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Politico: All encompassing review of penal policy needed to tackle prison overcrowding

7th September 2011

The problem of overcrowding in Irish prisons will not be solved by building new prisons alone. A comprehensive review of penal policy will also be required, writes Paul Walsh of Politico.

The article describes how the Report of the Thornton Hall Project Review Group has revealed a host of problems that will not be solved by a new prison alone. It also reiterates the need to improve conditions in several of Ireland's prisons.

The report criticises the amount spent on the Thornton Hall project, an estimated € 44.9 million. According to Walsh this has "limited the options open to the Government and has made the prison almost too expensive not to proceed with". The review group has now proposed reducing the scale of the development at Thornton Hall to cater for 500 prisoners rather than the original 2,200, as this would free up funds to built a new prison in Cork.

The article highlights the Victorian conditions in some of Ireland's prisons, criticising the continued practice of 'slopping out' in both Cork and Mountjoy prisons. Liam Herrick, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, is quoted in the article as saying "I think it is very clear to us that conditions in those two prisons and in other parts of the Irish prison system are violations under our constitution"

Although the report fails to explore reasons for the overcrowding problems in prison, it does offer a number of viable explanations, one of which suggests Ireland has more punitive criminal justice and penal policies.

The article notes IPRT's support for several of the more positive aspects of the report, including references to non-custodial sentences as a solution to the problems in the Irish prison system. This focus on alternatives to prison is groundbreaking as it demonstrates a willingness to create a more coherent system. In relation to this, Liam Herrick is quoted as saying "There has been an absence of an overall crime policy or penal policy from the government, which sets out the appropriate role of prison, the appropriate role of diversion, probation and so on". 

Overall, Walsh argues that a total review of the penal system, as recommended by the report, is the best way to tackle overcrowding and not just the building of new prisons alone.

Read more:

  • Read the Politico article in full here
  • Read the Report of the Thornton Hall Project Review Group in full here