Parole head seeks priority housing for life-term prisoners

Providing stable accommodation on release will cut social costs, says parole chief

John Costello, chairman of the Parole Board, and  Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald: the Minister is setting up an interdepartmental committee to look into the management of released life-sentence prisoners.  Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

John Costello, chairman of the Parole Board, and Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald: the Minister is setting up an interdepartmental committee to look into the management of released life-sentence prisoners. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

Prisoners released from life sentences should be given priority for housing on their release, the chairman of the Parole Board has said.

John Costello said that prioritising stable accommodation for ex-prisoners will cut down on social costs, such as repeat offending and homelessness.

“Accommodation should be given to [life-sentence prisoners] as a priority,” Mr Costello told The Irish Times. “There’s only five or six life-sentence prisoners being paroled every year. It wouldn’t be unreasonable.”

Life-sentence prisoners serve an average of 22 years. When released, they can be called back to prison at any time if they don’t fulfil the conditions of their parole. These conditions could range from not committing further offences to finding stable housing.

Last year, four life-sentence prisoners were recalled from their parole despite not having committed a crime. According to the Irish Prison Service, one was sent back to prison due to “accommodation issues” while three were recalled due to “medical reasons”.

Dr Diarmuid Griffin, a law lecturer in NUI Galway, who is about to publish a book on Ireland’s life-sentencing regime, said the recall of four prisoners in 2016 was a significant increase on previous years. According to his research, typically only one prisoner is recalled a year while in some years, such as 2015, none were recalled.

‘Vague in nature’

“The conditions for temporary release are vague in nature and allow for a considerable amount of discretion as to what constitutes a breach of a condition,” Dr Griffin said.

“The situation is exacerbated for the life-sentence prisoner, who is subject to supervision for the remainder of his life and, if recalled, could end up serving additional lengthy periods in prison for the breach of a relatively trivial condition.”

Mr Costello said that last year three life-sentence prisoners, who had all served at least 17 years, couldn’t be released because there were not enough supports for them in the community.

“The whole [Parole] Board agreed they should not be in prison,” he said.

The board’s annual report stated: “It was not possible to recommend them for temporary release because the essential community supports were not available. As hundreds of prisoners have serious psychiatric or intellectual disability problems, this is going to become a more regular occurrence.

Mr Costello said: “Family is the best support for a released prisoner, providing they’re not dysfunctional. Most life-sentence prisoners don’t have the family supports; their parents have died. Normally if they had a partner, the partner has moved on.”

‘Open prison’

“You’ve at least two years to plan their release because normally they move to an open prison two years before release. There’s two years to plan accommodation for them. It seems to me that they should be given priority if they’re former life-sentence prisoners. And that wouldn’t be a big deal.”

Mr Costello said he has been contacted by Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald who told him she is setting up an interdepartmental committee to look into the management of released life-sentence prisoners.

The chairman also called for the establishment of “halfway houses” for long-serving prisoners to move into on release. These would be “one-stop shops” which would have accommodation and probation and addiction services on site.

He suggested that prisoners could be moved into these centres towards the end of their sentences, thus saving on prison costs.

“It costs about €65,000 a year to keep someone in prison. You’d be saving all that money if you had one of these halfway houses. It wouldn’t be an additional cost.”