Humane treatment of prisoners benefits all of society

Mon, Oct 8, 2012, 01:00

LEGAL OPINION:WHEN IT comes to shrinking the prison population, there are three areas where swift progress could be made. These have one signal virtue, namely that it lies within the power of those who make law and policy in the criminal justice system to give effect to them.

They do not require wider social transformation, the reduction of income inequality, a shift in public opinion, a downward spiral in crime rates, or an overhaul of sentencing practice. All of the foregoing may be desirable in their own right but they are difficult and time-consuming to achieve. Certainly their realisation would extend beyond the lifetime of any government, thus lessening their political attractiveness.

The first step is to support temporary release. The law allows for temporary release, generally on humanitarian or family grounds or to facilitate vocational training. This can be granted on a (renewable) daily basis, or for a fixed period, or can extend until the sentence expiry date.

The willingness to exercise discretion in favour of prisoners and their families says something about the emphasis a prison system places on trust. It is a more eloquent expression of faith in the individuals capacity to rise to expectations than any mission statement or set of performance measures.

Permitting a significant number of prisoners to avail of temporary release every Christmas used to be a defining characteristic of the prison system in Ireland. There has been a steep reduction in the granting of this privilege over the past 15 years. Part of the explanation for this downward shift must lie in the emergence of a more diverse prison population, including a greater number of prisoners on remand (who are ineligible for temporary release) and from overseas (who may lack the requisite community contacts).

But it may also indicate a punitive shift within the criminal justice system and the emergence of a less-forgiving mentality on the part of those with whom the power to grant temporary release resides. The decline of this practice is one manifestation of the oozing of compassion from the penal system.

Temporary release is important because it is effective. A follow-up study of almost 20,000 releases from Irish prisons carried out by the UCD Institute of Criminology showed that prisoners who, during their sentences, were occasionally allowed to venture outside for vocational or family-related purposes were less likely to be re-imprisoned. This held true up to four years after their eventual release and is a clear demonstration of the benefits, other than humanitarian, of maintaining prisoners’ social capital. When prisoners repay trust with good behaviour, there are financial and social benefits for society more generally.

The second area where reform is necessary is parole. There are more prisoners serving long sentences today than ever before but, in its essentials, the parole process has not changed for decades and parole eligibility is severely limited.

One statistic will illustrate this. In Finland, parole is possible after 14 days, while in Ireland the earliest review takes place after 1,460 days (the half-way point of an eight-year sentence).

Why not make parole a possibility for anyone sentenced to four years or more, rather than eight years as at present?

The third area where progress is possible is remission. The Prison Rules allow enhanced remission (33 per cent as opposed to the standard 25 per cent) for those who take part in treatment programmes. The potential of this facility to reduce sentences has not been exploited.

Employing it more widely would serve several purposes. It would incentivise prisoners to take part in programmes that lower the threat they pose, reduce prison overcrowding, usher in a more structured approach to release, and save money.

Politicians in Ireland have sometimes shown commendable restraint when it comes to setting the tone of the debate about crime and punishment. The challenge is to create a context where citizens believe the penal system to be legitimate and trust legislators to formulate rational, effective and proportionate approaches; and where legislators are confident enough to challenge the centrality of the prison at every opportunity.

Getting this right is extremely difficult but vitally important.


Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at University College Dublin. This article is based on an address to the Re-Imagining Imprisonment in Europe conference organised by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice

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