Why our jails fail
Some ex-inmates also say that parts of the system are improving and that, in at least some of the jails, prisoners who want to get an education have options.
Most of the worst prisons in the system are very old; some buildings date from the 18th century. But a number of newer facilities have been built on greenfield sites in the past 15 years. It means there are varying standards across the system (as is evident from the prison-report summaries on page 2).
But one should be wary of seeing too rosy a picture. Although the visiting committees’ assessments of jails are generally more positive than Reilly’s, the committees are unpaid and part-time and are regarded by many as, unlike Reilly, not getting at the truth of the worst parts of the system.
Alan Shatter in his first year in office allowed membership of visiting committees to run down by not making appointments when existing members’terms expired. A number of members of the committees – there is a different one for each prison – have told The Irish Times that this has hampered their work.
The nature of the visiting-committee system may help explain why the St Patrick’s visiting committee finding that the institution was “efficient, fair, safe and humanitarian” contrasted so sharply with Reilly’s report on the prison.
Like McVerry, Prof Ian O’Donnell of the institute of criminology at University College Dublin says most of the prison system’s problems stem from overcrowding. He adds that committal rates are driven by judges’ sentencing habits, a subject about which very little is known.
“There are EU ways of going about judicial training, and it would be very helpful to have a sense of those,” he says.
In Finland, for example, judges undergo continual training and education; this is regarded as having moved their sentencing policy towards progressive, noncustodial options, such as drug-treatment courses. This approach more often leads to genuine rehabilitation and has the bonus of diverting people from incarceration and lowering the prison population.
O’Donnell points out, however, that although the rate of incarceration has increased significantly here in recent years, the Republic still jails people only at the average per-capita rate for Europe.
In 1999 the Republic had about 62 prisoners per 100,000 people, well below the EU average of 85 per 100,000. Last year the incarceration rate here reached 100 per 100,000. That’s in line with the EU’s higher current average, but that 60 per cent increase in the Republic has overcrowded and overwhelmed Irish prisons.
O’Donnell points out that 30 years ago a Dáil committee noted the increasing prison population and made suggestions about how to control the issue. Three decades on, the population is continuing to rise and the recommendations are being made again.
There was a general consensus that prison should be preserved for serious offenders, with lower-risk criminals being dealt with in the community.
O’Donnell points out that in 2007 1,300 fine defaulters were imprisoned; within five years that figure had risen to 7,500, or half of all prison committals.
He also suggests the size of a country’s prison population is not so much related to crime rates as being “to some extent a political calculation that lay within the power of the legislators”.
A study of 20,000 prisoner releases by his department at UCD found that inmates granted temporary release were much less like to be reimprisoned when their sentences expired.
Yet over Christmases only 4 per cent of inmates were granted temporary release, down from 20 per cent in the mid-1990s.
O’Donnell believes this trend could be seen as “an indication of a punitive shift in the criminal-justice system”, where a life sentence has increased from an average of seven years in the 1980s to 17 now. He says shorter sentences, along with more remissions and temporary releases across a smaller prisoner population housed in smaller, more manageable jails, is the answer.
Dr Ciaran McCullagh of University College Cork has studied approaches to imprisonment for more than 30 years. He says that all the experts and the reports on the prison system have underlined the urgent need to reduce the prison population and that all have advocated alternatives to custody. But he believes that those in positions of power have failed to act progressively at least partly because they fear the reaction of the public and media.
“The issue could well be a lack of political will, a fear of talkshow fascism or a culture of denial in the Department of Justice about the extent of the problems and whether prisons actually need to be reformed.”
McCullagh says real reform in other jurisdictions came about only when judges had ordered the closure of prisons on humanitarian grounds and because they were ineffective. In such cases states had been forced to think quickly and imaginatively about reform.
He points out that the decline of crime in New York in recent years coincided with a drop in imprisonment because alternatives to custody were put in place.
“If Mountjoy was a hospital and had the same record of failure, where patients left with more illnesses than they had going in, it would have been closed long ago. The promise or threat of closure would concentrate minds and lead to creative thinking about how to deal with offending behaviour.”
