Home > The Irish prison system: vision, value, reality.

The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. (2012) The Irish prison system: vision, value, reality. Dublin: The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.

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The report calls for a radical change in prison policy. It provides an in-depth analysis of the prison system and outlines 15 recommendations for the future.

The paper highlights a need for a clearer articulation of values and the upholding of international human rights principles, concluding with a chapter of 15 recommendations.

Time to end bankrupt prison policy, says Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice:
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has called on the Government to adopt a radically different approach to imprisonment, ending what it describes as the bankrupt policy of recent decades.

Speaking as the Jesuit Centre's report, The Irish Prison System: Vision, Values, Reality, is published, Fr Peter McVerry SJ, who works with the Centre, said: "Penal policy over the past twenty years has passively accepted a continual rise in the prison population. More and more prison places have been provided – at huge cost. But the result has been a bit like running up a down escalator: the improvements in basic conditions that could have been expected to occur as a result of new prison building have been largely wiped out by increasing levels of overcrowding." Fr McVerry added, "that the Minister for Justice and the prison system now needs to systematically set about reducing the numbers in prison and should set a limit to the population at around 2,700."

The Jesuit Centre's report argues that overcrowding is now the over-riding characteristic of prisons in Ireland, and the most significant indicator of the inadequacy of the policies pursued. The report points out that nearly every prison in Ireland is now holding numbers in excess of its original design capacity, and that overcrowding leads to a 'pressure cooker' atmosphere within prisons, with multiple occupancy of cells designed for one person and limitations on access to services such as work, training and education. It argues also that overcrowding hinders the ability of the prison authorities to deal appropriately with inter-prisoner tensions and violence, so that some prisoners have to be locked up for extended periods for their own safety – for example, in November 2011, 178 were locked for twenty-three hours a day.

John Lonergan commenting on Drugs in Prison:
John Lonergan, former Governor of Mountjoy Prison, launching the Jesuit Centre's document, said that another huge policy failure has been in response to the area of drug use within prisons. He commented: "Drugs have an enormously damaging impact on life within prisons and can undermine even the most positive programmes and enlightened regimes." He argued that while prison authorities must try to keep drugs out of prison, the reality that the costly and intrusive measures needed to control the entry of drugs will be ultimately of very limited effect if the demand for drugs persists. Mr Lonergan said that it was essential there be at least an equal emphasis on providing treatment and support to prisoners to address their drug use, and he added: "Treatment needs to be accompanied by the opportunities for meaningful activity – education, training and work – and decent physical conditions, otherwise it is extremely difficult for prisoners to remain drug free."

Too Large Prisons and the Abandonment of Single Cell Occupancy:
Fr McVerry noted that a further retrograde feature of existing policy is that a bias in favour of creating very large prisons, either by extending existing developments or by planning for the building of new, and large, prisons, such as Thornton Hall outside Dublin. Fr McVerry pointed out that three Irish prisons now hold around 600 people each. Such an approach, he said, is at variance with international best practice, which favours the provision of prison places in smaller, and geographically dispersed, prisons.

He added: "One of the most disturbing and retrograde features of the current prison building programme is that there is now in place a formal policy of designing for two-person occupancy of cells. In its report, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice is calling on the Government to reverse this policy and make it a key guiding principle for all future prison planning that the norm will be single-cell occupancy. This approach was, after all, enshrined in legislation up to the 1980s and, furthermore, is required by the 'European Prison Rules' of the Council of Europe."

Closing the Gap between Espoused Principles and the Reality of Irish Prisons:
The Jesuit Centre's Report says that in urging a radical change in prison policy it is, in fact, doing no more than calling on the Government to ensure that key principles of international human rights conventions relating to imprisonment are implemented in Ireland. It points out that the State has ratified these United Nations and Council of Europe conventions, and in doing so signalled to the international community its commitment to adhere to their requirements. Furthermore, key official statements regarding the role and function of the prison system, including the Department of Justice document, The Management of Offenders (1994) and the Mission Statement of the Irish Prison Service, clearly reflect the core principles of these conventions.

The Report says that key challenge concerning prison policy is therefore to close the considerable gap which exists between officially espoused principles and the reality of both current prison conditions and the type of retrograde decisions that have been taken in recent decades.

The Report argues that future prison policy must reflect five key principles:
• It is the deprivation of liberty which constitutes the punishment of imprisonment: people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment;
• People in prison must be treated with humanity and respect for their inherent dignity.
• The prison system must seek to promote the rehabilitation and social reintegration of those imprisoned.
• Given that it is the loss of freedom which constitutes the punishment, and given the goal of rehabilitation, then life inside prison should be as normal as possible, with security no greater than is required for safe custody.
• The use of imprisonment should be kept to a minimum and alternative, non-custodial sentences used as an alternative.

It urges that as immediate measures the Minister for Justice and the Irish Prison Service should:
• Re-instate the principle of 'one person one cell' as the norm governing all future prison building and refurbishment programmes;
• Increase remission from the current one-quarter of sentences to one-third.
• End 'slopping out' and institute a programme to ensure, for all prisoners, privacy in the use of toilet facilities.

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Report
Drug Type
All substances
Intervention Type
Harm reduction, Crime prevention
March 2012
131 p.
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice
Corporate Creators
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice
Place of Publication
Accession Number
HRB (Electronic Only)
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