We need a safer, more humane prison system

Fri, Jun 29, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:Murders and slopping-out are facts of Irish prison life. Despite inquiries, our system prefers to defer action

DISCUSSIONS ABOUT imprisonment are often couched in terms of numbers, buildings and budgets. But it is important not to lose sight of the people behind the statistics. One such person is Gary Douch, the young man who was brutally murdered in Mountjoy Prison on August 1st, 2006.

Douch died in a sustained attack in a communal cell. Several other prisoners were present but, according to media coverage at the time, none of them raised the alarm. It was only when they vacated the cell the following morning that the body of Douch was found among the mattresses on the floor.

A commission of investigation was established in May 2007 because the government deemed Douch’s death to raise matters of significant public concern. This followed a report by a former civil servant that identified a number of serious deficiencies.

When then minister for justice Michael McDowell set up this commission, he announced that he expected it to report before the end of the year.

The commission’s final report has yet to appear, 4½ after it was expected.

Not to bring such a tragic set of circumstances to a timely conclusion, for whatever combination of reasons, sends out a powerful negative message about priorities.

The absence of sustained debate that follows events such as the savagery and degradation that characterised Gary Douch’s final hours suggests a deep reservoir of public and political apathy.

By contrast, an inquiry into the murder of a young offender, Zahid Mubarek, by his cellmate in a Young Offender Institution in England was initiated in April 2004. The inquiry’s 700-page two-volume report was published by the House of Commons in June 2006. This followed previous detailed investigations by the prison service and the Commission for Racial Equality.

The UK government committed itself to providing a full response to the report’s 88 recommendations within two months of the publication date.

The time span from the start of the process to the deadline for implementing all of the report’s recommendations was 28 months. This compares with 61 months, and counting, for Douch.

When it comes to prisons in Ireland, there is little follow-through even when clear recommendations are made.

To give just one example, a Prisons Hygiene Policy Group was set up in September 1993. When its report was finally published in 1997, it contained strong language about the necessity for decent conditions.

The group noted that it was planned to provide in-cell sanitation across the board by 1999. It recommended that this deadline should be brought forward and that, in the meantime, 24-hour access to toilets should be provided. Today, one in four prisoners continues to slop out.

The Irish Prison Service has given a commitment to end this disgusting practice within 40 months: the target is still moving.

It is salutary to remember that when Mountjoy Prison opened in 1850, each cell was fitted with a flushing toilet. If the current timetable is adhered to, we will be back to this situation some time in 2015.

These serious shortcomings must be seen against a background of rapidly rising prisoner numbers.

When the first edition of the World Prison Population List was published in 1999, Ireland’s imprisonment rate was 65 per 100,000 population, 20 percentage points below the EU average.

By the time the ninth edition appeared last year, the rate had jumped to 100. If prisoners on temporary release are included, the figure is higher still. This trend is out of kilter with virtually every other comparator country.

It might be too ambitious to aim to return to a rate of 65, given the upward drift internationally.

But a strong argument could be made for Ireland striving to regain its relative position of 20 points below average.

As most of the increase in imprisonment occurred during the last five years, a similar time frame seems appropriate in terms of bringing the situation under control.

To put this in concrete terms, the aim should be to reduce the prison population from about 4,500 to about 3,600, and to do this by 2017.

It says something about the reckless expansion that has characterised recent years that this target will probably be considered wildly ambitious by those with a responsibility for penal planning. So it is important to stress that we did not cross this threshold in terms of numbers until 2009.

Other countries have managed to reduce their prison populations by making a concerted effort to align political and judicial behaviour with the principle of moderation in punishment.

The message is clear: prison populations can be driven down should the will to do so exist.

Using prison less is in everyone’s interest. This is not just about cost savings, although these would be considerable. It is about making a genuine commitment to create an environment where vulnerable men and women can live in dignity without fearing for their bodily integrity.

The economic downturn might present an opportunity for fresh thinking in the area of penal reform.

There can be few who cling to the eccentric belief that the petty thieves, rowdy drunks, and fine defaulters who account for most prison admissions each year are those who have done the most damage to Irish society and deserve increasingly harsh treatment.

A smaller, safer, more humane prison system would be a fitting legacy for Gary Douch. However belated.


Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at University College Dublin

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