Director’s Blog

Guest Blog: In praise of U.S. levels of incarceration?

September 11th, 2012

In this guest blog, Gillian Smith responds to some of the arguments and counter-arguments raised during a week-long series of articles ‘Crime Statistics Ireland’ published in The Irish Times, August 2012.

In a week where Chief Reporter Carl O’Brien and Crime Correspondent Conor Lally illustrated so well the intricate relationship between childhood, parenting, education, geographical inequality, youth detention and criminal activity, the contribution of Economics Editor Dan O’Brien to The Irish Times’ ‘Crime Statistics Ireland’ series – ‘Poverty and inequality not key reasons for law breaking’ (24th August, 2012) – felt somewhat regressive.

Under the premise of casting an economic eye on crime causation, O’Brien offers New York City’s safety (despite high income inequality), India’s low homicide rate (despite its poverty), and rising crime rates alongside post-World War Two prosperity as evidence to debunk “the notion that recession, poverty and inequality make people break laws”. Noting the 45% increase in prison committals in Ireland that coincided with falling crime rates in the four years until 2011, O’Brien claims “it is hard to avoid the conclusion that greater resort to custodial sentencing, which remains low by international standards, has cut crime rates”.

Beware assumptions of a significant causal relationship between crime and prison, alongside praise of America’s use of incarceration.

Firstly, at a European level, Ireland is by no means a low imprisonment country. Ireland imprisons 100 people per 100,000 national population; this is a higher rate than Germany, France, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. Professor Ian O’Donnell pointed out recently that in 1999, Ireland’s imprisonment rate was 20% below the EU-15 average. Now, we are average, with the highest percentage imprisonment rate increase of all EU-15 countries (54%) in the past twelve years.

Secondly, the relationship between prison and crime is far from straightforward. Criminologists Ian O’Donnell and Eoin O’Sullivan studied the fall in recorded crime in Ireland between 1995 and 1999, and found that the 21 per cent decline would have occurred even if prison populations had remained static. Rising prison populations did not explain the fall in crime. International research suggests a similarly marginal relationship; some British criminologists argue that a 25 per cent increase in prison populations will produce a one per cent drop in crime.  Since 2001, all of the nineteen American states that have managed to lower their imprisonment rates have seen a fall in their crime rate. New York City’s infamous crime reduction took place without massive expansion in the use of incarceration, maintaining below-national average use of imprisonment.

O’Brien maintains that imprisonment works due to incapacitation effects, rather than rehabilitation or deterrence. Indeed, Irish research does reveal low levels of deterrence of custodial sanctions, with almost half of all prisoners released between 2001 and 2004 being re-imprisoned within four years. The likelihood of imprisonment is almost twice as high for someone who has already served time in prison than for those with no previous prison experience, which suggests that prison in fact worsens offenders’ risk of re-offending.

Recent increases in the use of imprisonment in Ireland largely comprise short sentences (three months or less) for non-violent crimes such as Road Traffic and Public Order offences. Almost two thirds of all committals to prison last year were for short sentences, which have more than doubled over the past four years (from 3,526 in 2008 to 8,070 in 2011). During the same period, we saw a 198% increase in the numbers of committals to prison for non-payment of court ordered fines, the vast majority (85%) of whom will be re-imprisoned within four years. Incapacitating thousands of non-violent offenders for short periods of time is wasteful, ineffective and harmful.

Thirdly, O’Brien refers to falling crime in America and rising crime in Europe as a ”reversal of misfortune”, without warning of the many social and economic burdens of American incarceration: The U.S. has the highest imprisonment rate in the world (743 prisoners per 100,000 national population), before Rwanda (595) and Russia (568). According the Pew Center on the States, one in 2.3 American prisoners returns to prison within 3 years, testimony to the diminishing returns of prison beyond a certain point.  Many States, such as California, are spending almost as much on prisons as they are on higher education. Huge racial disparities exist within the 2.2 million incarcerated. Over a lifetime, African Americans are 29 per cent likely to spend time in prison, compared to just 4 per cent for white Americans. One in nine African American children has a parent who is in prison, compared to one in fifty-seven for white children.