McCullagh says he cannot understand why public and media criticism of more enlightened penal policies has influenced Irish governments to such an extent that those plans were often abandoned, yet very vocal opposition to issues such as the household charge forced no climbdown.
McCullagh says a restorative-justice programme, in which offenders meet their victims as part of facing up to their crimes and rehabilitating, has been running since 1998 but is still called a pilot project and has not been made part of the mainstream.
“There must be a more far-sighted approach. Why should those people who call Joe Duffy to voice their opposition to a particular measure have the power to make politicians run away from taking that action?”
What the reports say From ‘grave reservations’ to ‘significant positive change’
Arbour Hill Dublin
Dates to 1848
Capacity: 148. Prisoners: 151
In his report, published last year, Judge Reilly found a well-run and clean prison with no protection prisoners and where prisoners associated freely with each other. The Irish Prison Service says the jail has a bed capacity of 148. Reilly said the capacity was 131 but that it was housing 158 prisoners.
The prison school, library and workshops were well run, and there was a therapeutic programme, Building Better Lives, for the prisoners who are predominantly sex offenders.
Castlerea Prison, Co Roscommon
Dates to 1939
Capacity: 351. Prisoners: 414
The visiting committee report for 2011 noted that a prisoner in long-term care at nearby Roscommon Hospital had been electronically tagged, freeing up for prison duties the staff who were guarding him.
The committee said the imprisonment of people for the nonpayment of fines was counterproductive. Gardaí were required to bring them to the prison, where officers processed them into the jail. “People committed on fines are normally given temporary release and discharged with a travel voucher; this is more expense to the State,” it concluded.
Cork Prison, Rathmore Road, Cork
Dates to 1806
Capacity: 272. Prisoners: 316
A full range of education and training options were made available in a well-run prison setting, the visiting committee noted in its 2011 report. It had some concerns, including about staff shortages, overcrowding, slopping-out, in-cell sanitation and the “outdated Victorian prison building”. It did not elaborate on the details.
Limerick Prison, Mulgrave Street, Limerick
Dates to 1821
Capacity: 310. Prisoners: 345
The inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, said many parts of the jail were “dirty, unhygienic and severely overcrowded”. Broken windows in cells resulted in rain wetting the bedding. Much of the prison (above) smelled of sewage. Where there was no in-cell sanitation; prisoners shared pots in their cells for urinating and defecating, then emptied these where they showered, washed eating utensils and got drinking water.
There were “bright and clean” canteen facilities for staff, with ample car parking, showering areas and recreational facilities.
The Irish Prison Service claimed the men’s prison had a bed capacity of 290, though Reilly counted a capacity of 209 housing 329 prisoners.
Loughan House Open Centre, Blacklion, Co Cavan
Dates to 1953
Capacity: 160. Prisoners: 142
The prison-visiting committee said in its 2011 annual report that it believed there were no cases of suicide and self-harm in the facility because it was so well run. The members believed there was a better relationship between staff and prisoners than could exist in a larger closed prison.
While prisoners’ services, including health and education, were generally very good, cutbacks had hit some medical services by a quarter and had seen the library closed more often. There was also a need for more probation and welfare staff to help the lone part-time officer working there. Forty-two prisoners had absconded from the prison in 2011.
Mountjoy Prison, Mountjoy Campus, North Circular Road, Dublin
Dates to 1850
Capacity: 630. Prisoners: 728
Both Reilly’s report and that of the visiting committee noted a significant improvement in the level of resources being channelled into the much-maligned Dublin prison (above). Wings had been refurbished and the prison had been painted.
But mentally ill prisoners were still being housed in isolated special cell accommodation that was not aiding their mental health. Many had visibly deteriorated over time.
Tablets were now more widely available than ever and were hard to detect during searching. Prisoners who were drug free on committal were also mixing with drug-addicted prisoners, and some were becoming hooked on drugs as a result.
Dóchas Centre, Mountjoy Campus, North Circular Road, Dublin
Opened in 1999
Capacity: 105. Prisoners: 140
The visiting committee expressed grave reservations at a new regime that was abandoning the practice of each woman having her own bedroom. It believed staff shortages were now critical, resulting in locked exercise yards.
