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Irish Times Letters: Resignation of prison governor

28th April 2010

Madam, – Resignations on a point of principle are not common in our political culture; so when a senior public official resigns because she feels that she can no longer carry out her statutory functions, that gesture demands respect and attention. The resignation of Kathleen McMahon as governor of the Dóchas Centre women’s prison (Front page, April 26th) gives rise to serious questions about current conditions in that prison and, more generally, about the direction of policy towards women who come before the courts.

Since its establishment in 1999, the Dóchas Centre has been one of the success stories of the Irish prison system. Under Kathleen McMahon’s leadership, it has managed to provide a progressive and rehabilitative regime for many women, most of whom present with complex and multiple needs. The prison has, rightly, been put forward as a model of best practice internationally.

Ms McMahon has expressed the fear that the achievements of the last decade at Dóchas are now being fundamentally undermined by chronic overcrowding at the prison and by an apparent acceptance by senior management that this level of overcrowding is likely to continue into the future.

Those who run our prisons know better than anyone else the impact of overcrowding on prisoners and staff. They know too that the origins of overcrowding lie in wasteful and counter-productive sentencing policies. Ms McMahon has rightly pointed out that a significant proportion of the women sent to our closed prisons could be more effectively and more cheaply be dealt with in the community or in open facilities. In England and Wales, there has been a move in this direction in recent years, with commitments from the UK government to reduce the numbers of women in prison. There have also been calls for the establishment of localised small-scale open facilities where lower-risk women offenders can be closely supervised, while retaining their relationships with their families and with their communities.

Last December, the Women in Prison Reform Alliance made a joint submission to the Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern for a review of policy towards women offenders.

We believe such a review could provide a blueprint for reducing overcrowding and developing more suitable alternatives to imprisonment for women who come before the courts. We are still awaiting a response to that submission. In the meantime, we hope this brave and principled act by the governor of the Dóchas Centre women’s prison will lead to serious engagement by Government with this issue. – Yours, etc,

On behalf of the Women in Prison Reform Alliance:

EOIN CARROLL, Acting Director, Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice;

LIAM HERRICK, Executive Director, Irish Penal Reform Trust;

SUSAN McKAY, Director, National Women’s Council of Ireland;

ELLEN O’MALLEY DUNLOP, CEO, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre;

Dr CHRISTINA QUINLAN, DCU;

MARIAN TANNAM, Co-ordinator, Dominican Justice Office,

C/o Upper Ormond Quay,

Dublin 7.

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