Meanwhile, the U.S.’s neighbour Canada has a fraction of their imprisonment rate, at 117 prisoners per 100,000 population. Canada and the United States witnessed similar rising crime rates from the 1960s onwards, and subsequent dramatic declines since the 1990s. Canada, however, has managed to maintain stable and comparatively low levels of imprisonment during both upward and downward crime trends.

The growth of American imprisonment rates [the prison population increased seven-fold over the thirty years from 1970] resulted from punitive penal policies such as truth-in-sentencing, ‘three strikes’ laws, mandatory drugs sentences, and life sentences without the possibility of parole. Canada’s homicide rate is nearly three times lower than America’s. The United Nations’ 2011 Global Study on Homicide found that countries with higher income inequality have homicide rates almost four times that of more equal countries. (Although growing, Canada’s post tax and transfer income inequality is 17% lower than in the U.S.) Differences in income inequality are also said to explain the variation in homicide rates across the U.S.

Earlier in the Irish Times’ series, social justice campaigner Fr Peter McVerry had urged for more balanced framing of dialogue about crime, away from ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentalities. Yet, Dan O’Brien’s use of language at times sounds archaic and polarising (“More sobriety leads to less delinquency… [...] …prison is not effective in rehabilitating the villainous”). Overlooking socioeconomic causes of crime can reproduce a destructive ‘criminal class’ narrative: the idea that certain people or groups are simply prone to criminal behaviour. For example, denying that structural biases have contributed to the racial disparities in the U.S. prison system lends support to the reproduction of negative stereotypes.

The poor and disadvantaged are greatly over-represented in our prisons. Paul O’Mahony’s oft-cited 1997 study of prisoners in Mountjoy revealed that four out of five had left school before the age of 15, one in three grew up in a household where no parent was in employment, and 37% had lost a parent by the time they were 15 years old. Prisoners in Ireland are 25 times more likely to come from and return to areas of serious deprivation, and the majority are unemployed upon committal to prison. Some criminologists maintain that prison is in itself criminogenic, such are the barriers to reintegration following time in custody.

Speaking at the Irish Penal Reform Trust Annual Lecture in 2011, Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence Alan Shatter agreed: “sending offenders to prison without tackling the underlying social conditions of their criminality – the lack of skills, education, and employment – while they are in prison only serves to reinforce the cycle of criminality.”

Given the marginal impact that prison has on crime, the high rates of prisoner re-offending, and the huge costs and harm associated with incarceration, what sense does it make to call for even more?

Gillian Smith is currently studying Sociology and Social Policy at Trinity college, Dublin. She worked as in intern with IPRT for July and August 2012.

Prisons and Penal Reform: Recent Developments in Ireland

May 24th, 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

‘Discovering Desistance’ Exchange Seminar

May 21st, 2012

Queen’s University Belfast hosted a knowledge exchange seminar on ‘Discovering Desistance’ on the 14th May 2012. This event was part one of a two-day seminar facilitated by Professor Fergus McNeill (University of Glasgow), Professor Shadd Maruna (Queen’s University Belfast) and Claire Lightowler (The Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services, Glasgow). The workshop was attended by various stakeholders including reformed offenders, academics, practitioners and policymakers in the criminal justice system. 

The seminar commenced with the viewing of a new documentary entitled ‘The Road from Crime’ funded by the Economic, Social and Research Council (ESRC). The contents of the film focused on the lives of reformed offenders and illustrated their various pathways away from crime. While it was acknowledged that only an individual can stop offending, the stories narrated in the documentary highlighted a number of factors that support desistance from crime. For many, the creation of a new identity was significant, for example, the conversion to Christianity was important in facilitating change for one ex-offender. The role of peers, in particular, individuals previously involved in criminal activity who managed to transform their lives, were looked upon by other offenders as inspirations. As a result of the presence of positive peer role models, there was a ‘contagion’ effect where other individuals also managed to desist from crime.

