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Ebulletin #22

27th April 2005

VOICES RISING - Volume 3, Number 4

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

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?

New UK Report shows Electronic Tagging an Expensive Failure, says Penal Reform Trust

A new report has questioned the value of electronic monitoring of adult and youth offenders in UK, finding that the cost of electronic tagging by privatised security companies is twice that of supervising an offender by the Probation Service.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) says the report's findings call into question the Government's plans to introduce tagging schemes as part of the forthcoming Criminal Justice Bill, and has again challenged Justice Minister Michael McDowell to provide evidence supporting his plans to bring electronic monitoring to Ireland.

Published yesterday, Electronically Monitored Curfew Orders: Time for a Review was commissioned by Napo, the Association representing staff in the National Probation Service and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service in the UK. The report examines the use of electronic monitoring for both Curfew Orders and for offenders on early release. 

Among the report's findings:

  • It costs twice as much to electronically tag an offender as to supervise them by a member of the Probation Service.
  • The private security companies that administer the electronic tagging schemes do not routinely follow up violations by individual offenders.
  • The Government pays private tagging companies approximately three times the actual cost of each offender monitored.
  • Electronic monitoring does not reduce re-offending.

"The findings of this report are startling and pose a serious problem for the Government's attempts to sell tagging as a sensible component of criminal justice reform," said IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines. "The report particularly rubbishes Minister McDowell's claims of cost savings through privatisation, as not only is privatised electronic monitoring significantly more expensive than supervision through the Probation Service, but private companies are charging the State nearly triple the actual cost of monitoring each offender."

According to the IPRT, the report also supports the organisation's contention that tagging represents no real alternative to prison, citing statistics from the British Home Office that in only 15% cases was tagging used as an alternative to custody.

"The Home Office itself states that rather than diverting people away from prison, over 80% of electronic tagging orders were used for people who would not have received custodial sentences in the first place. This is consistent with research on tagging in other countries, and further undermines the Minister's claim that tagging offers an effective tool to reduce the prison population."

Said Mr. Lines, "Whether it is anti-social behaviour orders, privatised prison escorts, PPP prisons, or electronic tagging, this Government has repeatedly looked to the UK as a model for its plans to reform the Irish prison system. Unfortunately, it seems the Government's interest in the UK model does not extend to whether or not it works."

Letter to the Editor, Irish Times: "Privatising Prisons"


Carol Coulter's article in your edition of April 22nd, "Overtime just one issue likely to be addressed", seems to accept the notion that a privatised prison escort service would be less expensive and more efficient than a publicly run service.

While this conclusion may be shared by Michael McDowell, it was dismissed by the Department of Justice's own expert committee which examined this question in 2002.

After studying the issue, the committee reported that "privatisation of prisoner escorts is not a viable option" and that 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.

The Minister himself has admitted in the Dáil that his Department is unable to "comprehensively identif[y]" the current cost of the escort service, and that he cannot provide assurances that a privatised service would result in cost savings.

Ms Coulter also suggests that private prisons offer better conditions and regimes than public prisons. While it is true that private prisons in the UK are more modern than most public prisons, the reason is simple. The British Government has not approved the building of a new prison in the past decade that was not a private prison.

The fact that these prisons are modern is not because they are privatised, but because government policy has allowed only the private sector to build new prisons. To conclude that private prisons boast modern conditions simply because they are privatised is to fall victim to a political sleight of hand.

And new conditions do not necessarily equal safe conditions. For example, private prisons in the United States experience 50 per cent more prisoner-on-staff assaults and two-thirds more prisoner-on-prisoner assaults than public prisons.

In Australia, the government invoked emergency powers in 2000 to take control of the Metropolitan Women's Correctional Centre after four years of persistent problems. In the UK, the private Doncaster Prison had more incidents of prisoner self-harm between 1996 and 1999 than any other prison. Between 1998 and 2000 private prisons in the UK were fined £2.7 million for contract failures.

These are but a few of many examples of the international history of failure of prison privatisation.

Nor should private prisons be equated with cheaper prisons. After 20 years or more there is still no conclusive evidence that privatised prisons are less costly than public prisons. This has been the conclusion of the General Accounting Office and the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the US, and the National Audit Office in the UK.

If the Minister were truly committed to reducing the cost of the prison service he would begin by reducing the size of the prison population, as incarceration is the single most expensive (and often least effective) response to offending. That he instead plans to increase the prison population by more than 25 per cent by building two new super-prisons shows his concerns with cost savings to be hollow.

Yours, etc.,

Rick Lines, Executive Director,  IPRT

Nils Christie delivers 2005 IPRT Annual Lecture

The IPRT was pleased to welcome to Dublin the world-renowned criminologist Nils Christie to present the 2005 IPRT Annual Lecture.

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.

Over 70 people attended the lecture, entitled "Crime Policy as Cultural Policy", which was held at European Union House.

IPRT Annual Report 2004

2004 Annual Report of the Irish Penal Reform Trust is now available on our website.

Second Annual Prison Inspector's Report Published

The Second Annual Report of the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention for the Year 2003-2004 by Justice Dermot Kinlen is now available on our website.

