Why Penal Reform?

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” - Fyodor Dostoevsky

It is an oft-used quotation in the area of penal reform, but it is no less true. And Ireland would not fare well, were we to be judged by the state of our prisons.

Ireland's prisons have drawn serious censure from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Of great concern to the committee are: the ongoing lack of sanitary facilities ('slopping out');  the non-segregation of remand prisoners; the detention of immigrants in prisons; over-crowding, and the consequent rising levels of inter-prisoner violence.

This reflects on Irish society as a whole.


While Ireland’s rate of imprisonment remains close to the European average in terms of the average prison population, there was a trend towards expansion up until 2011. In October 2007, the average daily prison population was reported as being 3,325, which represents an increase of more than 50% since 1995. At the end of 2008, that figure had risen to 3,750. In June 2010, the numbers in custody reached 4,380, and in April 2011, there were 4,587 people in prison. 2012 saw a levelling-off of numbers, and there were 3,719 people in prison custody in February 2017.

Ireland's rates of committal to prison, and consequently our rates of release, are amoung the highest amoung the 46 countries of the Council of Europe area, and third highest in the European Union. This cannot simply be explained by demographics and rates of crime; it is the result of sentencing and penal policy in Ireland.

Notable features of our prison population include poor literacy levels, poor mental health, addictions and homelessness. Overcrowding is common and although lack of basic sanitation or “slopping out” has come down from 20% of the prison estate in 2012 to 1% of prisoners in early 2017, some 45% of  prisoners do not have access to private toilet facilities, and 45% are sharing cells, which does not contribute to prison safety. Also, the majority of prisoners are locked up for 16 or 17 hours per day, with 72 prisoners in solitary confinement, which involves being locked up for 22 or more hours per day. Illegal drugs are widespread and there is a wide awareness about rising levels of inter-prisoner violence.

On a positive note, important progress is being made in relation to the system of youth justice and there are some positive moves towards developing alternatives to custody. At the same time, systems for the rehabilitation of prisoners in detention and for reintegration to society on release remain under-developed and under-resourced.

The question is not whether we need progressive reform of the penal system in Ireland; the question is how can we work together to achieve real change as soon as possible.

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