The Irish prison system is not working and needs a complete overhaul, participants at the Irish Prison Officers Association (POA) conference heard yesterday when the annual conference opened in Kilkenny.
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter addressed the conference, revealing the latest prison figures for 4th May 2011: 4,495 prisoners in custody, with a further 794 on temporary release, which is an all-time high.
[It is interesting to note, however, that while the total prison population may be at an all-time high (when you include the numbers out on temporary release) the number in prison custody is actually down by 46 from January].
The Minister highlighted his concerns about the levels of overcrowding that persist in Irish prisons, and the impact that it has on services to prisoners. Speaking on how best to address the problem of overcrowding, the Minister yesterday revealed he was attempting to think ‘creatively’, and was examining a project that would allow prisoners serving a sentence of less than seven years to become eligible for parole. At present inmates must have served at least seven years before they can make an application to be allowed out early to the Parole Board. Mr Shatter said he is planning to reduce the limit, but early release will be on condition that the prisoner carries out community service. If the prisoner fails in this respect, he or she will be returned to jail. He promised that the extension of parole could be carried out without creating huge expense to taxpayers. In this context, the Minister also assured delegates that the Dáil and Seanad would sit later than usual this year to ensure the passage of the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Bill 2011, legislation which he hopes will also help to ease the problem of overcrowding.
President of the Prison Officers Association, Stephen Delaney, also addressed delegates at the conference yesterday. He was highly critical of the levels of overcrowding, and asserted his belief that the current situation has eroded the potential for the prison system to operate with a rehabilitative focus. Speaking about the provision of services for mentally ill prisoners, he highlighted that despite the well-established fact that mental illness is a major issue within the prison population, there are only nine cells to accommodate offenders who are regarded as mentally ill or mentally challenged. He voiced concern also regarding the provision of detox services to drug-addicted prisoners, revealing that there are nine detox spaces available in Mountjoy Prison in part of the medical unit.
He also highlighted the situation for young people in detention, reminding Mr Shatter that the impact of the closure of Shanganagh Castle, the State’s only open centre for juvenile offenders, has meant that young offenders are now being placed in adult institutions, contrary to international standards for the detention of children. Mr Delaney drew attention also to the number of prisoners on protection, which now totals 400. He stated that there are insufficient resources and facilities to cater to these prisoners.
The conference is due to conclude later today.