Analysis: Familiar ring to findings on prisons but they may help tunnel way out

Consensus emerging across main parties and agencies as to how to solve age-old problems

Mountjoy Prison: yesterday’s report on prison reform stresses a deeper, more structural problem, arguing that there are simply too many people in jail in Ireland. Photograph: David Sleator

Mountjoy Prison: yesterday’s report on prison reform stresses a deeper, more structural problem, arguing that there are simply too many people in jail in Ireland. Photograph: David Sleator

Thu, Mar 28, 2013, 06:00

Reports on Irish prison reform are hardly a neglected genre. Over the past 25 years, studies setting out how to fix a notoriously deficient system have proliferated and, by and large, gathered dust.

Indeed, one striking aspect of yesterday’s clear, concise – and generally well-received – report by the Oireachtas Committee on Justice is that a number of its recommendations have been circulating for decades.

Its call for increasing remission from one-quarter to one- third, for example, was one of the recommendations made in the so-called Whitaker report in 1985.

The chief benefit of this corpus of work is that the problems in Irish prisons are by now well-known.

They include overcrowding, poor conditions, drug misuse and gang conflict.

Structural problem
Yesterday’s report stresses a deeper, more structural problem, arguing that there are simply too many people in jail in Ireland.

The average daily number of prisoners in custody here, as of last December, was 4,275, compared to an average daily rate of just 3,321 as recently as 2007.

And this at a time when crime has been falling.

The committee says its five recommendations, if implemented effectively, could have a significant practical impact in reducing recidivism rates, thereby making the country safer.

Most of them would not involve significant expenditure and, in the long run, the committee argues, they would reduce the considerable cost of incarceration for the State.


Finland as model
In making their case, the TDs and Senators point to Finland, which has a similar-sized population to Ireland and is seen by many as the gold standard for prison reform in Europe.

That country’s prison population grew steadily until 2005 but, thanks to a raft of measures adopted since then, the numbers have fallen by about 25 per cent.

Recidivism rates in Finland have been found to be about 35 per cent, much lower than Irish rates.

Yesterday’s report may be one among many, yet many observers are convinced the time is ripe for action on this occasion.

Progressive moves are already afoot in the prison service, and Minister for Justice Alan Shatter recently set up a working group to carry out a strategic review of penal policy.

Moreover, a broad consensus has emerged across the main parties and agencies working in the area.

What all this means, according to the Irish Penal Reform Trust, is that “we now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for real and lasting change”.