Minister welcomes significant drop in prisoner numbers

Republic now has 88 per 100,000 people in prison, compared with 148 in England

Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Ireland has “finally started to enter a more positive space” in relation to prisoner numbers, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan, has told a human rights conference in Dublin.

Lower prisoner numbers allow for greater focus on addressing the broader social problems that are tied up with imprisonment, he told the conference on the human rights implications of imprisonment.

Over the past six years, Irish prisoner numbers have reduced significantly, with the Republic now having 88 per 100,000 people in prison, compared with 148 in England, 147 in Scotland, and 101 in Northern Ireland.

“Many people in prison are poor economically, but also poor emotionally, educationally, socially and in the context of their health status,” the Minister told the conference, organised by the Law Society’s Human Rights Committee.

The typical prisoner is male, aged 18-35, and has fallen out of school, education, and wider society, into prison. “A significant percentage of boys who have a parent in prison will go to jail themselves.”

Society needs to keep in the forefront of its mind the effect that imprisonment of a parent has on a child’s life. Imprisonment interferes with factors known to promote “desistance from crime”, such as stable relationships and marriage, stable employment, moving away from same-age, same-gender peers, having a sense of responsibility, and caring for one’s children.

Supporting and helping people in prison can make society safer and ensure we have fewer victims and less crime, Mr Flanagan said.

Attempting to strike a balance between the rights of prisoners and the rights of victims, the State must “ensure that violent offenders and other serious offenders serve appropriate prison sentences while at the same time moving towards less costly non-custodial options for non-violent and less serious offenders.”

As of late September there were 1,033 fewer prisoners in custody than there were in February 2011, when numbers reached a peak of 4,621. This was a decrease of 22 per cent.

During 2016, 12,163 people were sent to prison, a drop of 13 per cent on the previous year’s figure. However, 90.4 per cent of all committals were for sentences of less than 12 months and 8,439 were for the non-payment of fines.

Mr Flanagan said the commencement last year of the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014, should result in a large reduction on the number of committals to prison on short sentences.

He told the conference that much work has been done to improve conditions in prisons with the elimination of “slopping out” in Mountjoy and Cork prisons and more than 98 per cent of all prisoners now having access to in-cell sanitation. On completion of planned improvements in Portlaoise and Limerick prisons, slopping out will be completely eliminated.

In June he made a statutory instrument on prison rules which takes into account the so-called Nelson Mandela measures in respect of solitary confinement. This ensures that all prisoners spend a minimum of two hours out of their cell or room each day, with an opportunity during that time for “meaningful human contact”.

Mr Flanagan said he strongly felt that prisons needed to move from being closed entities to being institutions in the public domain.

“By improving the prison system, we can help prisoners change their lives. We can better protect prisoners and those who work in prisons. We can work to break the cycle of re-offending, yielding benefits for communities,” he said.