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Ebulletin #19

1st February 2005

VOICES RISING - Volume 3, Number 1 

Nils Christie to give IPRT Annual Lecture - April 7th

The IPRT is pleased to announce that the world-renowned criminologist Nils Christie will be our guest for the 2005 IPRT Annual Lecture, Thursday April 7th.

Nils Christie is a Professor of Criminology in the Faculty of Law at the University of Oslo in Norway.  His influential books include "Limits to Pain", "Crime Control as Industry", and "A Suitable amount of Crime".  His books and articles on crime and prisons have been translated into many languages.

The IPRT Annual General Meeting will immediately follow the lecture.  The time and venue will be announced shortly.

IPRT publishes new research on sentencing in the District Court

The IPRT has published a new research study on patterns of sentencing in the Dublin District Court. Conducted during the summer of 2003, IPRT researchers recorded details and outcomes for 356 individual defendants. The report is available online on our website.

Electronic tagging would be "no penal reform", says IPRT

The Irish Penal Reform Trust has criticised reported plans by Justice Minister Michael McDowell to introduce electronic tagging of offenders, saying that the scheme offers no recipe for penal reform.

"We share the Minister's concern about the urgent need to develop effective alternatives to prison," said IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines. "However there is little evidence that electronic tagging is a way to accomplish this. International experience shows that tagging offers no alternative to prison in practice, as those most often placed on tagging schemes are low-risk offenders who would not normally be sent to prison anyway. Rather than a technology for penal reform, electronic tagging is a technology in search of a rationale."

In response to reports that Mr. McDowell will first implement tagging for people convicted of public order offences, Mr. Lines pointed to recent IPRT research that found less that 6% of those convicted of a public order offence received a custodial sentence. "Electronic tagging offers no alternative to prison for a group where the vast majority are unlikely to receive prison sentences to begin with, and introduces new financial costs to monitor people who would not normally be judged to require it. Therefore the suggestion that tagging will reduce prison numbers and budgets falls apart under scrutiny."

The IPRT also questioned claims that electronic tagging will reduce recidivism.  "The people who qualify for tagging schemes are already at very low risk of re-offending.  Tagging does not produce this outcome, it simply monitors a group unlikely to re-offend anyway," said Mr. Lines.

The IPRT cited a Canadian government study of its electronic monitoring (EM) programme, which concluded "One of the most telling findings was that the recidivism rate for the EM offenders was not different from the rate for probationers after controlling for offender risk...This lack of difference questions the cost savings value of EM."(James Bonta, et al., 1999)

The IPRT also criticised the Minister's plans to expand the prison system by 30% to 4,500 places, noting that such a move would make Ireland one of the top five per capita incarcerators in Western Europe, while having one of the lowest crime rates in the region. "The Minister's plan to 'super-size' the prison system offers the clearest illustration that electronic tagging will not produce the outcomes claimed. If the Minister truly believes electronic tagging will reduce prison numbers and free up prison space, why do we need to build over 1,000 new prison places?"

"There is undoubtedly a need to increase the availability of community-based supervision and alternatives to incarceration," said Mr. Lines.  "This was most recently highlighted in the 2004 Auditor General's report on the Probation and Welfare Service which criticised the Government for its continued under-funding of these programmes.  Electronic tagging does not address this need, but rather transfers scarce public monies to the private security firms who operate these schemes."

Research show Mandatory Drug Testing in Prisons "ineffective" and "dangerous", says Penal Reform Trust

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has criticised plans to introduce mandatory drug testing (MDT) in prisons early this year, characterising the policy "at best ineffective and at worst dangerous." 

Citing new research published by the Scottish Prison Service showing the drug intake of 76% of prisoners was not affected by MDT, the IPRT said the evidence showed that Minister McDowell's plan will not produce the "drug free prisons" he claims.

"The research from Scotland is further proof that Mr. McDowell's plan has no hope of achieving his stated objectives," said IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines, who is recognised internationally for his work in the area of drugs and HIV policy in prisons. "This is a policy driven by political posturing, and a need to look "tough on drugs", rather than on any evidence of effectiveness or good practice."

While MDT does not affect prisoners' decisions to take drugs, the IPRT highlighted evidence that it does encourage a change in the types and methods of their drug use.

"International evidence shows that the introduction of MDT increases heroin use and injecting within the prisons because many drug users switch to injecting heroin specifically because it is more difficult to detect by urine screening. This has been documented by prison officials I have met from Britain, Canada, Switzerland and Germany.  This evidence shows that MDT is a policy that increases the risk of HIV and Hepatitis C transmission in prisons," said Mr. Lines.

