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Decision Time: penal expansion or penal moderation?

23rd June 2009

SpeirsThere is no going back on prison expansion, warns international prisons expert

Ireland now has a choice between two doors – one will bring us in the direction of further penal expansion (the American model), the other towards penal moderation (the Scandinavian model). We must make a political and social choice regarding the numbers we want to send to prison. Once we have made our choice, there is no return.

This was the message delivered by internationally renowned prisons expert Professor Andrew Coyle of King’s College London at an Open Forum entitled ‘Re-imagining the Role of Prison in Irish Society’ hosted by the Irish Penal Reform Trust in Dublin. During the event, solid evidence was presented from recent studies in England and Scotland that demonstrates penal moderation is more successful – in terms of economic and social value – in creating a safer society.

300 prisoners is the maximum manageable size of a prison according to international experience, stated Professor Coyle. Plans for building so-called “titan” prisons in England and Wales, which would have housed 2,500 prisoners, have recently been scrapped. Director General of the Irish Prison Service, Brian Purcell, a panellist at the event, stated clearly that plans for the 2,200 capacity “super-prison” at Thornton Hall will go ahead.

Professor Fergus McNeill of the University of Glasgow spoke on the concept of ‘payback’ - constructive ways to compensate or repair harms caused by crime, through making good to the victim and/or the community. This shift in emphasis towards looking for community solutions – dealing with local crime within the local community – is reflected in the findings of both the Scottish Prisons Commission (report published July 2008) and the report of the Commission on English Prisons Today, which will be published 2nd July 2009.

Following the presentations, Jimmy Martin, Assistant Secretary of the Department for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Professor Ian O’Donnell of the Institute of Criminology at UCD joined Brian Purcell, Director General of the Irish Prison Service, in a heated discussion how the learning from Scotland and England might be of relevance and value to policy-makers here.

Whether the 50% rate of reoffending in Ireland can be seen as a sign of success or failure, was hotly debated. Brian Purcell interpreted this as a sign of success; Prof Andrew Coyle suggested that the same criteria applied to other sectors, for example the health service, would not be tolerated.

Prof. O'Donnell proposed specific actions which could be taken to immediately reduce overcrowding in prisons, including: increase in remission from 25% to 33%, which is already legislated for; the creation of a waiting list for low-risk offenders who would only begin their sentence when a prison space comes free; that any prison-building programmes should be linked to a commitment to close older cells, at a rate of 4 closures for every 3 new cells. Prof Andrew Coyle proposed that limiting the quota of prison places available to each judge would lead to more considered passing of sentences.

This Open Forum event created a much-needed space for a debate on the future direction of penal policy in Ireland. A key focus of the discussion centred on the need for political leadership to bring about a more rational and evidence-led penal policy.

In attendance were members of the Oireachtas, government officials, academics, prison staff, lawyers and a wider range of community groups working with offenders.

A full report will shortly be available online here at: www.iprt.ie

Read presentations from the event here.

For more information, contact Fíona at: communications@iprt.ie