Thursday, 30 May 1985
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Hyland: May I first thank you, Sir, for allowing me the opportunity of raising the important matter of the adequacy and security of our prison system. The fact that it is necessary to raise this question is itself an indication of the deteriorating social and economic situation prevailing in our country at present. Sometimes when I hear the Minister and other Government speakers talk about the number of people behind bars I think it is a sad reflection on society generally that we have to have that kind of environment. I say to the Minister, particularly at this time, that I have raised this important national issue not for the purpose of embarrassing him or the Government in any way, tempting though that might be from the political point of view, but because of the public unease prevailing at the moment in relation to our entire security system.
I am sure the Minister is fully aware that there is growing public unease about the law and order situation, particularly in relation to the adequacy of places of detention. They want to know that the State is in a position to ensure that people will serve the sentences handed down by our courts. I raise the matter for that reason and because of the frustration of the Garda, the prison officers and the courts in their efforts to combat the current wave of crime and vandalism which has been sweeping the country for some time. I also raise it particularly for the purpose of reassuring the Minister that  he will have the full support and backing of our party in any efforts he or the Government make to find a solution to the problem.
I put it to the Minister that we have a serious security and accommodation problem in our prisons and I say to him that this problem will not go away unless some positive action is taken by the Government to resolve it. That must be the starting point if we are to have an objective and constructive debate on the current situation. However, I am bound to say that the problem was compounded in a big way by the Government's decision to abandon the phased prison building programme initiated by Fianna Fáil. I ask the Minister in his reply not to resort to his usual negative defence of blaming Fianna Fáil for the problem with which he is now trying to cope.
Mr. Hyland: I hope in the few minutes available to me to deal with that aspect of the argument. Perhaps the Minister will settle down and listen to what I have to say by way of constructive comment. Because of the Minister's intervention——
An Ceann Comhairle: Perhaps the Deputy will bear with me for a moment — it may avoid my having to intervene later on in the debate. The Deputy is aware there was a reservation or two put on the permission given to him to raise the matter on the Adjournment. The matter of early release from prison was covered in the Adjournment debate on 9 May. That related to drug offences and is sub judice. The question was granted subject to those reservations.
Mr. Hyland: I wish to put the record straight in relation to Government expenditure on prison accommodation. When in Government in 1982 Fianna Fáil spent £15.5 million, with a projected expenditure of £17 million for 1983. This Government came to power in December 1982 and they immediately cut the Estimate from our projected £17 million to £11.5 million. Perhaps of greater interest is the fact that the eventual out-turn of the Government's own Estimate was an expenditure in real terms of £10.5 million. I hope that will put to rest once and for all the accusation that is coming across the floor of the House to me day after day that Fianna Fáil are responsible for creating the problem the Minister has to deal with now.
In 1985 in their Estimates the Government provided for expenditure of £11.5 million but their spending in relation to that provision was £5.5 million. That shows the commitment of my party in relation to the provision of prison accommodation. This Government made a drastic reduction in our Estimate but, even more important, the actual out-turn and expenditure by the Government in relation to their own Estimate was less than the amount for which they made provision.
This Government are almost three years in power. The security of our prisons and the state of law and order has deteriorated during that period. I am not going to point my finger at the Minister and say he is responsible for that. That would be an unfair accusation and I would not like to resort to that. However, the Minister, the Taoiseach and the people are tragically aware of the situation because in the final analysis the latter are the victims of this serious deterioration in law and order.
I put it to the Minister that the admission by him and the Government of their intention to abandon the prison development programme gave a psychological boost to potential criminals. These people knew in advance that if they broke the law there would not be any prison accommodation for them. I hold the view that if there was anything worse than  abandoning the programme it was the announcement by the Government of their intention to do so. It was almost as if it was a waste of public money. I put it to the Minister that the real waste of public money is the cost of fragmented, stopgap action now being taken in providing inadequate and insecure prison accommodation.
If we are even to commence tackling the problem, in the first instance we must have an honest admission from the Minister that the problem exists. There is no point in his saying the situation is under control when it has been out of control for the past 18 months at least. There is no point in his saying to the public that the situation has improved, that there is adequate prison accommodation now to cater for people convicted in our courts when we know that all our accommodation is completely overcrowded.
I supported the Minister in his efforts to open Spike Island. I say it was a necessary emergency measure to deal with the major problem of car thefts and joyriding. I would have to say to the Minister that, to some extent, the timing of the decision by the Government was reactionary or panic in nature because of the public outcry which existed at that time, and continues to exist, in relation to the deterioration of law and order. I want to ask the Minister why the Government did not proceed with their plans for the development of Spike Island. The Minister knew that there was a serious problem obtaining which would get worse. Yet he and the Government chose to close their eyes in the hope that it would go away. It must be acknowledged that the Prison Officers' Association — because of their concern about deteriorating prison conditions and the threat to law and order — gave the Minister their full co-operation on the opening of Spike Island. They did so under extremely difficult conditions.
