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Connolly, Johnny (2014) Women in prison. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 51, Autumn 2014, pp. 24-25.

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A position paper by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT)1 calls for a non-custodial approach to be adopted for women offenders and, in the few cases where prison is necessary, for the negative impact of imprisonment on women, and those they care for, to be minimised.2 

The position paper begins with a review of recent trends in the imprisonment of women in Ireland. In the past decade, the number of women imprisoned has doubled while community-based alternatives remain under-explored. The number of women imprisoned has increased from 1,459 in 2009, representing 11.8% of the prison population, to 2,151 in 2012, representing 15.1% of the total prison population. Most women are committed to prison for defaulting on fines, with the bulk of the remainder imprisoned for non-violent offences against property or for theft or road traffic offences. According to the position paper, ‘in 2012, out of 2,071 female committals under sentence, 1,687 were for non-payment of court-ordered fines’ (p.4). 

As a consequence of the high rates of female imprisonment, female prisons are over-crowded. In January 2011, for example, the Dóchas Centre, opened in Dublin in 1999 as a model women’s prison, was operating at 64% over capacity. A more recent report on the Dóchas Centre by the Inspector of Prisons states: ‘On the 19th June 2013 there were 141 prisoners in the centre, when the maximum should have been 105’ (p.9). 3 According to the position paper, the other female prison in Ireland, based in Limerick, is also overcrowded, ‘with doubling up taking place in up to 10 of the 24 cells’ (p. 5), which are designed and only suitable for single occupancy. 

The report goes on to examine the complex needs of many women convicted of offences and the excessive use of remand for such offenders. Furthermore, many of the women are caring for children and other dependent relatives. The range of needs is summarised as follows: 

Women offenders tend to come from a background of social disadvantage and poverty, and often suffer from mental health problems, substance dependency, accommodation problems and poor family relationships. These issues can make it difficult for women to adhere to bail conditions, which has led to an overuse of remand for women offenders. This in turn has negative implications for children of women who are imprisoned on remand and the employment prospects of these women….A high proportion of women in prison have children. Women also play an important role in caring for dependent relatives. Women who are imprisoned can no longer fulfil their caring responsibilities and the consequences of this can be significant. This is particularly an issue for mothers with babies due to the absence of a mother and baby unit. (pp 11–12) 

Problems associated with substance misuse among women offenders are not related just to drug dependency. The Inspector’s report on the Dóchas Centre highlights the ‘serious problems of drugs in the centre’. The IPRT position paper outlines a number of challenges faced by women leaving prison, particularly related to housing, accommodation and stability, with women ex-prisoners ‘at high risk of reoffending’.    

The IPRT position paper reviews some emerging models of good practice in other jurisdictions, focusing in particular on community-based approaches to women offenders. It also considers models recently developed in Ireland. It concludes with two recommendations:

  1. In relation to adopting a non-custodial approach for women offenders, future policy and legislative development should be informed by a number of principles, including the following:
  • Where a woman is accused of a minor, non-violent offence, the default position should be that she will have a non-custodial sanction imposed…such as community service orders, gender-specific diversion programmes, and holistic support services in the community.
  • If a person convicted of an offence is the primary carer of young children, an issue that affects more female than male offenders, the best interests of the children should always be taken into account as a key consideration in determining an appropriate sentence.

  1. In order to minimise the negative effects of imprisonment on ‘the small number of cases where prison is necessary for women who have been convicted of an offence’, and their families, a number of reforms are needed, including:
  • establishing a truly open prison for women,
  • addressing overcrowding in both female prisons,
  • introducing mother and baby units at Limerick prison, and
  • ensuring visiting facilities are non-threatening, child-friendly and permit physical contact and play. 

On foot of the IPRT position paper, in early 2014 the Probation Service and the Irish Prison Service published a joint strategy entitled An effective response to women who offend.4 This strategy commits both services to developing a ‘range of options which provide an effective alternative to custody, enhance reintegration and reduce re-offending’ and to promote ‘awareness and confidence amongst key stakeholders of the significant role of community sanctions in the reduction of re-offending by women’ (p. 7). 

1 The IPRT is a non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of people in the penal system in Ireland, with prison as the last resort www.iprt.ie

2 Irish Penal Reform Trust (2013) Women in the criminal justice system: towards a non-custodial approach. Dublin: Irish Penal Reform Trust. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/21019/

3 Reilly M (2013) Interim report on the Dóchas Centre by the Inspector of Prisons. Dublin: Department of Justice and Equality. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/21006/

4 Probation Service and Irish Prison Service (2014) Joint Probation Service – Irish Prison Service strategy 2014–2016: an effective response to women who offend. Dublin: Probation Service and Irish Prison Service. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/21496/

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
All substances
Intervention Type
Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 51, Autumn 2014
October 2014
Page Range
pp. 24-25
Health Research Board
Issue 51, Autumn 2014

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