Overcrowded prisons 'most pressing issue'

Wed, Oct 29, 2008, 00:00

OVERCROWDING, violence, drug abuse and the lack of treatment for mentally ill inmates have all been identified as key issues of concern within the prison service by the new Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly.

In his first interim, report Judge Reilly has said overcrowding in jails has become "excessive". He has also said violence between inmates was beginning to reflect gang-related conflicts outside prison.

Judge Reilly will carry out announced and unannounced jail visits by day and night.

His intention, he writes in his report, is not to "catch out" prison staff. However, he believes planned visits "no longer carry any measure of public credibility".

"I will be in a position to refute suggestions that standards are upped only when I am expected to arrive," he said.

He cites overcrowding as being the most pressing issue identified in his visits to every prison across the country since his appointment last December. He took over from Dermot Kinlen, who died last year.

Judge Reilly will monitor all aspects of prison life, from the physical condition of prisons to the standard of education and rehabilitative services for inmates.

He will benchmark Irish jails against international best practice and will monitor human rights in prisons. He will regularly make recommendations to prison governors and the Irish Prison Service and will publish reports on the jails he inspects.

He has published a short interim report on his observations about the entire prison system.

He has also published his first full report on the Loughan House open facility in Co Cavan.

Further full reports on other jails will follow in the weeks and months ahead.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust has welcomed the publication of the interim report.

Executive director Liam Herrick said it demonstrated the urgency with which Judge Reilly was going about his work, particularly in relation to highlighting shortcomings around the treatment of mentally ill prisoners.

Much of Judge Reilly's comments in the short interim report are brief and are accompanied by a commitment to publish more detailed findings in future reports.

However, his criticisms in relation to the treatment of the mentally ill in prison settings is damning and to the point.

"If prisoners have mental health problems, they as prisoners of the State have an absolute right to treatment in an appropriate setting. It cannot be said that this right is respected as matters stand."

Judge Reilly says while the issue of sentence management is a complex one, there should be a plan in place for all inmates, from committal to release.

Such plans should cover the expectations of inmates and plans for their engagement with all available services.

He says he will explore fully the issue of prison violence in his future reports but notes briefly: "Inter prisoner conflict is a problem in our prisons. This may well reflect attitudes of groupings in the outside world. It can be a source of extremely serious concern to more vulnerable prisoners and is simply not tolerable."

The issue of drugs was already a matter of public comment and concern and must be tackled with "positive action" on the part of prison management.