I have had the privilege of working with find peace, space to work on themselves, opportunities to express themselves through art and music, and an environment to rebuild and strengthen familial connections in less harsh visiting conditions. This is the stuff of meaningful rehabilitation that will ultimately reduce the rates of recidivism, to the benefit of all of society.

Our short-sighted thinking when thinking about criminal justice and rehabilitation doesn’t serve anyone’s interest. While there are, of course, logistical considerations, our approach to criminal justice ought not to be shaped by them. Our decisions must instead focus on the potential for growth and development of individuals within the system, and how we can create the societal conditions which lead people to live better lives.

Repurposing the Progression Unit is a short-term solution to a longer-term problem, which is likely to be further exacerbated by the Unit’s closure. Instead of focusing solely on capacity, the Department of Justice should be focussing on how the policies of the Government contribute to the crowding of the system.

There are many other levers available to the Department which could address the root causes of crime and reduce the rate of recidivism, including the enactment of legislation like the Criminal Justice (Rehabilitative Periods) Bill, which I tabled in 2018, that will create more opportunities for rehabilitation for people with criminal records. This, in my view, is the best way for us to address the problem of overcrowding.

The men currently in the Progression Unit are in limbo, and for some, the threat of returning to the main jail hangs over them like another punishment. Beneath that fear of being knocked back lies a genuine sadness that they may no longer access opportunities that brought some joy to their day, a joy which contributes to their healing, and, through it, the healing of all of our society.

Lynn Ruane is an independent senator. 

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