A 1997 evaluation of Britain's MDT policy by the University of Central England in Birmingham found that, "MDT...is counterproductive. It deflects attention from the real issue of the purposes and funding of the prison system. Drug testing also deflects attention from other crucial areas like the spread of HIV and AIDS in prison. MDT increases tension in prisons, appears to be encouraging a shift from 'soft' to 'hard' drugs, is adding to the workload of an already overburdened staff, is costing a lot of money that could be better spent and is failing to provide adequate treatment and follow-up procedures. It is, thus, primarily an indiscriminate punitive regime that is adding to the overcrowding in British prisons by effectively adding extra weeks to prisoners' sentences."

Said Mr. Lines, "Faced with the mounting evidence that MDT is at best ineffective and at worst dangerous, the Minister's insistence on this gimmicky policy shows that he is willing to play politics with an important public health issue. MDT has no place in any evidence-based prison drugs policy, and Mr. McDowell should bin this plan in favour of comprehensive drug treatment and HIV/Hepatitis C prevention measures."

Irish Examiner Opinion Piece: McDowell's Prison Plan Folly

For many penal reform advocates, 2004 will be remembered as the year Michael McDowell announced plans to "supersize" the Irish prison system. 

In April, the Minister revealed his intention to build up to 1,000 additional prison spaces, increasing Ireland's prison population by about 30%.

When critics pointed out that this would make Ireland one of the top five per capita incarcerators in Western Europe while having one of the region's lowest crime rates, the Minister's response was predictable.  Rather than admit that his plan would earn Ireland the dubious distinction of becoming one of Western Europe's top jailers, Mr. McDowell preferred instead to label the suggestion an "urban myth". 

The truth of this so-called "urban myth" is easily proved by the application of a little basic arithmetic.  But this fact has done little to dampen the Minister's enthusiasm for building hundreds of new prison spaces. 

Why he believes this to be necessary is unclear.  Mr. McDowell has yet to offer any sound rationale for his plan, apart from an obvious desire to woo "law and order" Fine Gael voters into the PD camp come next election. 

The implication of the Minister's plan to expand prison places is that Ireland is overrun with violent criminals who need to be locked up at exponentially increased rates in order to secure public safety. 

Irish criminologists and penal reformers have disputed this, noting that Ireland in fact has a crime rate lower than most of Western Europe, and that as a state Ireland overuses incarceration as a sanction, particularly for petty offences.

This week saw the publication of yet one more report supporting this critical analysis.  The report emanated from that hotbed of radicalism and penal reform activism, the Irish Prison Service. The Prison Service's 2003 Annual Report was quietly released late on Tuesday, only a few days before the country breaks for Christmas holidays, likely in the hope that its findings would be drowned out by the strains of "Silent Night".

It's little wonder that the report was released in such a furtive fashion, as its contents provide yet more evidence of the folly of the Minister's massive prison expansion plans.

What does the report tell us about those being sent to prison?  According to the Prison Service statistics, 65% of committals under sentence in 2003 were for Group 4 offences (non-violent offences against neither the person nor property). 

If we also include figures for Group 3 offences - non-violent offences against property - we find that, in all, 84% of those committed to Irish prisons in 2003 were for non-violent offences (over 4,400 of the 5,314 people sentenced to prison that year). The Prison Service also reports that of the 5,314 people committed to prison under sentence in 2003, roughly 2 in 5 were imprisoned for periods of less than 3 months. 

Almost 60% of all committals last year were for sentences of 6 months or less.

What is the cost of this?  The Prison Service report notes that the average cost of incarcerating someone in 2003 was just under €88,000 per year.  So in other words, the vast majority of people sent to prison last year were non-violent offenders, many of whom served short sentences in expensive prison places, when non-custodial sanction would probably have been a more appropriate response.  Surely no one can argue that the current status quo of spending almost €90,000 per year to lock up hundreds and thousands of non-violent offenders for short sentences is sensible criminal justice policy, let alone good value for money.  Yet Minister McDowell would make this situation even worse by adding an additional a thousand more prison spaces that will have to be filled.

According to the Auditor General earlier this year, "the cost of imposing a community-based sentence is significantly less than the cost of the alternative imprisonment term." That report found the total cost of the Probation and Welfare Service in 2003 to be just over €40 million.  Based on this figure, doubling the capacity of Probation and Welfare Service to carry out community sanctions and supervision would be approximately half the cost of the Minister's plan to add 1,000 unnecessary and expensive prison places to the system.