Prisoners, some mentally ill, were now being housed nine to a room. Heating and ventilation were a “major concern”, and “tensions and unrest” were now an issue mainly because of overcrowding.
A new building to house a large number of female prisoners was a regressive step that would compromise the health, welfare and safety of prisoners. Prisoners were not allowed their own underwear, and fresh supplies were often out of stock.
St Patrick’s Institution Mountjoy Campus, North Circular Road, Dublin
Opened in 1956
Capacity: 217. Prisoners: 210
The report by the inspector of prisons published last October outlines a bullying, fearful, degrading and intimidatory culture. The report said some children and young adult prisoners described as vulnerable were targeted in the jail. By contrast, the prison-visiting committee appointed by the Minister found the prison was being run in an efficient, fair, safe and humanitarian way.
Training Unit Mountjoy Campus, North Circular Road, Dublin
Opened in 1975
Capacity: 107. Prisoners: 114
The semi-open, low-security prison on Mountjoy Campus no longer assesses the suitability of prisoners for committal to the facility. Instead, management must accept all of those sent by the Irish Prison Service to the training and educational unit.
In its 2011 report, the visiting committee questioned why management had made no public comment on disturbances in Mountjoy in February-March of last year. It was also concerned by the doubling-up in rooms caused by overcrowding. On a visit in July the committee found all workshops, the music room and art room closed, apparently because of staff shortages.
Portlaoise Prison, Portlaoise Campus
Dates to 1830s
Capacity: 359. Prisoners: 273
The latest report of the prison-visiting committee, for last year, documents a well-run jail. The new C block, which opened three years ago, was described as very modern, with in-cell sanitation, workshops and education facilities. But the committee was disappointed that only two of the workshops were open, because of a lack of staff. Repeated requests for additional staff had come to nothing.
In general terms, however, a wide range of education and health services were on offer to inmates, who are republican prisoners and senior gangland figures.
Midlands Prison, Portlaoise Campus
Opened in 2000
Capacity: 566. Prisoners: 568
Although the jail was generally very well run, the prison-visiting committee noted that many prisoners had been transferred there from Dublin jails, against their will, to alleviate overcrowding. This had caused unrest.
There was also concern at cutbacks in workshops and in school and educational facilities because of a lack of staff.
Prisoners were finding it hard to access the psychology service, with some appointments not being met due to staff shortages. Debt defaulters were still being jailed in Midlands Prison, and one such prisoner died last year.
Shelton Abbey, Arklow, Co Wicklow
Dates to 1770
Capacity: 110. Prisoners: 108
The committee’s report on this minimum-security prison revealed that the on-site farm ran a quarantine facility for some 300 goats to be exported from Ireland to Uganda by the Bóthar charity.
Prisoners were also employed in the kitchens, and small numbers were permitted outside the jail (above) to take up work locally or go on supervised swimming and hillwalking trips.
An increase of 110 in bed capacity underscored the need for more facilities, however.
Forty-five offenders absconded last year, and 103 smuggled mobile phones were found. Of the 53 staff posts at the open centre, nine were unfilled.
Cloverhill Prison, West Dublin Prison Campus
Opened in 1999
Capacity: 431. Prisoners: 462
Overcrowding continued to be a concern during 2011. Because the jail was used for remand prisoners, people sent from the courts after lights-out had to be put into cells late at night, when the prisoners already in them were sleeping. This raised tensions. If the prison were not overcrowded, alternative arrangements could be made.
The visiting committee believed many of the 1,393 people jailed in 2011 on immigration matters ahead of deportation should be held in special holding centres, not jails.
The smuggling of mobile phones into the jail remained a problem, and a sniffer dog was no longer available for drug searches.
Wheatfield Prison, West Dublin Prison Campus
Opened in 1989
Capacity: 470. Prisoners: 507
The visiting committee said in its 2011 annual report that the prison was an “excellently run facility”. The kitchens were “second to none”, and the educational and library facilities were very well attended.
The bed-capacity and prison-population figures were compiled by the inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, and date to late 2010, the last period for which comparative data is available. In some cases, the dates of the prisons indicate when the original buildings were constructed