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Overcrowding as a Life and Death Issue

21st August 2009

In the current drive to abolish public bodies, the publication last week of the first annual report of Inspector of Prisons Judge Michael Reilly was a salutary reminder of the crucial role that such bodies can sometimes play.

With a small staff and on a modest budget, the Inspector has taken a methodical and constructive approach to what might be seen as a thankless task – outlining the shortcomings of our prison system. The report is clear and direct, and cuts through the sea of official statements on prison policy in recent years that have sought to mask the problems within the system.

The findings of the Inspector are in many respects both depressing and depressingly familiar; a great part of the report is dedicated to the chronic core problem of prison overcrowding within the system. What is new, however, is the forensic manner in which Judge Reilly’s report dismisses the nonsense of shifting “operational capacities” that have for years been used to mask the real levels of overcrowding in our prisons. By providing a detailed breakdown of the real capacity of Mountjoy, for example, the Inspector proves that there is no reasonable way in which more than 489 prisoners should ever be held in the prison. When the population reached 660 in February this year, the Inspector was concerned enough about the issue to raise it as a potential matter of life and death with the Minister.

"Judge Reilly’s report dismisses the nonsense of shifting 'operational capacities' that have for years been used to mask the real levels of overcrowding in our prisons."

We know that the situation has since deteriorated further to the point where in May 2009 there were over 670 prisoners in Mountjoy. The Inspector identifies the situation in Cork as being proportionately even worse with occasions this year when over 300 prisoners have been held in a building not capable of accommodating more than 170; he also found conditions in Limerick Women’s Prison to be “inhuman”, where 29 women are being housed in a block designed for just 10, with women prisoners regularly sleeping on floors.

It is striking that the annual report of the Irish Prison Service released on the same day fails to mention overcrowding as an issue.

It is also time to cut through the argument that the prison system has a purely passive position of having to accept the prisoners sent to it. Over the years successive Ministers have sought to deflect attention away from their clear legal and moral duty to ensure safe custody by reference to a theoretical separation between “management” and “policy” responsibility for our prisons. In reality the Prison Service is an organ of State under the control of the Minister for Justice, and the Minister has a range of options open to him to address the current crisis. The Minister could, for example, introduce legislation to take minor offenders out of the prison system; he could exercise the power of temporary release to relieve pressure on the system; or he could ensure the proper resourcing of community sanctions to ensure that judges have options other than imprisonment open to them.

"It is also time to cut through the argument that the prison system has a purely passive position of having to accept the prisoners sent to it."

In relation to the physical conditions within our prisons, we have known for years that the Victorian institutions in Mountjoy and Cork are completely unacceptable, but the Inspector’s report found newer prisons such as Castlerea to be unacceptably dirty and open institutions such as Loughan House lacking essential safety facilities. Once again, these findings point to an underperforming system that cannot blame all of its ills on the age of its buildings.

The Prison Service’s own Annual Report tells us that its mission is to “provide safe, secure and humane custody for those sent to it.” Judge Reilly’s report essentially concludes that in some important respects the Service is not achieving that objective. Undoubtedly some of the reasons for this failure are beyond the control of the Prison Service and are linked to long-running neglect of our prisons by successive governments – but that does not make this failure any less urgent. Tellingly, the Inspector’s report shows that many of the laudable and progressive initiatives taken by the Prison Service in recent years are being frustrated by the chaotic overcrowding situation in which they are being implemented.

"...allowing these problems to continue to deteriorate, would be an unacceptable abdication of responsibility."

This is the latest in a long line of reports highlighting the urgency of the problems in the prison system - we can only hope that the clarity of the report and the statutory mandate of the Inspector’s office will lead to political action. Crucially, the Inspector has now not only assessed the status quo through this report, but he has also published detailed minimum standards that each of our prisons should attain. There is now a roadmap to address the issues – the key element required is political will.

Acknowledging the longstanding failings highlighted in this report would be no slur on the current Minister or on current prison management. However, continuing to deny the extent of the problems in the face of this report or allowing these problems to continue to deteriorate, would be an unacceptable abdication of responsibility.

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August 2009
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