Such a resourcing of non-custodial sanctions would actually allow us to divert many non-violent offenders out of the prison system altogether, and thereby reduce our overall number of prison spaces.

This situation illustrates the degree to which Ireland is a jurisdiction with great potential for the use of non-custodial sanctions as a means of reducing the prison population. Unfortunately this potential is currently under-valued, under-developed, under-resourced and under-utilised. 

The Prison Service Annual Report offers yet more evidence of the over-use of incarceration for short sentences, and the incredible expense of unnecessary incarceration. 

In this context, the Minster's argument that we need a massive increase in prison places is simply not credible.

Rick Lines is the Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust.

© Irish Examiner

"1,000 to sue over slopping out" by Hamish MacDonell, The Scotsman

More than 1,000 prisoners are lining up to take the Scottish Executive to court following last year's ruling that found that the practice of slopping out in Scottish prisons was "degrading", it emerged last night.

The Executive started its legal fightback against the ruling on slopping out yesterday but its attempts were overshadowed by reports that hundreds of prisoners and former prisoners have come forward to challenge the Executive on exactly the same issue.

Robert Napier, a former prisoner, was awarded £2,450 in damages last year at the Court of Session after claiming his human rights had been breached while serving as a remand prisoner in Barlinnie in Glasgow.

Yesterday, ministers returned to the court in Edinburgh to contest the ruling by Lord Bonomy, who described slopping out as a "degrading treatment".

However, the judges heard yesterday that 310 actions have already been raised in the Court of Session and the country's sheriff courts on the back of the Napier case. There are also unconfirmed reports that the Scottish Prison Service has been told to expect another 1,000 potential compensation claims.

Not all the prisoners concerned can expect to win the same level of compensation that Napier secured, and their chances of success hinge on the result of the Executive's appeal.

But if the Executive loses its appeal, every prisoner who has experienced slopping out and claims to have been affected will be hoping to get compensation, and in some cases this might amount to more than the £2,450 given to Napier.

The eventual bill for the Executive could easily be several hundred thousand pounds, and could run into millions.

Annabel Goldie, for the Tories, said ministers had got themselves into their difficult position by failing to end slopping out - caused by the lack of toilet facilities in cells - when they had the chance.

She said: "This deluge of potential cases shows two things: one, the folly of the Labour-Lib Dem Executive's refusal to end slopping out when it had the opportunity and the funds to do so and, second, why the Scottish Prison Service has had to set up a £26 million fund to deal with potential breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights."

Kenny MacAskill, for the SNP, said: "This is a mess of the Executive's own making. Ministers ought to have known that they would be challenged over this unacceptable practice."

The appeal is before Lord Osborne, Lord Hamilton and Lord Cullen, the Lord President.

Ministers are arguing for a high standard of proof in human rights claims of prisoners being held in allegedly degrading and inhuman conditions. They say that the appropriate standard of proof in deciding whether or not there had been a breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights is proof beyond reasonable doubt - which is normally applied in criminal cases.

Neil Brailsford, QC, for the ministers, said it had been recognised that there should be exceptions to the general standard in civil litigation - the balance of probabilities.

The Executive contested Napier's claim on grounds that investment should go towards modernising prisons and not compensating prisoners.

© The Scotsman

"Police station prisoners to be handed free needles" by Gareth Edwards, Edinburgh Evening News

Prisoners are to be given free needles by police after it emerged that two-thirds of drug addicts taken into custody in the city are infected with hepatitis C or HIV.

The new scheme is intended to decrease the risk of police officers being jabbed by hidden syringes while searching suspected criminals.

Backers believe drug users will be more willing to hand over their dirty needles if they receive new ones upon their release.

Lothian and Borders Police Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Dickson today predicted the move would reduce the chances of officers becoming infected with such diseases.

"We are not condoning or encouraging drug use, but we cannot be ignorant about the fact that people are going to take drugs, whether or not we tell them not to," he said.

"A programme like this is about reducing the potential harm to both the police and to the user."

All prisoners are routinely searched before being placed in one of 40 holding cells at St Leonard's police station - where people arrested in Edinburgh are generally held overnight.

Research has shown that about two-thirds of the 6000 prisoners who use drugs who pass through the station's cells every year are infected with the hepatitis C virus. Many also have HIV.

Needle injuries to police personnel are not uncommon and victims face an anxious wait of up to three months before they can be given the results of blood tests.

 © Edinburgh Evening News

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