Surge in prison population requires remedial action
OPINION:What can be done to reduce our reliance on prison? A key part of any initiative must be crime prevention
There was a time when the Irish prison population was so small that it excited little sustained interest. The treatment of prisoners came to attention sporadically, usually in the aftermath of a riot, murder, suicide, seizure of contraband, or the publication of a report that lamented the continued existence of substandard conditions. After the crisis had passed attention soon refocused on other, more pressing, concerns.
As this week’s series in The Irish Times shows, the prison population has surged to such a high level that the need for remedial action can no longer be ignored. Too many people are spending too much time in institutions where they fear for their personal safety and from which they emerge, unimproved, to re-enter society. This is in no one’s interest.
Prison systems all over the world experience problems with drug misuse, violence, overcrowding and recidivism. Additional challenges are posed by increasing numbers of lifers, sex offenders, foreign nationals, elderly prisoners and the mentally ill.
It would be too much to expect Ireland to remain unaffected by these trends. But there is some comfort to be drawn from the fact that they are less well established here. This means that if swift action is taken there is scope for amelioration.
The danger with allowing an unsatisfactory state of affairs to persist is that we become inured to a situation that should scandalise us. What has come to light in recent years regarding the treatment of children in institutional care is a salutary reminder of the importance of acting now rather than waiting to bewail our inaction later.
So what could be done to reduce our dependence on the prison?
The first element of any coherent strategy is to direct resources at initiatives that are known to reduce the likelihood that children will become involved in criminality. Research has been carried out in the United States with low-income families living in high-crime areas. The findings are that – over time – a combination of early childhood education, parent training, family therapy and home visitation by healthcare professionals yields substantial benefits.
The young people involved in these schemes are less likely to engage in delinquency and drug taking and, as a result, to become entangled with the criminal justice system. They are more likely to become productive citizens who find good jobs and pay taxes.
Cost-benefit analyses show that for every dollar invested in this way there is a considerable return, sometimes as high as tenfold. If the €45 million spent on an ill-conceived plan for a gigantic prison at Thornton Hall had instead been made available to support vulnerable families and children, future generations would have been in our debt.
While the results of such crime prevention programmes take many years to accrue, the evidence of their effectiveness is so compelling that they merit serious consideration as part of any package of penal reform measures. They have the additional virtue of de-emphasising the role of the prison in crime control.