Women’s prison has ‘lost its way’, says inspector
Massive overcrowding at the root of all problems in management of Dóchas Centre
Judge Michael Reilly, Inspector of Prisons, said the number of committals to Dóchas Centre had increased from 155 in 1990 to 2,092 last year. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The main prison for women has “lost its way”, being characterised by a disconnect between management and staff, junior staff not being supported, discipline issues not being dealt with properly and massive overcrowding, the Inspector of Prisons said in his latest report.
Judge Michael Reilly, in an interim report on the Dóchas Centre in Dublin, said the number of committals to the centre had increased from 155 in 1990 to 2,092 last year. Echoing concerns raised by the Irish Penal Reform Trust last month about the prison, he said the vast majority of committals were for “petty/nuisance” offences and were for less than three months. In 2012, such sentences accounted for 83 per cent of all committals.
Overcrowding at the prison is “the single biggest problem associated with the centre”.
The prison has a capacity of 105 and in June the population was 141. Such overcrowding was giving rise to women doubling up in rooms, arguments between women being a “constant feature”, services and regimes being inadequate, women accommodated in recreation rooms where they had no privacy and no lockers for their clothes, and constant tension throughout the centre.
He suggested prison was not the right place for many of the women, but said the courts, in many instances, had nowhere else to send them.
“A significant number of women who end up in the centre have experienced childhood sexual abuse, abuse in their adult life, indifference and neglect.
“Punishment is not a new experience for them. I have talked to women in the centre . . . and the majority are just looking for help, any help, to try to ‘get off these bloody drugs’, ‘get my children back’, ‘get a place of my own’, ‘get a job’, ‘turn my life around’, and, significantly, ‘get away from the abuse that I have suffered from him’.”
The short sentences ensure the women cannot benefit from any rehabilitative or counselling programmes in the prison, so the women return to their problems, commit further petty crimes and “chaos in her life becomes the order of the day”.
He said there were, “complex reasons why the women prison population is increasing”, and “the reduction in the women prison population is not a matter solely for the Irish Prison Service. This is a problem that must be addressed by many agencies such as the courts, the statutory and voluntary agencies”.
He stressed that no woman should be released into homelessness and to say there is no accommodation “is not acceptable” . The culture of the centre had changed since 2008, he said, with a lack of appreciation of the particular vulnerabilities of women prisoners. He also pointed to: “a disconnect between management and staff”, standard operating procedures and guidelines “not known to all staff”, a perception, widely held by both officers and prisoners, that certain prisoners received more favourable treatment; prison disciplinary hearings not being dealt with as expeditiously as they should be, no mentoring of junior staff, and, a perception that “she who cries loudest gets most”.
‘Change in focus’
“At this point I wish to point out that I did not advocate changing personnel or making any other sweeping changes. I did advocate a change in focus,” said Judge Reilly.
He said he had met the governor and was satisfied she and the management team were “taking steps to address the concerns”. The judge said he would continue to monitor their implementation.