Life after prison
The Irish Prison Service has at last acknowledged the extreme vulnerability of offenders on their release from jail. It is said to be “moving towards” a system whereby all prison releases will be planned and structured. Studies in other countries have shown that unstructured release increases the likelihood of inmates reoffending while, in a small number of cases, it may lead to their deaths. No official figures are available here on the number of people who die shortly after they leave prison.
Official recognition that a problem exists is not enough. The prison authorities should move quickly to ensure that new release protocols are implemented in all institutions. Necessary arrangements to assist former offenders to re-enter society in safety will have to be made with various community, health and probation services. This matter is particularly urgent in cases where inmates have experienced mental problems.
The provision of a safety net for prisoners on their release has been talked about for years. So has the need to ensure that offenders are assisted in re-entering society and are not psychologically damaged while in custody. The use of solitary confinement, through a punishment regime or for the prisoner’s own protection, is being gradually reduced. Its negative impact on a person’s mental health and its contribution to increased aggression has been well documented. Prison overcrowding and drug use are key contributory factors. So is a traditional culture based on retribution, rather than on prisoner rehabilitation.
A decision to close St Patrick’s Institution for young offenders resulted from the State’s failure to root out a culture of bullying, assault and perceived immunity amongst prison officers there. That confession of failure offers hope of necessary reform elsewhere. Prisons have been treated by some district justices as dumping grounds for troubled citizens with mental illness. A more enlightened approach has emerged in recent years but progress has been slow. Because of the potential long-term harm that may be caused to vulnerable individuals who commit minor crimes, incarceration should be regarded as an option of last resort.
Reforming the prison system and the structures that feed into it will be a slow and difficult process. Overcrowding is such a problem that little can be achieved while prisons remain under pressure. A solution in that area will require cooperation from the Garda Siochána, the judiciary and politicians in introducing a more flexible and humane response to petty crime. Even then, committal to prison will remain the normal way of dealing with serious offenders. Their eventual release has, however, to be properly planned. That will probably involve the use of open prisons, a day-release regime and community support services in order to minimise recidivism and self-harm.