Home > Releasing prisoners early – Community Return.

Connolly, Johnny (2015) Releasing prisoners early – Community Return. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 55, Autumn 2015, pp. 24-25.

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The Community Return programme represents an attempt to address a trend of rising prison numbers and increasing prison costs identified in the report of the Thornton Hall Review Group in 2011.1 Concerns about prison overcrowding and projected further growth in prison numbers led the Group to recommend alternatives to custody from two perspectives – front-door and back-door strategies.


Community Return is a back-door strategy, along the lines of a proposal made by the Group: ‘A positive step would be for the Minister to introduce a form of earned temporary release with a requirement of community service to prepare offenders for release on completion of their sentences’ (p.60). The programme is a joint Probation Service and Irish Prison Service (IPS) initiative whereby selected prisoners are granted temporary release on condition they perform unpaid supervised work in the community.


A recent evaluation of the programme describes the Community Return programme as ‘a unique and innovative initiative, developed and introduced in Ireland in 2011’.2 It began as a pilot between October 2011 and April 2012, and proved to be ‘extremely successful in assessed compliance with the conditions of the release and behaviour’ (p.13), and in terms of the very low level of reconviction of participants. The success of the pilot led to the programme being mainstreamed.


The evaluation was conducted to assess the ‘operation, impact, and effectiveness of the Community Return programme through a piece of descriptive and evaluative research’ (p.8). The study cohort comprised all 761 Community Return programme participants between October 2011 and 31 December 2013. A mixed methods approach was used in the study, as well as analysis of anonymised pre-existing data on participants held by the IPS. Questionnaires were completed by relevant IPS and Probation Service personnel.


The Community Return programme participants were predominantly male, with women comprising approximately 6% . Seventy-seven per cent of participants were aged between 21 and 40, with the greatest concentration of both genders (43%) being aged between 21 and 30 years.


Some of the key findings are listed below: 

  • 62% of participants were from Leinster, and 43% of all participants were from Dublin. Of the total population who commenced the programme, approximately 53% were located in three major urban areas (Dublin, Cork and Limerick).
  • Of the 761 offenders who commenced the programme, 90% were serving custodial sentences of less than six years, and 45% were serving sentences of between two and four years imprisonment. The average sentence length was 3.2 years.
  • 40% of participants had been convicted of drug offences, 16% of assaults and related offending, and 9% of robbery and related offences. 
  • 38% of participants were released from open prisons – Shelton Abbey and Loughan House. Among closed prisons, Mountjoy Prison contributed the highest proportion of participants, at 11%.
  • Of the 761 participants who had commenced the programme, 548 had completed it and 108 were still in progress. Eighty-eight, approximately 11%, breached conditions of the programme and were returned to custody. Of those participants released during the first year of the programme (n=233), 91% had not been committed to prison on a new custodial sentence in the period up to the end of 2013.
  • 9,580 weeks of unpaid work, comprising 201,056 hours, were completed by participants. Based on the national minimum wage in 2014 for an adult worker of €8.65 per hour, this represents €1,739,135 worth of unpaid work completed for the community by Community Return participants.


The most common types of work undertaken by participants were landscaping/gardening, painting/decorating and renovation, with the study finding ‘participants preferring work which allowed them to see a job through from beginning to end rather than constant switching between jobs’ (p.9). Supervisors interviewed for the study reported that participants performed positively in their work and displayed a positive attitude towards the work.


Over 80% of Probation Officers attributed participant compliance primarily to a desire to avoid returning to prison. In some cases this was complemented by secondary motivational factors such as ‘participant enjoyment of the work experience, appreciation of their early release or, a sense of commitment to the Community Return contract’ (p. 9).


The single biggest difficulty faced by participants following their release involved access to social protection entitlements (‘social welfare’), affecting one third of participants. Other reported challenges included coping with the strictness and frequency of the signing-on conditions, difficulties accessing entitlements and payments, and time and costs in travelling to worksites. Particular benefits of the programme included the ‘structure and routine which aided re-integration, the work ethic and self-esteem developed, their positive profile in working in the community and the learning of work skills transferable to employment’ (p.9). The programme also reportedly helped participants ‘stay out of trouble…, by keeping them occupied, providing positive supports and a starting point to build on, particularly in the early stages after release’ (p.10); research shows that newly-released prisoners are particularly vulnerable to relapse to anti-social behaviour and offending.


The report concludes that the Community Return programme has potential for further expansion. There is, the report concludes: ‘capacity available at present on supervised Community Service sites that could be used to accommodate extra prisoners on the Community Return Programme. It is recommended that the Community Return Programme selection process be reviewed and revised as appropriate to, as outlined, expand the Community Return Programme, enhance supervised resettlement and reduce the prison population.’ (p.43)


In their joint strategic plan for 2015–2017, the IPS and the Probation Service have committed to implementing many of the recommendations in the evaluation report including aiming to match or exceed the target of 450 participants each year in reparative and restorative structured releases. 


  1. Thornton Hall Project Review Group (2011) Report of the Thornton Hall Project Review Group Dublin: Department of Justice and Equality https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/15678/
  2. Irish Prison Service & Probation Service (2014) Community return: a unique opportunity. A descriptive evaluation of the first twenty six months (2011–2013). Dublin: Department of Justice and Equality. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/23016/
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 55, Autumn 2015
October 2015
Page Range
pp. 24-25
Health Research Board
Issue 55, Autumn 2015

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