While there are a lot of causes to be pessimistic about the economic situation the State is in, and the pressure on public and community services, at IPRT we are hopeful and optimistic that 2012 is going to be a historic year for turning around the Irish prison system. The prison population is leveling off; the Government has announced the establishment of a Strategic Review Group in penal policy; and with the plans for Thornton shelved, the Prison Service can shift its focus to improving the existing prison stock. With leadership and political will, we believe that Ireland can begin to move from the failed policy of expansion to developing a more effective and focused prison system – and that there can be very significant, positive changes over the coming 12 months.
Last year saw the numbers in prison custody begin to level out after decades of penal expansion. From a peak of 4,587 in April 2011, the prison population remained at around 4,250 for the last 6 months of 2011. Coming after double-digit increases every year for the past decade, this is highly significant.
IPRT believes that 2012 could be the first year since the 1960s when the prison population is reduced year on year. If we are serious about reducing and keeping the prison population down, we need to focus on a number of areas:
- The Fines Act and the system of payment by instalment has to be finally implemented in 2012 and this should see an immediate reduction in imprisonment for fine default. Similarly, the use of Community Service as an alternative to prison must continue to be expanded, and there have been promising signs in the last year of the capacity of the Probation Service to take more people under community supervision.
- There must also be a proper review of our mandatory sentencing policies, particularly around drugs. In the next couple of weeks, the Law Reform Commission will publish a consultation paper on this topic, and we believe that there is a new political willingness to look at what has been a disastrous drugs policy in Ireland over the past two decades.
- Finally, the main priority for IPRT in the area of sentencing in 2012 will be on parole reform. An Oireachtas sub-Committee has been established to examine ways for the safe early release of prisoners in a structured and regulated manner. We will be working closely with the Oireachtas Committee and with Government to come up with proposals for a fair and just system of parole, temporary release and remission.
As we set out in our submission to the Thornton Hall Review Group, we are convinced that with steady progress in each of these three areas, we can reduce the prison population significantly over the next few years.
Some progress on slopping out in the C-block at Mountjoy has been followed up with the allocation of funds for expanding that work to include the B-block in 2012. We are now at a point where the prison service should shortly be able to give us a final date for the abolition of slopping out in the prison system.
There has also been a gradual acceptance of the Inspector of Prisons’ guidance on the real capacity – as opposed to the bed capacity – of the fourteen prisons in the State. The targets for reducing overcrowding are now clear, and we will be pushing Government to set out plans to meet those targets.
In any plan for the redevelopment of the prison system, IPRT will continue to demand that priority is given to addressing conditions in our worst prisons – Mountjoy, Limerick and particularly Cork – where the situation of slopping out, overcrowding and poor cell conditions is urgent.
Recent attention on the Dóchas Centre should also mean that misguided plans for dormitory accommodation are revisited, and 2012 is the year in which the government can finally accept our recommendation for a more wide-ranging review towards women offenders, moving towards alternatives to imprisonment for women.
Underpinning any programme of reform must be improved accountability. Recently, the need for a Prisoner Ombudsman has been raised again in the context of the tragic death of a prisoner at Cloverhill Prison. We believe that the case for an Ombudsman is stronger than ever; that a Prisoner Ombudsman would be a cheap and effective way of underpinning real accountability within the Prison system; and IPRT will be bringing forward proposals in the early part of this year for how the issue of an independent complaints’ system for prisoners can finally be addressed.
There are already some signs of movement on improving the internal complaints system within the Prison Service and reform of the Prisons Visiting Committees. A further essential element in 2012 would be for Ireland to ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OP-CAT) which will strengthen the inspection systems within our prisons and other places of detention.
Finally, in Youth Justice, the focus is now firmly on ending the detention of children in St. Patrick’s Institution. IPRT is working with a strong alliance of children’s rights groups to apply maximum pressure on both the Minister for Justice and the Minister for Children on this issue. It is a disgrace that during the boom years, this vulnerable group of children continued to be neglected by successive Irish Governments – but we are confident that with the transfer of responsibility for young people in the criminal justice system to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, a solution to this clear human rights violation is now moving closer.
Keeping the numbers down; addressing the key human rights issues in the prisons; strengthening accountability; and ending the detention of children in St. Patrick’s. None of these goals need cost the earth – in fact most of them would save exchequer funds. What they do need is leadership and commitment at Government level. Surely not too much to ask for 2012?