A more humane prison system
You can tell a great deal about a society and its values from the way in which its criminal policy and prison system operates. The greater the perceived threat from a deprived underclass, the more draconian the official response and the more overcrowded and dangerous jails become. Twenty years ago, Ireland had a low prison population. When it entered the “Tiger” years, increasing wealth, politically inspired “zero tolerance” towards crime and pressure on judges to impose harsher sentences helped to double the prison population. Jails that had been unfit for purpose were transformed into centres of gang violence, repression and sure-fired recidivism. Human rights agencies, visiting committees and specially appointed inspectors regularly condemned the conditions that prevailed.
A series of articles on prison conditions and reform, with a particular emphasis on policy in Finland, was published in this newspaper in recent days. They chart a slow but welcome change in direction for criminal policy in Ireland away from incarceration and retribution and towards community service orders and rehabilitation. That change is affecting services at child detention centres. Conditions are also improving at the notorious Mountjoy Jail, where a policy of single cell occupancy and an end to “slopping out” is being gradually introduced. Humane conditions will not eliminate crime. But they can mark a fundamental change in the perception of inmates as citizens capable of rehabilitation, rather than as dangerous and irredeemable.
Apart from having a low prison population and a developed system of community service, Finland lays particular emphasis on day-release programmes. In that country, a high proportion of offenders are in open prisons doing community work, at a far lower cost to society. Here, open prisons account for only 5 per cent of the total. Much can be learned from the Nordic countries, not just in terms of a progressive criminal policy but in the provision of early education and childcare services.
Reform of the Irish penal system will take years. Old mindsets and attitudes will have to be change, as will the composition of visiting committees. Rehabilitation rather than retribution must become the official impulse. Deprived city areas with high numbers of offenders should receive greater social investment.
In such a departure, the judiciary must be encouraged to regard prison sentences as a last resort and community service orders as the norm. Investment in probation and community services and in additional open prisons will be required.
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Ireland followed that model for years. It didn’t work. Finland, with a leaner, cheaper and more humane system offers an attractive alternative.