Brave new leadership is the key to reform of Department of Justice

Opinion: Dramatic change in prison service shows what an innovative reformer can do

‘The Department of Justice was hammered this week for its conservatism and lack of vision and bravery to embrace new ways.’ Above, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald at a press conference after the publication of the Report of the Independent Review Group on the Department of Justice. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

‘The Department of Justice was hammered this week for its conservatism and lack of vision and bravery to embrace new ways.’ Above, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald at a press conference after the publication of the Report of the Independent Review Group on the Department of Justice. Photograph: Aidan Crawley


When the words “closed and secretive” jumped from the opening lines of the review of the Department of Justice released on Monday, you knew the authors had not shirked their responsibilities.

However, before the mechanics of the badly needed reform they suggest are thrashed out, the Government needs to acknowledge that fresh and progressive minds are essential to lead what is going to be a difficult job.

It needs to recruit somebody to lead the department who is open to new ideas and who will not develop a bunkered and fearful mentality at the first sign of a query from the media – an attitude that has been prevalent in the Department of Justice and indeed the Garda. In short, it needs to abandon the criteria on which the departing secretary general Brian Purcell was selected for that job, not to mention his predecessor Seán Aylward and the old school set that gathered around them.

The departure from office of former secretary general Purcell followed that of former minister for justice Alan Shatter and former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan. If their exits, after months of policing scandals, have revealed anything, it is that it is no longer acceptable to hoard information and power. Nor is it acceptable to be reluctant to answer questions, to deal with a new era of independent oversight or to acknowledge when change is needed. The offices the men filled are not the bastions of power and control they used to be; not in an age when social media has given everyone a voice and the main- stream media has become too big, fast and aggressive to control as once was possible.

Much is made by the Independent Review Group of splitting up the Department of Justice to create a new home affairs mini department. This has been done in Australia, apparently with great success, and the review body suggests Ireland follows that example.

Bright new future

One does not have to travel as far as the Antipodes, though, for a working example of what a bright new future could be like, nor even venture out of the highly dysfunctional justice family in the Republic.

One sibling that has become enlightened and open in recent years and is thriving as a result is the Irish Prison Service. The driving force has been the fresh thinking espoused by the director general of the service, Michael Donnellan.

He assumed that post in November 2011 just months after Brian Purcell had left the job on being appointed secretary general of the Department of Justice. During the years when Purcell was in charge, prison violence, gang culture, drug taking and overcrowding were all at epidemic levels. While efforts to stem the flow of drugs began under his term, the general conditions across the prison system were overcrowded or squalid, or both.

However, Donnellan’s thinking appears much more enlightened, progressive and simply braver and the results have been immediate. After decades of the prison service insisting that in-cell sanitation could not be installed in Mountjoy Prison because the buildings were almost 200 years old, Donnellan pressed ahead with the idea.

The jail has been completely refurbished, with most prisoners having their own cell, and slopping out has been eradicated. New early release systems are working well, under which prisoners who demonstrate in jail a willingness to rehabilitate can apply to be freed and spend up to half of their sentences under structured release in the community rather than locked up in prison.

Those who are compliant and do not engage in bullying, violence, drug taking and so on are also placed on an incentivised regime where rewards are more attractive the longer they are compliant and the more they show they can be trusted. Benefits include longer phone calls and more visits from loved ones, nicer food, more money for the tuck shop plus an increase in time off, from 25 per cent to 50 per cent of sentences.

There is also a 40-month capital investment programme in place, under which Cork Prison is being replaced and Limerick Prison completely modernised.

A new system of independent experts, including barristers, being called in to investigate complaints by prisoners against staff is also a new feature of Donnellan’s reign. The prison service also engages in a much more open manner with the media than under Purcell’s time.

This has been a key development in winning allies as Donnellan tries to bed down reforms that could be dismissed by the press as “soft on crime” and made much more difficult as a consequence.

Overcrowding is down and attacks by prisoners on other prisoners and on staff have also fallen. The numbers locked away from the rest of the prison population for 23 hours a day has plummeted by 75 per cent in some parts of the prison system.

There have been some disasters, too, though. The regime in the Dochas Centre women’s jail on the Mountjoy campus was once progressive but is falling apart due to overcrowding. The culture in St Patrick’s Institution for Young Offenders on the same campus was so far gone that the jail was closed and prisoners and staff dispersed to other parts of the system.

Department hammered

The Department of Justice was hammered this week for its conservatism and lack of vision and bravery to embrace new ways. A “closed and unnecessarily secretive” culture had led to “an inward-looking organisation with limited learning capacity and reduced openness to new ideas”. The prison service was the same just a few short years ago, but it has been completely turned around because a new leader with a willingness and zeal to pursue new ideas was appointed.

The same attitude is needed now, not only in the Department of Justice but also the Garda. The new secretary general and Garda commissioner must be reformers with bright minds. Has the Government, and especially Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, got the stomach to appoint reformers rather than people who would circle the wagons in fear? Conor Lally is Crime Correspondent

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