The film also drew attention to the labelling an individual experiences as a result of imprisonment. In one case, an ex-offender repeatedly receives no opportunity of employment due to his disclosure of a conviction. This story illustrated the necessity for the response of society towards offenders to change. The question was asked: why should offenders care about a society that fails to care for them?

The seminar outlined the obligation of the State to ensure that punishment ends, paradoxically, one ex-offender in the documentary claimed that often the sentence only begins upon re-entry into the community.

The second part of the seminar was described as the ‘discovery phase’ where group discussions explored the ‘best of what is’, as well as identifying factors that have supported individuals to stop offending. The concept of ‘appreciative inquiry’ was applied to understand what has been working effectively and what can be improved upon to assist individuals desist from crime. Values of persistence, trust and belief were noted as instrumental in helping individuals to change. The engagement of dialogue between various stakeholders was also described as a significant tool in facilitating change.

The third section of the workshop focused on propositions to support the desistance process. This was referred to as the ‘dream’ phase with the objective of constructing a ‘possible future.’ A number of proposals resulted from the group discussion in order to facilitate an individual’s chance to desist from crime, including:

  • The development of positive role models, in particular, using ex-offenders as mentors.  
  • The need for employment opportunities (including within the public sector) for ex-offenders. An incentivised scheme was proposed to encourage employers to hire ex-offenders.
  • The importance of ‘lifting the labels’/the removal of the label ‘offender.’
  • The application of the concept ‘Justice Reinvestment’ i.e. the need to take money out of the justice system and invest this money into community resources.
  • The development of restorative approaches which should allow for greater involvement of the victim in the process.
  • A dedicated 24-hour helpline due to the limited contact availability of social workers and probation officers.
  • The establishment of drop-in centres. 
  • Mandatory teaching on the subject of desistance for all criminal justice and social worker professionals.  
  • The need for service providers to make decisions based on their expertise, despite the negative media attention their choices sometimes might attract.
  • The introduction of the presumption against sentencing.
  • The elimination of sentences for those who commit petty crimes.
  • The introduction of prison counsels where prisoners’ voices are consulted with, and heard in prisons.
  • The reduction of time periods to expunge offenders.

This seminar was also held in other locations including Glasgow, London and Sheffield. The workshops have created numerous provocative propositions for criminal justice reform.  These propositions will be developed in the next phase. 

Part two of the exchange seminar will focus on the ‘design’ phase. The ‘design’ phase will examine what practices and services should look like if they are devised to support desistance more effectively. Finally, the ‘destiny’ phase will look at how these propositions can be implemented. This seminar will take place in Queen’s University Belfast on Monday the 25th June 2012. For more information visit the ‘Discovering Desistance’ blog: 

Michelle Martyn is Research & Policy Officer with IPRT.

A Values Based Prison System: Spanish Delegate Visits Wheatfield Prison

April 3rd, 2012

As part of a wider campaign to generate solutions to current social and economic problems in Ireland, Change Nation, an Ashoka initiative,hosted a visit by Spanish entrepreneur, Faustino Garcia Zapico on his idea of Units of Therapy and Education (UTE) and how this programme could be successfully applied in the Irish prison context. As part of his visit to Ireland, IPRT helped to organise a visit for Faustino to Wheatfield Prison which was facilitated by the Irish Prison Service, where he presented on UTE’s work in Spain and exchanged information with Irish colleagues on the parallels with incentivised regimes initiatives here.

