ON opening a new accommodation block in Castlerea prison last week, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform announced the provision of 550 new prison spaces by the end of the year.
The minister then stated that when the prison development programme was completed, the Irish prison system would be "comparable to best international practice in terms of accommodation and services for prisoner rehabilitation and reintegration. This will put the Irish prison service in good stead for the 21st century."
As a response to the current problem of overcrowding within the prison system, his statement has a quite surreal quality.
In the face of the ongoing national disgrace of slopping- out and multi-prisoner occupation of cells in Mountjoy and Cork prisons, a more realistic benchmark might be to first bring conditions into the 20th century.
In February of this year, the Inspector of Prisons was so concerned about the issue of overcrowding in Mountjoy that he raised it as a potential matter of life and death in a letter to the minister.
The inspector also pointed out that overcrowding in Cork prison was proportionately worse, and he found conditions in Limerick women's prison to be "inhuman", with women prisoners regularly sleeping on floors.
Tellingly, the inspector concluded that many of the laudable and progressive initiatives taken by the Prison Service in recent years, such as the steps to tackle the availability of drugs, were being frustrated by the chaotic overcrowding situation in which they were being implemented.
One thing is certain -- building more cells will not solve the problem. The past 15 years have seen 1,400 additional prison spaces being built, yet despite this huge expansion in the number of prison spaces, overcrowding has in fact worsened -- and there has been no effect on rising rates of crime.
The proposed panacea of Thornton Hall is a white elephant, one that will not only require major capital expenditure in a time of strained resources, but the proposed increase in prisoner capacity will further commit the Irish taxpayer to ongoing expenditure into the long term. We only have to look at the disastrous experience of the United States and Britain to see that increasing the size and numbers of our prisons only serves to increase the numbers of prisoners; it has no effect on lowering rates of crime, and it does not make society safer.
The stark economic reality is that we cannot afford to build more prisons. What we need instead is an alternative view of how to tackle crime at its sources.
As a first step, we must ask ourselves, as a society, some hard questions about why we are drifting towards ever-increasing incarceration.
For example, why are we one of the few developed countries to send minor offenders to prison for periods of six months and less?
The Scottish government recently recognised that short sentences of this kind were counter-productive, leading young men into deeper involvement in crime, and it is moving to divert young offenders to 'paying back' their communities for the harm they have caused.
Properly managed community justice is now giving Scottish communities a real sense of power in the face of anti-social offending. This approach is based on a belief that because the effects of crime are felt at the local level, it is at the local level in communities that the solutions to crime will be found.
The communities affected by crime in Scotland were not looking for more prisons, rather they were asking for better community policing, for better services for their teenagers. and for support in dealing with alcohol and drug problems.
Essentially, planning to build more prisons is planning for the future failure of social policies. In the United States, there is a growing body of evidence that dollars spent on early interventions in high-risk communities save multiple amounts down the line.
The cheapest and most effective state response to crime involves moving scarce resources away from the justice system and into supporting communities.
IN Ireland, we know that our prison population is made up in significant part by young people who slip through the cracks of our care system, our education system and our mental health services and who come largely from a small number of extremely poor urban communities where economic policies have failed.
An economic analysis of crime would lead us to investing in those communities and services as the most prudent way to avoiding the long-term costs of an inflated prison system.
We are not so naive as to think that all or even most crime is preventable, but a more sophisticated approach to crime is possible. It's not a question of being soft on crime, it is a question of being smart and effective in how we respond to crime.
We will always have prisons, but in a society that seeks to prevent social problems and build stronger communities, prison should only be used as a last resort.
Instead, resources should be directed towards early intervention and diversion, alternatives to custody, and ensuring the humane treatment of prisoners where imprisonment is deemed necessary.
Liam Herrick is Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust.