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Prisons and Penal Reform: Recent Developments in Ireland

24th May 2012

Penal policy in Ireland has often been described as stagnant; however, the last few months have proved to be an exciting time for new proposals regarding penal reform. For too long, warehousing has been the central plank of Irish penal policy, but recent commitments, such as ending the detention of juveniles in St Patrick’s Institution, the introduction of the Community Return Scheme, and the publication of the Spent Convictions Bill 2012, could be an indication of a change of tack for Irish penal policy.

In February, there were new proposals regarding Cork prison, which has been criticised continually both nationally and internationally for issues including overcrowding, slopping out and inadequate health facilities.  The absence of in-cell sanitation in all but 8 cells in Cork prison means that slopping-out in shared cells continues to be a daily practice for prisoners there. These conditions are further exacerbated by overcrowding; Cork is one of Ireland’s most acutely overcrowded prisons, often running at 200% capacity. Therefore the IPRT welcomed the publication of Unlocking Community Alternatives – A Cork Approach on the 1st of February. The document includes proposals to build a new 150 cell prison which would be fully fitted with in-cell sanitation. While the prison is overcrowded, rather than build a larger prison to accommodate increased numbers, as has been the habitat in the past, the strategy includes plans for increased use of community-based sanctions. If fully implemented, this could mark the beginning of a shift in policy, away from prison expansion and towards effective community alternative across the penal system.

April proved to be one of the busiest and promising months for penal reform on record! It kicked off with a concrete commitment to bring to an end the detention of children in St Patrick’s Institution. On the 2nd of April, Minister for children Frances Fitzgerald announced that €50m had been made available for the construction phase one of the National Children’s Detention Centre to be built at Oberstown, Co. Meath. While the new building won’t be ready for 2 -3 years, from the 1st of May 2012 all newly remanded or sentence 16 year old children will no longer be detained in St. Patrick’s, but sent to the existing children detention facilities in Oberstown. In 1985  their was a damning review of St Patrick's, which recommended that it be closed as soon as possible, and yet for nearly 30 years no action was taken. So while it may be long overdue, the construction of the National Children's Detention Centre is a hugely significant and progressive change in Irish penal policy. 

There was more good news for penal reform on the 19th of April, when it was announced that any death of a person in prison custody, or recently released on TR from prison, will to be subject to an independent investigation by the Inspector of Prisons. For many years, the IPRT has been highly critical of the lack of independent investigations into prisoners' deaths and the lack of transparency around the process, so IPRT is pleased that the Inspector’s reports are to be made public. However, we have expressed reservations that the proposals may not go far enough. Currently there are no plans to create a legislative framework to support the work of the Inspector and provide his Office with the necessary legal powers to carry out an effective investigation.

On the 30th of April, the IPS launched its Three Year Strategic Plan which includes a list of progressive changes for the prison service. For example, the document details an ambitious strategic action which outlines plans to end slopping-out over a 40 month period. However, one of the most significant developments that emerged from the plan was the concrete commitment to nationwide implementation of the Community Return Scheme. This is a highly significant step for the Irish prison system. Prisoners who are assessed as posing no threat to the community will be offered supervised early release to complete their sentences on community service. Schemes such as these have been shown to be highly effective in reducing reoffending. Furthermore, the release of 400 prisoners per year for three years on the Community Return Scheme will reduce the prisoner population to 2007 levels. IPRT has constantly and consistently campaigned for greater use of alternatives to custody to help end endemic overcrowding in Irish prisons, so we welcome the government’s intentions to tackle this issue.

Another important development in Irish penal policy was the publication of the Spent Convictions Bill 2012. Having a criminal record can be an impossible hurdle to overcome for people with convictions who wish to move on from their offending beahviour; simple, but essential reintegrative processes, like getting insurance, or finding a job all become incredibly difficult when you have a past conviction. And no matter how long ago, or how minor an offence, under Irish law a conviction will always remain with you. So IPRT very much welcomed the long overdue Spent Convictions Bill 2012. However, we believe that the Bill should be amended to further reduce the barriers to rehabilitation. For example, the rehabilitation periods could be shortened, and the maximum sentence of 12 months' imprisonment in the Bill is still comparatively low (in 2013, the threshold in the UK will rise to 48 months' imprisonment). Also, the continued obligation to declare all convictions for certain types of employment seems disproportionate. IPRT has also questioned the rationale behind limiting the number of convictions that can be spent to two; this is quite stringent, given that one incident can often yield more than two convictions. However, the Bill provides a promising framework, and with some significant tweaks it could prove to be a comprehensive way to reduce the obstacles faced by ex-offenders who are trying to move on with their lives.

In addition to all of this, there was also a raft of Visiting Committee Annual Reports published for Cork Prison, Mountjoy, Wheatfield, Arbour Hill, and Cloverhill prisons. The Inspector of Prisons' Annual Report 2011 was also published, in which the Inspector highlights how much work still needs to be done to create a transparent, accountable and modern prison system. The Inspector underlines some serious issues within the prison system – overcrowding, slopping-out, and prisoner complaint mechanisms are just some of the issues he raises. Moreover, he indicates that there are reports recently submitted to the Department of Justice which are yet to be unpublished, along with investigations currently being undertaken.

Taken together, these extensive proposals provide an ambitious vision for change, and mark a promising shift in Irish penal policy. Penal expansion has been a failed policy, and perhaps there is an emerging understanding about more effective and nuanced ways to reduce reoffending. However, for these reforms to be translated into actual changes in practice they must be fully resourced. It is essential that these plans do not become vacant; in the past there have been promising reports and aspiring policy documents, such as the Whitaker Report (1985) and The Management of Offenders (1994), which were quickly forgotten. These recent changes must be followed through; they should be viewed as a first significant step in the right direction, but there is still along way to go and a lot to be done to make these changes a tangible reality.

This weeks blog was prepared by Louise Brangan, our current intern

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