UTE was established in 1992 where its emphasis was on addressing the needs of drug-using inmates. Since then UTE has expanded its remit to tackling the specific needs of each inmate, with the programme being implemented across numerous Spanish prisons. The purpose of UTE is to transform the physical environment and create a positive space for everyone in the prison system. Prison officers and inmates work with therapeutic professionals in order to construct and co-manage an environment that helps establish goals.

The central component of Faustino’s strategy is the relationship between the prison officer and the inmate. While the prison officer is only expected to maintain order in the traditional prison system, UTE prison officers are essentially educators that help each inmate develop and achieve an individualised plan. The core element is on teaching the inmate positive societal values such as empathy and trust. Daily meetings occur between 15 inmates and 2 prison officers. Each inmate speaks about their past, present and their aspirations for the future. During these meetings, confrontations are made to address any specific obstacles a prisoner may need to overcome such as addressing violent behaviour. Furthermore, inmates share a cell where one inmate (the individual that has progressed/rehabilitated) is responsible for restraining the other inmate’s misconduct. 

There is an internalization process where if the family of the individual is regarded as a positive impact on the individual, the inmate stays at home while attending UTE. If the family influence is negative, the inmate cuts off all contact. Non-governmental organisations oversee that each inmate successfully integrates into society upon release. 

According to research from the Psychology Dept of the University of Oviedo Spain, the UTE displays a remarkable reduction in re-offending for those who participate in the programme from 65% to 26%. Furthermore, absence leave for UTE prison officers is currently 0%.

Attendees for the visit to Wheatfield Prison included the Spanish delegate, representatives from Ashoka, staff from the Irish Prison Service, the Prison Officers Association, and the Irish Penal Reform Trust.

As a result of the visit, commitments to this project include the following:

  • Kieran McGowan of Business in the Community stated that “it should be considered sending a group to Faustino’s prison in order to set up a pilot in Ireland.
  • Dr. Mary Redmond will facilitate links with the Irish Prison Officers Association with the objective of sending a number of prison officers to Villabona Prison in Spain.
  • Former governor John Lonergan has also committed to arranging a visit to Villabona prison.   

For further information, visit the website and

Hopeful for Change in 2012

January 11th, 2012

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.

Prison Population

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.

Prison Conditions

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.

Youth Justice

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? Long jail terms don’t work in tackling crime

December 12th, 2011

Liam Herrick discusses what works in tackling crime and making society safer on

"Over the past twenty years (possibly even longer) there has been a destructive drift towards ‘common sense’ and posturing policies on crime, and away from cold evidence of what actually works in making communities safer. The growth of our prison system – which has doubled in size in the last 14 years – is just one symptom of this problem, but more widely the tone of justice policy discussion started to deteriorate from the moment John O’Donoghue, then Minister for Justice, started to talk about “zero tolerance” in the mid-1990s.

From that point, being seen to be tough on crime became more important than actually focusing on what was likely to work in reducing crime. In a time of prosperity, with an apparent surplus of public funds with which to play populist politics, successive Governments ploughed ahead with prison expansion – and with putting in place the laws and policies to fill those prisons."

Read the column in full on here: Long jail terms don’t work in tackling crime – no matter what ‘common sense’ says

Strip Searches at Dóchas

November 23rd, 2011

Dochas CentreLast night, the Minister for Justice made a comprehensive statement in the Dáil about the shocking annual report of the Dóchas Centre Visiting Committee, published last Friday (18th Nov 2011). While the Minister reiterated the position of the Irish Prison Service that no women were strip searched in front of male officers, he did accept that what had happened in a strip search in November 2010, as recounted in the Visiting Committee report, was unacceptable and that instructions had been issued to staff about any future searches. The Minister also acknowledged that the manner in which another woman prisoner had been ejected from the prison was “entirely unacceptable”.

