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[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Adjournment debate - Irish Prison Service. (11 Oct 2007)

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Deputy Charles Flanagan: I thank the office of the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating me in raising this matter and I thank the Minister of State for coming before the House to debate it.

This week, the Council of Europe's internationally respected Committee for the Prevention of Torture again shone a light on Ireland's prisons.

The picture that emerged was deeply shocking. In short, Ireland’s prisons are dominated by gangs, violence within them is mounting and they are flooded with illegal drugs. While Ireland has been transformed into a modern, wealthy First World nation in the past decade, some of our prisons have remained in a Dickensian time warp. Such prisons are vastly overcrowded, with prisoners packed tightly into dank, stuffy and darkened cells; hundreds of inmates locked away for much of the day for their own protection; and basic sanitary facilities that are lacking.

The most modern feature of Irish prisons is the prevalence of narcotics. Mountjoy Prison was recently described as the biggest methadone clinic in the country. Prisoners on temporary release are placed under enormous pressure to smuggle drugs back into prison when they come back from outside. Drug treatment programmes are still optional. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of addiction will say that it is very difficult for an addict voluntarily to reach a decision to enter rehabilitation. Making such a decision optional when someone has just been incarcerated makes little sense. These people are in despair, feel they have nothing left to lose and have little appetite for the rigorous regime of drug rehabilitation. Who can blame them? Many of them have been failed completely by the State.

An analysis of 2,000 prisoners by the Institute of Criminology at University College Dublin has shown that incarcerated alongside the gang members that dominate prison life and making up the majority of prisoners are young, unemployed petty criminals. A total of 93% of the prisoners profiled by the institute were male; 82% of whom were unmarried with an average age just under 30. They do not have jobs and the majority of them do not have homes or do not feel they have a future. Shockingly, 65% of Irish prisoners are illiterate. We expect this group of people voluntarily to sign up for drug rehabilitation programmes, literacy courses and so forth while all they want to do is concentrate on staying alive and unharmed in an environment where the threat of inter-prisoner violence is ever present and accessing drugs is as easy as accessing rehabilitation. It is time that we got real about Irish prisons.

Rehabilitation programmes for drug addicts should not be optional, rather they should be compulsory. A real and sustained effort must be made to encourage participation in education and training programmes in our prisons. The Victorian ideal that prisoners would reform inside prison through training programmes and education and make a contribution to society was a noble one, but that ideology appears to have been lost or at least replaced by a “lock them up and forget about them” approach. Our current model evidently does not work. In the past ten years, the prison population has grown by more than 10,000. It costs the taxpayer €91,000 to keep one person imprisoned for a year and much more if the prisoner happens to be in Portlaoise Prison. That is not money well spent for two reasons. Rehabilitation is not taking place inside prisons and habitual criminality is rampant, with more than one quarter of people sentenced to jail going back there within a period of four years following their release. The report of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has highlighted a prison system that is failing the prisoner, the prison officer and the tax-paying, law-abiding citizenry. We have now received the fourth report of the Council of Europe on Irish prisons. This must be the one that precipitates a meaningful policy shift by Government and transforms our prison system into a functioning, rehabilitative and corrective regime.

Deputy Seán Haughey: At the request of the Irish Government, the Council of Europe yesterday published the report of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, CPT, on its visit to Ireland in October 2006, as well as the response of the Government of Ireland to the points raised by the CPT in that report. Its previous visit to this jurisdiction was May 2002. It visited a number of Garda stations, prisons and the Central Mental Hospital and presented its findings earlier this year. Its report and the formal response of the Government together amount to approximately 100 pages. I am not in a position in this statement to go into the same level of detail but would encourage Deputies to read both documents in full as they set out comprehensively the issues raised and the action being taken to address those issues. The role of the CPT in its national visits is to draw attention to those areas affecting persons in custody where improvements can be made. Nevertheless, the CPT report goes out of its way to praise the co-operation it received during its visit to Ireland. It points out that the Irish authorities have made commendable efforts to stamp out ill treatment by members of the Garda Síochána and praises the new legislation introduced and the use of technological devices such as closed circuit television and mandatory audio-video recording in interrogation rooms. The CPT also states that the majority of prison officers were attempting to deal in a humane manner with prisoners.

As regards the Irish prison system, the principal shortcomings it identified were the lack of progress in updating legislation governing the operation of the prison system, notably the 1947 prison rules; the need for better investigation of prisoner complaints about ill-treatment; the poor physical conditions in Mountjoy Prison, Limerick Prison and Cork Prison, with overcrowding and slopping out; the existence of inter-prisoner violence and intimidation; the number of prisoners on so-called protection; the drugs situation in Limerick Prison, Mountjoy Prison and St. Patrick’s Institution; and the need to enhance the regime activities for prisoners in certain prisons. Action is or has been taken to address all these issues. The Minister knows that the lack of modern prison rules was a matter of particular and ongoing concern to the CPT and I am glad to report that comprehensive new prison rules were signed by the former Minister on 29 May 2007 and entered into force on 1 October 2007. The CPT also expressed concern about the investigation of complaints of ill-treatment by prisoners. It acknowledged that senior management in the Prison Service are determined to take appropriate action when allegations of ill-treatment of prisoners by staff emerge. Its main concern related to Garda investigations and access to an independent complaints system. The Garda Commissioner has now put new procedures in place to ensure an appropriate level of Garda investigation into allegations by prisoners of assault. As regards an independent complaints system, the visiting committees have the authority to investigate complaints from prisoners and the office of Inspector of Prisons has been established on a statutory basis. There is no denying that Mountjoy Prison and Cork Prison need to be replaced and that certain blocks in Limerick Prison need to be refurbished. The Government is pressing ahead with the new prison complex at Thornton to replace Mountjoy and a site at Kilworth has been designated as the location for a new prison to replace Cork Prison. There are also plans to refurbish the relevant blocks in Limerick Prison. The point must be made that the poor physical conditions in the Mountjoy complex, including the lack of facilities to keep prisoners productively occupied, has not facilitated the prison authorities in their efforts to prevent violence between prisoners.

Those of us who heard the CPT representative being interviewed on “Morning Ireland” on RTE Radio will be aware that their concerns about safety in particular related to the older prisons of Mountjoy and Limerick and were contrasted with the much more favourable situation in modern prisons such as Cloverhill and Wheatfield. Owing to its location and limited footprint, it is simply not possible to make the Mountjoy complex secure from drugs and weapons thrown into the prison nor is it possible to provide a wide range of workshops and recreational facilities. Similarly, the cramped nature of Mountjoy makes it difficult to separate particularly dangerous prisoners from the general population. This emphasises the need to proceed with the new prison developments at Thornton and Kilworth as a matter of urgency, and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform hopes the Opposition parties will support our efforts in this regard. Acting Chairman: The Minister of State should conclude.

Deputy Seán Haughey: I will do so. In the meantime, we must take action within the constraints imposed by our older prisons. The CPT quite rightly has identified that the level of violence among prisoners in our prisons has increased. There have been specific incidents in Mountjoy Prison, Limerick Prison and St. Patrick’s Institution, which are a cause of serious concern. There is additional information in my script which will be of use to the Deputy. I thank him for raising this matter. Adjournment Debate Irish Prison Service Thursday, 11 October 2007

[For the full debate, click this link to the Oireachtas website]

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