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Desperate times, desperate measures?

19th April 2010

Overcrowded cell in Mountjoy PrisonIPRT has been contacted by media for comment this week on recent cases where people sentenced to significant periods of imprisonment (10 months in one case, and 12 months in another) have been released on Temporary Release after a matter of days.

As prison ‘sceptics’, we might be expected to be happy to see prisoners released early – but in fact, there is a genuine problem of public confidence and trust if court sentences are being undermined in this way.

The context to the use of TR at present is, of course, the chronic overcrowding situation in Irish prisons.  Prison authorities, quite understandably, are using every measure available to them to manage unsustainable numbers in several prisons.  As a practical step they are trying to release the pressure valve by letting out prisoners who they assess as presenting a low risk.  We don’t have fixed safe custody limits (and we certainly should) but prison management recognises that the risk of releasing someone too early is sometimes preferable to the possible consequences of chronic overcrowding.

"...prison management recognises that the risk of releasing someone too early is sometimes preferable to the possible consequences of chronic overcrowding."

It is a humane response to a crisis not of their making, but it is of necessity ad hoc in nature and creates other problems – most importantly, in damaging credibility in the system for offenders and the public.  We are currently approaching TR levels of over 16% - that means that as well as the 4,100 prisoners inside, there are a further 750 on the outside.  So our overcrowding situation is even worse than it appears.

The question is what are we going to do about it? The bottom line is that in focussing on prisons, prisoner release and numbers of prison places, we are going nowhere.  The real story here is about the changes in sentencing patterns which is seeing  more people being sent to prison, and for longer periods of time.

IPRT has no problem in saying that court sentences should be implemented, but with a couple of caveats:  they should be used as a last resort, they should be planned, and they should be fair.  Given that these are pretty big caveats at the present time, we should not be surprised if prison management has to take desperate measures to deal with the excesses of our courts and policy-makers.

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