60% of prisoners likely to reoffend, says report
THREE OUT of every five prisoners are likely to reoffend within a few years of their release, highlighting the need to radically reform how the State supports ex-prisoners, a new report claims.
The report by the Irish Penal Reform Trust says this high rate of recidivism is placing a huge burden on the public finances and the prison system, which has seen the number of prisoners increase by 65 per cent over the past 12 years.
The trust is a non-governmental organisation which campaigns for the rights of people in prison and the progressive reform of penal policy in the Republic.
The prison population reached a new high of 4,200 in February 2010 with each prisoner costing €92,717 per year, it says.
“This should provide the impetus for structural change of the penal system and a shift towards ensuring that as many ex-prisoners as possible do not return to prison,” says the report, Stepping on a Landmine – Reintegration of Prisoners in Ireland.
The report says significant gaps exist in services, which aim to help ex-prisoners find a home, a job, addiction counselling or mental health services when they are released from prison. It also warns recent budgetary constraints are limiting the level of support for ex-prisoners.
“Recent budget cuts have impacted negatively on staffing levels and the sustainability of many projects that have developed significant expertise in the prisons and in the community setting, as well as on statutory sector providers,” says the report.
Despite some recent advances in the field of reintegrating prisoners, the report found structural weaknesses in the current Irish system, which it describes as a “postcode lottery” for prisoners.
“There still appears to be no uniform approach to provision of services in individual prisons, and access to a variety of support mechanisms – including homelessness advice and drug and mental health services – is dependent on the facility in which a prisoner finds him or herself on sentence, or even on remand,” it says.
Prisons in Dublin tend to offer better access to pre-release support services than in Portlaoise or Limerick. The report says Limerick women’s prison is “wholly inadequate for addressing the needs of women prisoners”, highlighting the easier access to mental health, drug treatment and education services enjoyed by women at Dublin’s Dóchas centre.
There is no statutory duty on service providers such as local councils or the health authorities to work to reintegrate former prisoners into society. This can leave ex-prisoners vulnerable and liable to reoffend, says the report.
The policy of the Probation Service to prioritise high-risk prisoners for services often leaves limited resources for prisoners serving shorter sentences.
The report says some prisoners get no more than a few hours’ notice of their release due to the urgent need to find new prison space because of overcrowding.
“Leaving prison is like stepping on a landmine . . . When you are in, you really want to be out and then the gate opens and everything is different, traffic, buildings, family, and this is really hard to cope with,” said a former prisoner, who was interviewed for the report.
IRISH PENAL REFORM TRUST RECOMMENDATIONS
Make available an equal level of support services for prisoners in all prisons.
Provide access to mental health services for prisoners and former prisoners.
Increase provision of addiction counselling in prisons.
Make accommodation available to prisoners upon release.
Provide sheltered employment to help prisoners get back into the labour market.
Provide more access to education and vocational training in prison.
More planning before release.
Place a statutory duty on services to provide assistance to former prisoners where a need is identified by the Probation Service.
Introduce “spent conviction” legislation, which would expunge criminal convictions after a period of time.
Ensure all prisons provide drug-free landings for prisoners.