While the Minister’s clarity on both of these violations of rights is very welcome, a number of important issues remain outstanding:

1. Transparency and Accountability

This controversy has only come to light because of the publication of the Visiting Committee’s Report, a full year after the incident took place (on 9th Nov 2010).  We do not know if any complaints were made by prisoners about these incidents, but given that the current internal complaints system lacks any real credibility, it is quite possible that no prisoner made a formal complaint. This incident emphasises once again - and most emphatically - the need for proper accountability and an independent complaints system within the prison system, such as the effective Prison Ombudsman models in England and Wales, Scotland and in Northern Ireland.

Even though the Minister has now issued a full statement on what happened at the Dóchas Centre, we remain unaware of any staff or management being held to account, and we still do not know who ordered this search and/or who oversaw the search being conducted in this manner. The Government has plans to strengthen the Visiting Committee model, by bringing them under the Inspector of Prisons, and this seems like a good time to do so.

2. Deterioration of Dóchas Regime

The Visiting Committee Report also indicated a much deeper problem within the Dóchas Centre, reflecting a change in ethos and regime within the prison away from one that is primarily rehabilitative. The change to a more punitive regime is a pattern that has been witnessed by many professionals and agencies working in the prison over the last number of years. Where once the Dóchas Centre was a model of a successful women’s prison, put forward internationally as an example of best practice, now it seems that much of this progress has been lost.The Minister needs to seriously examine what is happening at Dóchas – and an internal review of these recent reports by prison management is not an effective way to get to the root of this change in culture.

3. More Effective Responses

This is also an appropriate time to reflect on where we are going with the imprisonment of women in Ireland more generally. The deterioration of the regime in the Dóchas Centre is undoubtedly linked to the exceptional levels of overcrowding in that prison over recent years, and more importantly, the very significant increase in the number of women who have been imprisoned over that period. (There has been an increase of more than 87% in the numbers of women sentenced to imprisonment since 2005, and a 19% increase in 2010 on 2009 numbers.)

In December 2009, the Women in Prison Reform Alliance made a submission to then Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern calling for a full review of criminal justice policy towards women offenders in Ireland, which would look at alternatives to imprisonment and provision of open and alternative residential facilities for women offenders. In Ireland, we only have a medium security prison response to women offenders, even though internationally women are recognised posing far lower risk than male prisoners. Many good models exist for residential and therapeutic alternatives to prison for women; such programmes are cheaper, more effective and more capable of addressing the fact that a large proportion of women’s offending is linked to underlying causes such as mental health, addiction and experiences of abuse.

Read more:

Momentum building against s. 15A

October 24th, 2011


In today’s Irish Times law pages, Carol Coulter presents valuable and interesting analysis of two recent Court of Criminal Appeal decisions on sentencing in drug cases (prosecutions under section 15a of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 as amended). IPRT’s Research and Policy Officer Jane Mulcahy has already carried out a similar analysis on these cases in the prison law bulletin sent to prison lawyers last Friday. These decisions demonstrate once again the difficulties surrounding Irish sentencing law in this area.

Very significantly, just yesterday the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions, James Hamilton gave a lengthy interview with The Sunday Business Post [‘The Prosecution Rests’ by John Burke, 23rd Oct 2011] where he also voiced his scepticism about section 15a of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Opposition to mandatory sentencing has been a key concern of IPRT’s work over many years. The first priority for us was to resist any further extension of the type of law introduced in the late 90s and the early part of the last decade. A second phase was to convince members of all political parties of the problems associated with mandatory and presumptive sentencing – this has been achieved in the Programme for Government and in his recent IPRT Annual Lecture, Minister Shatter referred to international research on the wastefulness of mandatory sentencing.

So now we have the Director of Public Prosecutions, the legal professions, several members of the judiciary, international evidence and IPRT all stacked up against the current legislative framework, and the current Government committed to reviewing the law in this area. The Law Reform Commission is due to publish a consultation paper on mandatory sentencing shortly, and IPRT is now planning the next phase in our campaigning work against this harmful and wasteful law. During the next month, we will be publishing a discussion document on drugs policy which will show that, as the DPP has suggested, the impact of the law to date has been to fill our prisons with low level operatives in the drug trade.

