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Irish Times: Minimise use of custody with fewer but better cells

14th May 2010

By Ian O'Donnell, writing in the Irish Times.

The prison service is in crisis: capacity should be reduced, not increased, and new, non-custodial policies devised for dealing with offenders, writes Ian O'Donnell.

THE SUDDEN departure of John Lonergan as governor of Mountjoy Prison follows hard on the heels of the resignation of Kathleen McMahon, head of the Dóchas Centre for female offenders.

These events take place at a time when our prison system is under considerable strain, and where vision and leadership are required.

The number of men and women behind bars is drifting to unprecedented heights; minor offenders who could be better dealt with in the community are clogging up expensive prison places; the building programme has stalled but remains a priority; and a report by the European anti-torture committee, which visited Ireland at the beginning of the year, is in preparation.

Previous reports by this body have sounded alarm bells, depicting a prison system distorted by a climate of violence and fear. There is no reason to suspect the next one will be any different.

In isolation, any of these developments would be a cause for concern; taken together they point to more fundamental difficulties that, if allowed to persist, could precipitate a serious crisis.

Consider what we know about the jailing of fine defaulters – a practice that is as pointless as it is relentless. This group accounted for more than 3,300 committals to prison in the first 10 months of last year. It is troubling that people whose offending is not serious enough to attract a custodial sentence in the first place end up in prison because they cannot, or will not, pay their fines.

As they serve short periods in custody, fine defaulters account for only 1 or 2 per cent of the prison population on any given day. This observation is sometimes made to play down the harms associated with their imprisonment. But the reality is short bursts of incarceration are hugely disruptive to the individuals concerned and their families, and put an avoidable burden on busy committal prisons such as Mountjoy.

Hopefully the Fines Bill, which is due to become law soon, will alleviate this problem. Time will tell.

As prisoner numbers increase, so too does the challenge of connecting ex-prisoners with relevant services, supports and treatment options. John Lonergan has often highlighted the extent to which Mountjoy prisoners hail from a small number of readily identifiable postal districts in Dublin. This pattern is replicated across the State.

Examination of released prisoners’ addresses reveals that in the most deprived areas of the Republic there are 146 prisoners for every 10,000 residents. This compares with six in the least deprived areas.

The magnitude of this difference is startling. It demonstrates unequivocally it is the areas already marked by serious disadvantage that must bear the brunt of the social problems that accompany released prisoners.

Even the best-motivated individual will find it more difficult to remain within the law when they are in regular contact with others who have been involved in crime and served time in prison.

This creates a potentially destabilising situation, given the propensity for ex-prisoners to reoffend and the demands they place on social welfare, healthcare and criminal justice services.

The challenge is not identifying what needs to be done. It is ensuring action is taken, and followed through upon.

A quarter of a century ago the Whitaker Committee recommended: “As a guide to policy, a limit should be set from time to time to the acceptable prison population and any tendency for the limit to be exceeded should signal the need for revised policies and strategies.”

This wise recommendation has been echoed by other review groups but has had little practical effect.

What is required is a reorientation of the penal system away from the prison and towards punishment in the community. We need to shift the prison from centre stage and devise more imaginative, humane, compassionate, and effective ways to deal with the petty offenders who form the bulk of those sent to prison each year.

This must be coupled with a recognition that the solution to the prisons crisis will not be found in the provision of extra spaces.

In this regard I have a suggestion to make about how to strike a balance between the desire to expand and the need to contract. It is this: for every three new prison cells constructed, four old ones could be taken entirely out of commission. This would establish a link between new buildings and an overall policy of minimising the use of custody. The emphasis would be on fewer, but better, cells.

The financial savings resulting from such an approach could be put to good use in those communities that are struggling to cope with disproportionate numbers of released prisoners. A redirection of resources along these lines would have the further advantage of reducing the likelihood of reoffending among a high-risk group, thereby slowing the growth of the prison population.

Such a strategy would help to ensure future prison governors do not find themselves working in institutions akin to human warehouses, where the frustrations caused by poor penal planning and degrading conditions become unbearable.

Read the Irish Times article here.