"Caring" Coalition backs Anti-Social Behaviour Orders for Children and Young People: Fine Gael and Labour row in behind Fianna Fáil and PDs on ASBOs

Both Fine Gael and the Labour Party have voiced their support for the introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) in Ireland, which the Government has promised to implement under the forthcoming Criminal Justice Bill. Unfortunately Fine Gael and Labour, who intend to contest the next general election as the "Caring Coalition" alternative to the current Government, have demonstrated that on the issue of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders they don't care to offer an alternative at all.

"Anti Social Behaviour Orders: Analysis of the First Six Years - A briefing for the launch of ASBO Concern" by Harry Fletcher

An analysis of the first six years of the use of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders in England prepared by Harry Fletcher, Assistant General Secretary of Napo for the launch of ASBO Concern.

Among the report's conclusions:

  • The number of anti social behaviour orders has escalated markedly since November 2003.
  • There is great concern that people are being jailed following the breach of an ASBO where the original offence was itself non-imprisonable, and that ASBOs are being used where people have mental health problems where treatment would be more appropriate.
  • Certain local authorities are using ASBOs to clear sink estates of problematic families and individuals. This appears to avoid dealing with wider environmental problems on those estates and also avoids putting in place wider social policies that would deal with the underlying problems of anti social behaviour.
  • In Napo's view the time is right for a fundamental review of the use and appropriateness of Anti Social Behaviour Orders by the Home Office.

New Report: "Caught in the Net: The Impact of Drug Policies on Women & Families"

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs, and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law today released a report that compiles for the first time existing research on the effects of current drug laws and sentencing policies on women and their families. The report, Caught in the Net: the Impact of Drug Policies on Women & Families, is co-authored by the three organizations and is being launched at a national conference of experts on issues relating to women, families and drugs at NYU School of Law on March 17th and 18th.

"We've gone from being a nation of latchkey kids to a nation of locked-up moms, where women are the invisible prisoners of drug laws, serving hard time for someone else's crime," said Lenora Lapidus, Director of the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "Family values ought to mean keeping families together. Treatment can cure drug addiction, but there's no cure for a family destroyed."

The conference will inform the ongoing dialogue among experts about how best to reform drug laws and influence drug policymakers to consider the unique needs of women and their families. More than 150 women and children impacted by drug laws, state and federal judges, health and drug treatment professionals, lawyers, legislative staffers, those working in correctional institutions, researchers and women's rights and drug policy reform activists will attend.

In the wake of Martha Stewart's release from federal prison last week and the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark rulings on sentencing policies in U.S. v. Booker and U.S. v. FanFan, the Caught in the Net report highlights the sky-rocketing incarceration rates of women in the United States. The number of women serving time in state prison facilities for drug-related offenses has increased 888 percent since 1986 according to the Sentencing Project, and U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics show that more than one million women are currently in prison, in jail, or on parole or probation.

In a letter posted on her website prior to her release from Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia, Stewart encourages the American people "to ask for reforms, both in sentencing guidelines, in length of incarceration for nonviolent first-time offenders, and for those involved in drug-taking."

"Women and their children have for too long remained the unseen victims of the drug war. The Caught in the Net report and conference are meant to bring women's experiences into the ongoing debate that lawmakers are having about sentencing reform," said Deborah Small, Executive Director of Break the Chains.

The report and conference feature representative stories of women minimally, peripherally or unknowingly caught up in drug activity who are found "guilty by association" with their husbands and boyfriends involved in the drug trade. Examples in the report illustrate the ways in which expanded liability laws like conspiracy, accomplice liability, constructive possession and asset forfeiture laws unfairly punish women for the actions of others. With little or no information to trade prosecutors, these women serve the longest sentences for the least involvement in drug offenses.

"This country can no longer ignore the devastation of families and communities when record numbers of women and mothers are locked up for drug offenses," said Kirsten Levingston, Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "It's time to promote drug policies that work, to stop wasting money and to use our social systems to help women, not hurt them."

"Electronically Monitored Curfew Orders: Time for a Review - A Briefing From Napo, The Probation Union" by Harry Fletcher

Napo calls for the scrapping of the electronically monitored curfew order.  It argues the electronic tagging programme is extraordinarily expensive and ineffective. Report prepared by Harry Fletcher, Assistant General Secretary of Napo.

Among the report's conclusions:

  • Electronic monitoring is extraordinarily expensive.  It costs twice as much to tag somebody as to supervise them by a member of the Probation Service.  
  • The number of violations prior to breach reported by Probation staff is extremely worrying.  Napo believes this calls into question the integrity of that part of the scheme. 
  • More juveniles are reconvicted within 12 months of the end of a tagged order than after a period in a young offender institution. 
  • Napo believes that there is still no evidence to suggest that tagging reduces crime. 
  • Napo also believes rather than expand the scheme the time is right for politicians to re-evaluate the cost, usefulness and effectiveness of electronic monitoring.
  • Both home detention curfews and curfew orders could have been replaced by additional parole and community orders and saved the Government over £110 million without compromising public safety.

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