Surely the Government must have been aware that, in deciding to abandon the prison development programme, there would be need for additional accommodation. That decision was taken almost 18 months ago. It is not unfair to  pose the following question to the Minister here this evening, why did he not at that time take some positive action in relation to the opening of Spike Island? Why did he not take whatever action was necessary to ensure that it would be a safe place of detention? Perhaps the Minister has problems within the Cabinet in relation to the provision of moneys for this work. I can appreciate any Minister finding himself in that situation. But Governments must face reality and the reality always existed that there was not sufficient accommodation in our prisons.
Following the decision to open Spike Island the events which followed in relation to the actual opening left much to be desired. Prisoners and prison officers were assigned the task of securing the island as a safe means of detention. While I agree with the therapeutic value of work for prisoners it was tempting nature too much to expect that a group of prisoners would work hard at securing their own detention when the natural instinct of the prisoner would be to secure his freedom if at all possible. We now know that that experiment did not succeed. I am sure the Minister himself would admit that the experiment has not been successful, at least to date.
We had the example of six prisoners escaping from the prison, one of whom is still at large. We had a further attempted escape from the prison in the last couple of days. Indeed, we had the ludicrous, if not frightening, report emanating from the prison officers' conference in Kilkenny that prisoners were involved in the brewing of beer. That might be funny were it not for the fact that it was taking place in what is, to all intents and purposes, an open prison and on an island on which ten civilian families live. The Minister should immediately render Spike Island a secure place of detention or else take a decision to abandon it altogether. He owes it to the families residing on the island to ensure their safety and that of the prison as well. He owes it to the prison officers whose lives have been put at risk performing a dangerous and demanding task on the nation's behalf. Sometimes sufficient recognition is not  given to the fact that the Minister owes it to the prisoners themselves who are also entitled to the protection of a system which guarantees their individual safety while in the custody of the State.
Spike Island was to be the safety valve in relieving over-crowding in our established prisons. We know now that it has failed to achieve that objective to date. The tragic evidence of that failure has been demonstrated over the past few days in another prison here in Dublin, Arbour Hill, where there was an outbreak of violence related directly to over-crowding and which placed the lives of prison officers and prisoners alike at risk. The Minister and the Government have a duty to take immediate action to put our prison system in a secure state. Apart altogether from the officers' position, which is a very dangerous and serious one, public confidence in our system has been shattered; there is absolutely no doubt about that.
I was tempted to move into an area which the Ceann Comhairle asked me not to and I shall respect his wishes in that regard but I might say that those areas are relevant in the present situation. I acknowledge that the Minister has an extremely difficult task endeavouring to cope with the problem which has now got out of hand. I would not expect him to admit it but he himself is now the victim of a Government decision to ignore the problem in our prisons 18 months ago and, to the extent that violence is a product of the economic and social climate prevailing, the Taoiseach and the Government must take immediate action to put this matter right.
I listened to the Minister at Question Time today announce his intention to use a recreational block at Portlaoise as a detention centre. I put it to him that this constitutes a further stop-gap measure only. I question the location and the suitability of the block for the purposes for which the Minister now intends to use it. I wonder if the Minister had consultations with the prison officers and other interested parties in relation to the opening of this area of detention.
Minister for Justice (Mr. Noonan,: Limerick East): The House will be aware of the efforts which have been made to ensure that adequate accommodation is available in the prisons to cope with the increasing number being committed to custody. The need for these efforts — and, indeed, their success — can be seen from the fact that whereas at the beginning of this year there were 1,491 in custody 1,940 offenders are accommodated in our prisons today.
Accommodation in our prisons has increased by 449 in four months. That is an increase of 30 per cent and the Deputy will appreciate the kind of pressure it puts on the system when one is trying to get adequate staff and adequate accommodation over a very short period. Whether one is talking about schools, hospitals or prisons, once one is faced with such a dramatic increase over a short period, it creates problems.
It would be foolish to pretend that such an unprecedented growth over such a short time does not cause difficulties and problems for the prison service. But the prison service is making every effort to cope with the additional demands being made upon it and it is unfortunate when some people, either through ignorance or malice, undermine those efforts. Specifically, the charge that has been made here today that a “serious crisis” has developed in our prisons this week is as foolish as it is dangerous. The prisoners have access to the media and they can be convinced that there is a crisis in the prison and a problem will arise from that.
