The Irish Penal Reform Trust has challenged Justice Minister McDowell to provide the evidence supporting his proposals to restructure the prison system, saying that "this plan shows the degree to which the Minister is willing to sacrifice sensible long-term planning to the needs of short-term politicking." According to media reports, the Minister intends to close two open prisons, move the management for two more "outside the Prison Service" and privatise the prison escort service.
The IPRT questioned how the closure of some of the least expensive prisons in the system would resolve the issue of costs, especially when other more expensive prisons - such as Mountjoy and Portlaoise - have specifically been recommended for closure by the Prison Inspector. "The Minister is making decisions solely to defeat POA on the overtime issue, rather than acting responsibly to implement a long-term, evidenced-based plan to improve the operation and outcomes of the current system," said IPRT Executive Director, Rick Lines,
The IPRT also raised the concern that today's proposals are the beginning of a broader move to privatise the prison system. "Since August, we have argued that the Minister is manufacturing a crisis in order to push through an ideologically driven agenda under the guise of a solution. These fears have now been borne out," said Mr. Lines. "There is no evidence that these proposals will address the problems the Minister claims to be solving. They do however create the framework to privatise - either immediately or in the middle term - large sectors of the prison service."
"On October 15th the Minister told the Dáil, 'I can state categorically…that there is no plan in my Department to privatise the Prison Service.' Now we find out less than one month later that a plan does exist to transfer management of two prisons outside the Prison Service. Even if the management of these prisons is taken over by another government department in the interim, who will ultimately take over these prisons in the long run? We are concerned that this proposal is nothing more than a cynical stepping-stone to further privatisation."
The IPRT was also critical of the notion of privatised prison escorts. "The Minister's own expert committee recommended against this option only one year ago, calling it 'not viable'. They stated it was unreasonable to presume that such a scheme would be less expensive or more efficient than a restructured public service," said Mr. Lines.
"The Minister's decision on prison escorts - ignoring as it does the best advice of his own expert committee - demonstrates most definitively the degree to which today's proposals place ideology over evidence."