Irish Penal Reform Trust

Cancellation of ‘super-prison’ plans welcomed by IPRT

16th January 2019

It has been reported in The Irish Times by Conor Lally (14.01.2019) that a spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Equality has confirmed that the bulk of a site at Thornton Hall, which was once designated to be Ireland’s first ‘super prison’, has been offered to the Land Development Agency for housing.

The 165-acre site at Thornton Hall was named as the site for the development of a 2,200 capacity prison in 20005. IPRT has campaigned against Thornton Hall prison development plans from their inception and has welcomed the announcement that the plans for the ‘super-prison’ have been cancelled. We believe that the news demonstrates positive progress in Irish penal policy over the last 10 years.

Since 2011, we have seen a more evidence-informed approach to penal policy in Ireland, and the broad recognition by Government that prison building does not solve overcrowding. A spokesperson for the Department told The Irish Times that the ‘super-prison’ envisaged in 2005 by the then government was now regarded, in modern penal policy terms, as “counterproductive”.

Key points, demonstrating a move towards more progressive penal policy over the period since the inception of the plans include:

  • The establishment of a group to review the Thornton Hall Project by Minister for Justice Mr Alan Shatter TD in April 2011. The Thornton Hall Review Group reported in July 2011, and on the publication of the report Minister Alan Shatter stated that "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."
  • The Report of the Thornton Hall Project Review Group recommended that “... an all encompassing strategic review of penal policy should be carried out which will incorporate an examination and analysis of all aspects of penal policy...” From this, the Minister for Justice announced the establishment of the Penal Policy Review Group.
  • In 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.
  • The Penal Policy Review Group, established by the Minister for Justice, published the Strategic Review of Penal Policy in 2014. The Review recommended “…the adoption of a strategy to reduce prisoner numbers to a safe level subject to the need to ensure proper protection of the public.”
  • More recently, in May 2018, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality, in their Report on Penal Reform and Sentencing recommended that there be a “capping of prisoner numbers in each institution, along with the adoption of a clear strategy by the Government to reduce the prison population by half over a fixed time scale”, adding that “future infrastructural development within the prison system should involve the use of more innovative, community-based, semi-open facilities, avoiding the one-size-fits-all model.”

Some of IPRT’s key outputs contributing to the decision by policy-makers not to proceed with plans to build a super-prison are outlined here.

Although IPRT has welcomed this more evidence-informed approach to prison policy in Ireland, we have emphasised in Irish Legal News that:

IPRT’s research shows only 5 of Ireland’s 10 closed prisons are within the best practice maximum of 300 spaces, and Mountjoy and Midlands prisons are significantly larger with 845 and 755 spaces respectively. Large prisons are a costly, socially harmful and largely ineffective response to crime.

“IPRT has called on the Department of Justice and Equality to ensure that any future prison renewal programme does not expand the overall prison population and is guided by a commitment to prison sizes of less than 300, and ideally a maximum of 250 spaces. Accommodating prisoners in smaller, local prisons near families and communities is proven to better support rehabilitation and therefore promote public safety.”

If this welcome shift toward more progressive penal policy is continued, we believe that there will be no further large prisons built because there will be no demand to justify their development.

For more on IPRT’s positions on effective and human penal systems, see our annual flagship project ‘Progress in the Penal System’.

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.



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