It is time to end this legal and social travesty.

What would you do if you were President?

October 12th, 2011

This morning I attended the Barnardos' Presidential Debate – which turned out to be a fascinating and exciting morning (much better than the RTÉ and TV3 debates!) I went along partly to raise the issue of children still being detained in adult prison and those children in St. Patrick's Institution also being excluded from the complaints remit of the Ombudsman for Children. As it turned out I didn’t have to – the first question Olivia O’Leary directed to the panel was what they would do as President on the issue. The answers were encouraging and enlightening.

Michael D Higgins, who was only candidate to have raised the position of St. Patrick's in his introductory remarks, said he would make a priority of visiting children in prison to highlight the issue. 

Gay Mitchell said that he believed the President had a constitutional power to bring forward reports on key issues, and while he had identified suicide as his first priority, he was open to also issuing further reports in issues such as the detention of children.

Martin McGuinness responded to the question by referring more generally to the issue of vulnerable groups of children in society and his record in highlighting their rights and needs. He also spoke about his particular commitment to listening to the voice of children in developing policy.

Mary Davis made a point of stating that she had visited prisons – at which point all of the other candidates pointed out that they too had visited prisons.

David Norris linked the issue to the impact of bullying on children and how this can cause some to be drawn into the justice system. 

Sean Gallagher referred to his specific experience of working with children detained at the former detention centre at Finglas and their famiilies.

Dana was not present.

The overall debate was very stimulating and addressed a number of key issues including the proposed constitutional referendum on children rights, integration policy towards immigrant children, the impact of alcohol and drugs on children and specifically the impact of alcohol advertising, child protection and mental health. From an IPRT perspective, to see the ongoing use of St. Patrick's Institution to imprison boys aged 16 and 17 put centre-stage in the debate was highly significant, and further encourages us to make a final push to get Government to commit the resources to ensure the transfer of those boys held there to child detention schools as soon as possible.

Advocates for the death penalty in Europe are now an exotic breed

September 29th, 2011

The intense coverage last week of the tragic execution of Troy Davis highlights once again how far apart European and American values on crime and punishment have moved. Apart from the grave concerns about the safety of his conviction and the real possibility that an innocent man was being killed by the State, the barbaric cycle of death-row reprieves which ultimately led up to his death was horrific to witness. This process of perpetual threats of execution points to the irreconcilable tension between a judicial system based on the concept of reasonable doubt which is also committed to imposing the ultimate punishment. Troy’s case also shows once again the wisdom of the European Court of Human Rights in the Soering judgment back in 1989, where it found the death-row process itself (quite apart from the death penalty issue) to constitute torture.

At the moment, there is a lot for Europeans to be self-critical about in terms of how we run our societies – but the strong consensus against the death penalty which culminated in universal abolition across Europe is one of the great human rights advances of recent decades.  Except for the occasional ranting of the Daily Mail in Britain, advocates for the death penalty in Europe are now an exotic and declining breed.  As with issues such as gun regulation, a chasm has opened up between attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic.

In that context, it’s worth remembering the similarly huge gulf in prison policy that has existed until recently between the US and most of Europe.  US prison policy is a social disaster on an unprecedented scale which is now profoundly affecting the financial capacity of some States to function normally. As with the death penalty, there is now a movement in many States away from the punitive and destructive past with death penalty bans and prison reduction strategies emerging across the country.

One of the main reasons is the different attitudes we have to prisons as a social or as a commercial enterprise. Recent evidence now suggests that the for-profit nature of private American prisons has played a part in the prison boom of the 1990s.

Given all of the above, it begs the question why some Irish and British journalists and politicians still so regularly turn to the US as a law and order utopia to be mimicked in areas such as sentencing and prison management.  Especially now that many US states are beginning to realise the error of their ways.


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