Ireland needs to reduce prison numbers, says reform charity

Irish Penal Reform Trust wants prison sentences to be ‘last resort’ in justice system

The majority of the State’s most vulnerable prisoners will remain in custody due to the nature of their offending. File Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

The majority of the State’s most vulnerable prisoners will remain in custody due to the nature of their offending. File Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

The rising prisoner population in Ireland could “undermine” the progress of penal reform, a new report has found.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) published its third report on benchmarking reform in Ireland’s penal system on Friday.

The trust examined 35 issues across the prison system, including the mental health needs of prisoners, staff training and the handling of complaints.

Of these 35 areas, seven were classified as having improved, six worsened, while no change was registered in 10 issues.

A further 10 issues were classified as “mixed”, indicating improving progress in some areas and a worsening in others, while in two cases there was insufficient data to make a reliable assessment.

One of the standards found to have worsened was the justice system’s continuing over-reliance on prison sentences, which the trust said “threatens to undermine” progress to date.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland, executive director of the trust, Fíona Ní Chinnéide, said putting people in prison is not always the most appropriate sanction.“Locking up more people for longer lengths of time, in crowded conditions . . . doesn’t achieve justice, repair harm, enhance community safety. It does the opposite,” Ms Ní Chinnéide said.

“The rising prison numbers impacts on the ability to provide safe and secure custody. It sees increasing numbers of people locked up for 19 or more hours a day. It sees higher incidences of violence across the prison system,” she added.

Ireland has an imprisonment rate of approximately 82 prisoners per 100,000 people, lower than Scotland which has a rate of 150 per 100,000. The IPRT wants to see the State reduce the imprisonment rate to 50 per 100,000.

According to the report, 70 per cent of people sent to prison last year received sentences for less than 12 months. Approximately 3,000 people served sentences of less than 12 months, while 2,500 served community service orders.

One consequence of high prison numbers means more prisoners are locked up for long periods everyday for safety reasons, the IPRT report found.

At the most recent census in July, over 580 people were locked up for more than 19 hours a day and about 375 were locked up for more than 21 hours a day.

This has a negative impact on an inmate’s mental health, making their recovery and rehabilitation less likely, the IPRT added.

“We know that community-based responses are more appropriate and more effective for less serious crimes. Prison is damaging in itself. It should be a sanction of last resort,” Ms Ní Chinnéide said.

“It should be reserved for the most serious offenders who present a serious risk to society. For everyone else, it’s more appropriate to deal with the offending in the community.”