In May the Government announced that it was suspending negotiations with its preferred bidder for the planned new prison at Thornton Hall. Thornton Hall has long been presented as a long-term solution to the problems of unacceptable prison conditions and overcrowding, as well as signalling a major increase in prison numbers. In the wake of this decision, and with record level of overcrowding in our main jails, the system is currently facing a crisis of direction with no obvious Plan B. There is a need for emergency measures to ensure safety within the prison system, but this present crisis can also be taken as an opportunity to look at the direction our prison policy is taking us.
Over the past 12 years we have seen an increase of 65% in our prison population up to record levels of close to 4,000 prisoners. Just as in Britain and the US, we have started to drift towards an expanded prison system for no clearly stated reason and with no obvious discernible benefits for society in terms of reduction of crime. Without proper information about who we imprison, we can only surmise as to how this has happened, but it is likely that the wide usage of short sentences for non-violent crime, immigration detention and the introduction of mandatory and presumptive sentencing are just some of the factors that might be causing this expansion. More prison places have been built and filled, at a huge and unsustainable cost, with the problems within the system remaining.
Yesterday in Dublin, the Irish Penal Reform Trust hosted an Open Forum on the role of prison in Irish society. Our aim in organising this event was to prompt an open discussion on these issues by putting in the public domain some of the ideas circulating in other jurisdictions at a time of great challenge economically and socially. In particular Scotland and England are both now coming out of periods of massive prison expansion and analysing the evidence of how the building of more prisons has failed.
One of the key problems with the debate about imprisonment in Ireland to date has been the focus on our prison system in isolation. The Prison Service has to manage the prisoners sent to it, but it is the courts, the Oireachtas, and ultimately the government that make the decisions that determine how many people we imprison. At the most basic level, do we have a clear sense of what our prisons are for and what they are meant to achieve? In that regard, we need to have a cold look at whether the community is getting value for money from our prisons. Two recent public reviews of prison policy in Britain have found overwhelming evidence to support using imprisonment in a much more targeted and specific manner, in a way that prioritises the punishment of serious crime and the protection of the public. They are now moving to focus on community solutions to crime and are following in the footsteps of Norway, Finland and New York in moving away from over-reliance on prisons. In fact, we already know in Ireland that community based sanctions and restorative justice programmes are not only significantly cheaper, they are more likely to successfully end involvement in criminal activity. Cheaper and more effective again are measures of prevention and early intervention that target addiction and mental health issues and educational disadvantage. These are a sure-fire way to prevent offending in the first place. These are the building blocks on which IPRT’s mandate rests.
What happens in our prisons is important. While a relatively small number of people are detained in our prisons at any one time, imprisonment, even for very short periods, has huge negative impacts on individuals, families and communities. The challenge for Ireland now is to take on board the lessons from the successes and mistakes of elsewhere and to try to find an Irish solution to the problem of crime that is cost-effective as well as socially and morally effective. Given our new economic reality, every area of public policy must be opened up to a cost-benefit analysis. While there will always be a limited need for prison in relation to dangerous offenders, this should be one part of a more sophisticated range of responses to crime. Expanding our prison system can no longer be presented as an end in itself. Rather it must be assessed as a means by which to make society safer. And on that assessment we need to start looking at a better way to solve our problems.
Liam Herrick, Executive Director, Irish Penal Reform Trust
Published in the Irish Examiner, 19th June 2009.