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McDowell Announcement Illustrates Incoherence of Prison Plans, says Penal Reform Trust

21st April 2005

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has criticised Justice Minister Michael McDowell's plans to restructure the prison system in the wake of the Prison Officers' Associations rejection of the latest pay offer.

Following the POA's vote, Minister McDowell announced his intentions to close two prisons and to privatise the prison escort service.  He also indicated his intention to contract out the running of Loughan House and Shelton Abbey prisons, and has hinted that the proposed new super prisons in Dublin and Cork may be built and operated by the private sector.

"Since 2003 we have consistently stated that this Minister is manufacturing a crisis with the POA in order to push through an ideologically driven restructuring of the prison system as a 'solution'," said IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines.  "We are now seeing Mr. McDowell's latest attempt to force through his ideologically driven agenda under the guise of 'getting tough' with the prison officers."

"Despite the Minister's pronouncements, the fact remains that he has yet to provide any evidence that his proposals will actually address the legitimate problems he identifies," said Mr. Lines. "For example, on the core issue of prison staffing the Minister's plan will actually result in Ireland having more prison staff than is currently the case."

Continued Mr. Lines, "There is no evidence internationally that privatising prisons results in reduced costs. In 2002, the Government's own expert panel recommended against privatising the prison escort service on the basis that claims of cost savings could not be substantiated."

"The Minister's proposals only illustrate the incoherence of the Government's prison plans, and the danger of basing Government policy on assumption rather than evidence."

The IPRT Responds to the Minister's Prison Plans

1.         On Prison Staffing

Minister's plan:  To privatise the prison escort service, close two prisons, and contract out several others to reduce the use of prison officer overtime.

IPRT Response:  Rather than addressing the core issue of prison staffing levels, the Minister's plan will result in Ireland having even more prison staff.  At present Ireland has approximately 3,000 prison officers.  Under the Minister's plan, Ireland will not only continue to have 3,000 prison officers, plus will also hire a corps of privatised prison escort officers as well as privatised staff at several prisons (both of which will also be paid for by the state).  This will result in Ireland having even higher levels of prison staff than is currently the case.

2.        Prison Escorts

Minister's plan:  To privatise the prison escort service because he believes this will save money.

IPRT Response: A 2002 report produced by the Department of Justice's own experts found that "privatisation of prisoner escorts is not a viable option" and said it was not reasonable to conclude that privatisation would necessarily be cheaper or more efficient than a restructured escort service maintained in the public sector.  In Parliamentary questions the Minister has further stated that his Department is unable to "comprehensively identify[y]" the current cost of the escort service nor provide assurances that a privatised service would result in cost savings.  Most troubling for the IPRT is the Minister's admission that "no detailed research was undertaken into the experience of privatised prisoner transport in other jurisdictions."  How can the Minister promise significant cost savings from a privatised escort scheme when his Department cannot itself identify with any certainty the cost of the current system, and when his own experts found that claims of cost savings could not rightfully be made?

3.      Privatising prisons

Minister's plan:  To contract out the running of Loughan House and Shelton Abbey prisons, and potentially the new super prisons in Dublin and Cork, because he believes this will produce cheaper and more efficiently run institutions.

IPRT Response:  After more than 20 years of international experience, there is no conclusive evidence that private prisons are more economical. In the US, both the General Accounting Office (1996) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (2001) have been unable to conclude that private prisons save money. In England and Wales, the National Audit Office (2003) could claim no definitive evidence of cost savings.  According to the NAO, "a general verdict that [privatization] is either good or bad in the case of prison...cannot be justified." In the US, private prisons have 50% more prisoner-on-staff assaults and 2/3 more prisoner-on prisoner assaults than public prisons.

4.         Prison Building and Closing

Minister's plan:  To permanently close two prisons.

IPRT Response:  How is unilaterally closing two prisons consistent with the Minister's claim that Ireland needs to build new super prisons in Dublin in Cork (thereby increasing the prison population by 25% and moving Ireland into the top 5 per capita incarcerators in Western Europe)?  On one day the Minister claims that massive prison expansion is necessary due to growth in prison populations, yet on another he announces the closure of two prisons before the new prisons are built?

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