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Case Study 1: Thornton Hall super-prison

As recently as January 2011, plans for a super-prison at Thornton Hall were still a core element in the Irish Prison Service strategy to address chronic and increasing overcrowding within the prison system – and the Government was measuring its success in the area of penal policy by how many prison spaces had been added during its term.

Thornton HallIPRT was strenuously opposed to the super-prison plans from their inception, drawing on national and international experience which shows that penal expansion does not address overcrowding, and only serves to increase prison populations: if prison places are built, over time ways are found to fill them.

IPRT was - and remains - against the building of the proposed prison on the basis of its size, location, and also early plans to re-locate female prisoners to the remote site, along with minors within the prison system, and to co-locate the new Central Mental Hospital on the site. It was IPRT's position that these plans were ill-conceived in their entirety.

So what did we do about it?

We did our research. We set out our position. We took a detailed look at the short-, medium- and long-term issues, and worked out the most effective ways to address them. We fought assumptions with facts and analysis. We abolished established myths that soaring crime was responsible for rocketing prison numbers. We decided that the economic crisis presented us with an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. We proposed solutions that would be of greater social and economic benefit to Irish society than prison building.

PP Thornton Hall CoverAnd then we set about communicating our position and our recommendations. We made submissions. We held events. We issued press releases. We talked to stakeholders. We talked to the media. We participated in policy processes.

In everything we did, we were consistent in our core message of complete opposition to any plans to expand the prison system:

“Increasing the size of and numbers in our prisons does not - and will not - reduce levels of crime. It merely serves to increase prisoner numbers. Instead, building smaller prisons within the community, with emphasis on alternatives to custody and prison as a last resort, while investing in early intervention and prevention measures, will be of far greater benefit to society.”

What was the result?

Open Forum June 2009 SpeakersIn short, there has been an enormous sea-change in penal policy. Over the past 2 years, there has been a complete shift from insistence that prison building must keep up with accelerating numbers committed by the Courts, to cross-party consensus that the prison population must in fact be reduced, and that this can be done without risk to public safety.

[Photo: IPRT Open Forum 2009. L-R: Prof Ian O'Donnell, UCD; Jimmy Martin, Asst. Secretary of the Dept. of Justice; Brian Purcell, Director General, Irish Prison Service; Prof Fergus MacNeill; Prof Andrew Coyle. © Derek Speirs]

Since early 2011, work has been carried out in Mountjoy Prison to install in-cell sanitation across the prison – something the previous Government had insisted could not be done, proffering Thornton Hall as the only viable solution to chronic overcrowding in unfit prison conditions.

In April 2011, the new Minister for Justice Mr Alan Shatter TD announced the establishment of a committee to review the Thornton Hall Project. The committee reported in July 2011, and on publication of the report Minister Alan Shatter stated unequivocally: The Minister agrees with the Review Group’s view that prison overcrowding cannot be solved solely by building more prisons and that further steps are required to reduce the prisoner population.” Although the committee concluded that a smaller prison should still be built at the Thornton Hall site, these plans have since been shelved.

Another large prison planned for Kilworth, outside Cork, has also been mothballed; instead a new prison is planned to be built alongside Cork Prison, and – crucially – the old prison will be closed.

On 30 April 2012, the Irish Prison Service published its Three Year Strategic Plan 2012-2015, in which it prioritised refurbishment works to eliminate the practice of slopping out within the existing prisons.

On the recommendations of the Thornton Hall Review Group, in Sept 2012, the Minister for Justice announced the establishment of a working group to conduct a wide-ranging strategic review of penal policy to inform the future development of penal policy in Ireland.

Most recently, on 27 March 2013, the Committee for Justice, Defence and Equality published its Report on Penal Reform, in which they recommend a ‘decarceration strategy’ to reduce the prison population by one third over 10 years - cross-party consensus that penal expansionism does not work.

Although the building of a prison facility on the Thornton Hall site in north Dublin has been mothballed and not scrapped – the site remains in the ownership of the Department of Justice, and plans could be dusted off at any time, however unlikely it seems at the moment – we strongly believe that if the current shift in thinking behind Irish penal policy is adopted and implemented, then the prison will never be built simply because there will be no demand to justify it.

IPRT intends to be a part of consolidating this shift.

For more information on how you can support our work, please see here.

Key actions by IPRT

It would not be possible to list here every action by IPRT that contributed to the decision by policy-makers not to proceed with plans to build a super-prison at Thornton Hall, but some key outputs include:

viewed here