Governor of Dóchas women’s prison asked to explain early releases

District Court judge Séamus Hughes criticises ‘revolving-door’ policy

Justice in the balance: Judge Hughes 
I 
said he wanted to know “how much respect the District Court gets”.  Photograph: Reuters

Justice in the balance: Judge Hughes I said he wanted to know “how much respect the District Court gets”. Photograph: Reuters

 


A judge has asked the governor of Dóchas women’s prison to explain the policy of temporary release that resulted in a serial thief serving just three days of a six-month sentence.

“You and your colleagues should be before a Dáil committee to explain this policy,” said Judge Séamus Hughes to Mary O’Connor, governor of the women’s prison on Dublin’s Mountjoy campus in Athlone District Court yesterday.

Ms O’Connor said it was a simple matter of capacity and even though her facility had had a 40 per cent increase in cell numbers last year – from 72 to 105 – there were 130 inmates in the prison on the day she chose to give a temporary release to Emma Quinn (27), Retreat, Athlone.

“Are you at full capacity?” asked the judge. “All the time,” answered Ms O’Connor.

Judge Hughes had sought Ms O’Connor’s appearance after discovering Ms Quinn was back in Athlone just three days after being sentenced to six months in jail by a colleague in Roscommon on October 15th.

Judge Hughes said that in his 25 years as solicitor and judge, he had never heard the like of it. “I was shocked and bewildered. I want to know what effective deterrents are available to me and I want to know what’s going on in Dóchas.

“You wouldn’t take on the Circuit or the High Court so quick. I want to know how much respect the District Court gets and I want to know what property crimes are being treated as victimless crimes when they’re not.”

Ms O’Connor told the judge of the capacity difficulties and said: “The Irish Prison Service looks primarily at the charges to find the suitability of candidate for release,” also if they had somewhere to live.

“Can you be at capacity on violent crimes?” asked Judge Hughes. “Are you telling me we are reaching a situation that females who commit non-violent offences are going to be released because of capacity restraint on you?”


Revolving-door policy
He added: “This carousel, or revolving-door policy, this is no protection to the people of Athlone. What amazes me is there is no public discussion on this to provide the governor with the places she needs.”

However, Ms O’Connor said she did not think more prison places was the solution and she felt that “a lot of women in prison shouldn’t be there”.

“We should have more support in the community,” she added, “more addiction counsellors.”

“How long does it take to get someone off heroin?” the judge asked. “In the meantime, they’re out robbing to feed their habit. There’s no effective deterrent for non-violent, recidivist offenders in this country. Now you have potential criminals saying ‘Ah, if I get caught, I’ll only do a couple of days’.”