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Opinion: 'Prison does not cure prisoners. They do not effectively punish crime'

It is common knowledge that deaths from suicide and drug overdoses are common in Irish prisons, writes researcher Stephen Strauss-Walsh.

Image: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Stephen Strauss-Walsh is a PhD student in Law at the University of Limerick. He co-authored a piece of research on deaths of people in prison custody which is due to be presented to the Minister for Justice. Here he discusses his thoughts on the Irish penal system following his work within it. 

MOST PEOPLE WHO have researched and looked inside a prison are struck by just how oppressed and forgotten its occupants are.

Prison does not cure prisoners. They are not places that effectively punish crime. They just produce criminals who move through prison as if it were a revolving door.

I was told by a prison guard that before the economic crash, every year when December would roll around inmates would be banging the door down to get into the sewing room to make Santa hats for the sick children that were staying in the children’s hospital in Crumlin.

“Of course that’s all gone with the budget cuts,” he informed me.

The bakery was much the same. “We used to have donuts down here,” one guard said, “but health and safety shut us down.”

The head chef informed me that each prisoner’s food used to cost €5 a day, but again cutbacks have whittled that down to closer to €4. There are people in this country actually living on the price of a Starbucks cup of a coffee every day.

There is, at present, a view in the media and public that prisons are hostels. Although the standards of prisons have increased in recent years, this could not be further from the truth.

It may seem somewhat ridiculous to have to reiterate such a point but contrary to what you might read, prison is not a nice environment. They are disheartening, demeaning (both to humanity and the individual concerned) and rarely improve the lot of the citizens that they claim.

The question must be asked as to how exactly the penal system can be reformed and what a potentially better system might look like.

I think the implication of our research is that it will raise weighty questions about the nature of crime and punishment in Ireland.

While the research does not provide any definite solutions, it clarifies the questions that we should be asking which is just as important. At present reports are issued on prison conditions but there is a painful lack of data around actual fatalities in prison, what has actually happened and more importantly why has it happened?

It is common knowledge that deaths from suicide and drug overdoses are common in Irish prisons and it is worth bearing in mind that these are all usually avoidable deaths, if proper systems were put in place to prevent them.

It is also worth considering that these prisoners are not a foreign abstraction: they are people too with hopes and dreams just like you. They could be any one of us if we were to just find ourselves on the wrong side of the law. Don’t forget that even the great Mahatma Ghandi had to go to jail for his beliefs on occasion.

The deaths in custody project was an attempt to tackle these issues.

Our University of Limerick-based group studied the grim circumstances surrounding deaths in custody across numerous Common Law jurisdictions (including Ireland) and tried to blend this data and draw practical recommendations from it.

These recommendations will eventually form the basis for the deaths in custody database.

The Inspector of Prisons Judge Michael Reilly has stated that, “This database will be an important resource for my office and the state in the years to come, informing stakeholders and it is hoped public policy.”

The work will be presented to the Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald as it demands urgent action from both the government (and if that is not forthcoming) the people who actually voted and put them there.

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As part of this project, our research group was invited to visit Mountjoy Prison to view the reforms that have occurred there in recent years. We saw the handiwork, the baking skills and the artistry… in short the great reserves of talent left untapped by mainstream society.

Yet what always struck me about the workshops which allowed prisoners to while away their uneventful hours was that such activity is wholly unproductive and does not help break the cycle of crime.

A guard told me of three generations of a family who were all working on a project at the same time together in prison. This continues to routinely happen because most of the activities that are available in our prisons do not provide proper qualifications to the prisoners who end up with neither jobs nor obligations and return to prison again and again and again.

The whole idea behind the movement towards an Irish penal database was reform – an attempt to improve the conditions of prison life and to ensure that everything that can be done is being done to prolong that life so it can run its natural course.

Research suggests that the mere establishment of a database can actually save lives and if even one life is saved as a consequence of my endeavours, I will feel that I will have made a contribution to the humanisation of penality in this State.

My personal goal for this project was to effect change and when such a database is eventually established, I will have helped improve the lives of an oppressed group of people and for me there can be no greater reward than that.

I began this article by demonstrating the painful conditions that prisoners have to labour under every day. I should not say live because it is not proper living in my mind. I also attempted to convey how the current penal system is not fit for purpose by highlighting crime’s vicious circle. We cannot keep going the way we are going; most prisons are almost full to capacity.

When I was invited into Mountjoy, they were constructing a new wing but what happens when that wing is full? What they do we do with all these people who are systematically segregated and demonised? My hope for the future of this project is that it might help humanise prisoners and remind people of their plight.

In so doing, we might come to the realisation that treating prisoners better may actually yield better results than treating them like they don’t have any social value. These are our own people; we should start to treat them like it.

Read: New figures show young men are at greatest risk of suicide in Ireland

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