Tuesday, 27 April 2010
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Charles Flanagan: This debate has been prompted by the resignation of the Governor of the Dóchas Centre, Ms Kathleen McMahon, to whom I pay tribute. I commend her work during her time at the Dóchas Centre. The matter of the resignation should, at long last, cause the Government and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, in particular, to come forward with a prison plan. The resignation of Governor McMahon is the latest in a long line of totally unacceptable occurrences in the prison system. Each year, we receive the reports of the Inspector of Prisons, the prison visiting committees around the country and the various prison chaplains. We also receive numerous other national and international reports from bodies like the Council of Europe and Amnesty International. Such reports consistently cite the serious problems that go to the root of our prison system.
If something good is to come from the resignation of Governor McMahon, I hope it is that the Government produces a plan. It does not have one at present. Problems like chronic overcrowding, drugs in prison and the revolving door system are discussed in this House on a regular basis. Last week, a man who was given a ten-month prison sentence in a court in Limerick served just two days in prison. We often hear that our prisons are dangerous, unsafe and characterised by the revolving door.
The last major initiative we had on prisons was as far back as 1985, when the then Taoiseach, Dr. Garret FitzGerald, instructed Mr. T. K. Whitaker to engage in a comprehensive process that ultimately resulted in the production of the Whitaker report. Many years on, it is sad that many of the recommendations in the report have yet to be implemented. In a document written more than 20 years after the publication of the report, the chairman of the committee reflected on the prison system then and now:
As Governor McMahon made clear, we have an intolerable situation in our prisons. There are reports of bullying and harassment of staff. Prisoners and staff members are endangered. This situation must change. I ask the Minister to implement a programme of real reform in our prison system. He should commit himself and his colleagues to implementing the recommendations made in reports on prison inspections within a specific timeframe. Full body scanners should be introduced to screen visitors and prevent mobile phones and other contraband, including drugs, from being smuggled in. Attachment of earnings orders, which were proposed in this House by Fine Gael some years ago, should be introduced. Community service should be used as a sanction for minor offences. The Thornton Hall project, which is suffering from inaction on the part of the Minister, should be reviewed. We have spent over €40 million on the project, but not one brick or block has been laid on the north Dublin site to date.
Deputy Charles Flanagan: We need to tackle the drug problem in our prisons head on, for example by introducing incentives such as remission and reward for participation in various education, rehabilitation and training programmes. We should ensure that the probation services are properly co-ordinated so they can engage in post-prison monitoring. The integrated sentence management system should be introduced in every prison. I hope the resignation of Ms McMahon will spur the Minister into some form of action. If he cannot keep our prisons safe, how can he be expected to keep our streets safe?
Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern): I wish to begin with the facts. The Governor of the Dóchas Centre, Kathleen McMahon, notified the director general of the Prison Service on 31 March last of her intention to retire from the Irish Prison Service on 21 May next. Having served over 30 years in the Prison Service, she is entitled to retire on full pension. Ms McMahon has rightly been given credit for the enormous contribution she made to the development of the Dóchas Centre since it opened in 1999. While it is true that Governor McMahon raised a number of issues with the director general in the context of her retirement, he has expressed his disappointment that she did not discuss such matters with him before she notified him of her intention to retire.
As I have informed the Deputy and the House on numerous occasions, there has been a consistent increase in the total prisoner population over recent years. This is due primarily to the additional resources provided by the Government to the Garda Síochána, which has resulted in increased numbers of successful prosecutions. In addition, extra court sittings have led to more committals. I can put the increased Garda and court activity in context by mentioning that there are 1,000 more criminals in our prisons than there were in 2006.
There is no easy or quick answer to the issue of overcrowding in the prison system. The Prison Service must accept all committals made by the courts. It cannot opt out. The problem of overcrowding is not unique to this country — it is an international one.
Deputy Dermot Ahern: I have examined prisoner numbers over recent times. It may benefit the Deputy and the House if I give some sample figures. On 6 February 1997, when Deputy Flanagan’s party was in Government and the prisons were starved of resources because not one prison cell was being built, there were 2,334 people in custody.
Deputy Dermot Ahern: If we move forward a decade to 6 February 2007, we find that there were 3,262 people in custody. Yesterday, there were 4,197 people in custody. It behoves all of us in this House to speak on the basis of an understanding of the pressure on the Prison Service to deal with this increase in numbers.
Deputy Dermot Ahern: We have responded to the increase in the prisoner population by providing for a significant increase in prison places. I have given the figures to the Deputy on numerous occasions in the past. It bears repeating that over 1,720 new prison spaces have been provided since 1997. A further 200 spaces are being provided in the short term through a current project — a new block that is ready to open in Wheatfield Prison. Work is expected to start in the latter half of this year on a new 300-space block in the Midlands Prison complex in Portlaoise. In the longer term, a new purpose-built prison campus at Thornton Hall will provide approximately 1,400 cells on a 130-acre site. This will allow us to replace the antiquated Mountjoy Prison campus with modern, purpose-built and regime-focused accommodation. The new facility will have the operational flexibility to accommodate up to 2,200 prisoners in a range of security settings.
The Thornton Hall project is progressing on a phased basis with the full support of my Government colleagues. One aspect of the project involves the replacement of the Dóchas Centre with a new women’s prison, with accommodation for 170 women. This will bring the best elements of the experience of the Dóchas regime to the new facility. Similarly, women prisoners will be catered for at the new Munster prison, which is planned for Kilworth, with facilities that best meet the particular needs of female offenders.
It is sometimes suggested that we are sending people to prison who should not be there. I do not hold that view. The Judiciary, which is independent in its functions, decides on the most appropriate punishment to fit the crime. It and it alone holds this function. The prisons, as I have said already, must accept all committals.
Deputies on all sides of the House recognise and will accept that we have some very serious criminals in our prison system serving longer sentences for very serious and heinous crimes. In fact, over 80% of convicted prisoners in custody at any one time are in prison for relatively serious offences and are serving sentences of more than 12 months.
Turning more specifically to women prisoners in custody, it may interest the Deputy to know that, of the 117 women in custody yesterday serving sentences, 25% of that cohort of female sentenced prisoners were serving a sentence for murder, manslaughter or conspiracy to murder. A further 21% were serving sentences for possession of drugs for the purpose of sale or supply. Some 28% were serving sentences for offences such as robbery, theft and criminal damage, and of this 28% only four prisoners were serving sentences of less than 12 months. Those figures speak very loudly.
Side by side with enhancing our prison system by the provision of appropriate accommodation and educational and other opportunities we must, of course, also examine how other non-custodial options might be used. I hope the Fines Bill will have a positive effect. Likewise, the expansion of community service orders will, over time, it is hoped, make a difference. I am open to considering new ways of dealing with offending behaviours mindful of the overwhelming need to do so in the context of public protection and community safety. As Minister I am committed to supporting the Irish Prison Service in its daily work to manage the prisoner population in the knowledge that increasing numbers do place pressures on the system and day-to-day operational decisions must be taken as to how best to manage the prisoner population by the director general and his senior management team.
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