The history of the operation of the prisons whether inside or outside this country shows that the reality of prison life is that from time unfortunate incidents occur. We should not describe these flare-ups as a breakdown of the  system because that can be quite dangerous. It is regrettable that these incidents took place last week but in the context of previous experience of prison administration both here and abroad the incidents which took place last week while regrettable are fairly minor.
In Arbour Hill at about 7.15 p.m. last Tuesday three prisoners out of about 55 who were in the recreation hall forced out the five staff who were on duty and then attacked some other prisoners whose presence they objected to because they were serving sentences for sex offences. Order was restored in about a quarter of an hour. Three prison officers and one prisoner were brought to hospital but thankfully none had been seriously injured. The dispute among the offenders seems to relate to an on-going feud concerning sex offenders and there have been outbursts of this type of trouble over a number of years.
The Governor has reviewed the situation and is taking certain measures which it would not be in the public interest to disclose. In addition, proposals which were put to my Department this morning by representatives of the Prison Officers' Association are being considered.
The decision to acquire Fort Mitchel on Spike Island — incidentally it is only the fort and not the entire island that has been acquired — was made because of the capacity of the fort to be brought into use as an open prison virtually immediately and because of its potential in the long run to be made relatively secure.
My Department took over Fort Mitchel on 29 March last and within a fortnight the first prisoners were housed there. There are now about 70 offenders there. The prison is run generally along the lines of other open centres such as Shanganagh Castle and Shelton Abbey, although the fort does provide somewhat more security than others. The offenders are occupied during the day on work to improve security which will enable the fort to be used in the longer term as a relatively secure prison.
The Criteria generally to be used in selecting offenders for Fort Mitchel for  its present use are that they should be assessed as suitable for the type of regime operating there and be serving short sentences or have served a large portion of longer sentences. There are offenders who would be going back into the community soon in any event, either finally or as part of a programme of release.
It is not possible to give assurances about Fort Mitchel particularly while it is being run along the lines of an open centre, that offenders will not abscond. In relation to the question of the risk to the safety of the people living on the island because of escapes, we cannot give an absolute commitment in relation to anybody's security but any local people living near it are as secure as anybody else and probably more secure than most people having regard to the fact that there is extra security on the island. There is no suggestion that there is a risk to the people of Arklow from Shelton Abbey or to the people of Bray from Shanganagh Castle and nobody has suggested that the people in Cavan are a risk because of Loughan House. There is not a direct relationship between the location of a prison and the risk to people living nearby. I appreciate that people living on the island are concerned. I had consultations with the Garda Commissioner last night and four gardaí were on the island last night and there will be gardaí on the island every night, not to look after the prisoners but to make the residents on the island feel more secure. We will continue with that solution until we have a secure prison and it is possible to make Spike Island secure.
This morning officials of my `Department had a meeting with officials of the Prison Officers' Association and a number of measures which I propose to take to deal with the increasing numbers in custody were discussed with them. These proposals include:
People should bear in mind that the prisoners have access to media reports and statements which are made — however well intentioned — can have an inflammatory effect in the institutions. In this regard I have been concerned at the effect of some statements which have been made particularly over the past couple of weeks by people who purport to represent the interests of staff. I intend meeting the new president of the Prison Officers' Association over the coming week and I would hope that our meeting will lead to an end to this situation.
Deputy Hyland referred to cuts and the abandonment of the prison building programme. The Deputy talked about his Government spending £15.9 million in 1982. All that proves is the record of the Fianna Fáil Government in spending taxpayers' money because they did not provide any accommodation.
Mr. Hyland: On a point of order. It is very difficult to accept the Minister making a statement in relation to the throwing away of money. How can we have a prison development programme without spending money?
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy, please. People can be very unreasonable. The Deputy brought the Minister in here to answer a question. The Deputy made legitimate charges against the Minister and now he will not let the Minister answer. That is quite unreasonable.
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): I was about to say that the local government programme announced during the week by Fianna Fáil is costed at in excess of £400 million if one takes capital and current expenditure together.
The Deputy asked me why the capital expenditure had been reduced in our time in Government and why the full allocation was not taken up. We went ahead with the plan which was furthest advanced, that was for the building of Wheatfield Prison. The contractors are in there now and it will be finished in 1987. When the Deputy's party held office there was no other project more advanced than Wheatfield and there was no plan far enough advanced on which to spend extra money. It was not a question——
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): I would ask the Deputy not to inflame the situation and not to try to make political points. The Deputy usually behaves very responsibly. I know the Deputy has an extra burden on his shoulders due to the unfortunate illness of Deputy Woods and I do not want any political argument with him. We will have an Estimates debate some time next week and there will be an opportunity for making long speeches and I will take up every point which the Deputy makes.
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