Phones for life-sentence prisoners likely to cause surprise

Prisons have been struggling to stem traffic of illicit mobile phones into facilities for years

All of those serving life sentences in Irish prisons are there for either homicide offences (327) or serious sexual offences (12). File Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

All of those serving life sentences in Irish prisons are there for either homicide offences (327) or serious sexual offences (12). File Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Ireland has a relatively small prison population but the percentage of inmates serving life sentences has been increasing for years.

Today nearly 9 per cent (349) of some 4,000 people in Irish prisons are on life sentences, one of the highest rates in Europe.

In 2016 the director general of the Irish Prison Service (IPS) formed a committee to examine if these prisoners were being properly prepared for re-entry into the outside world.

The report, which was published last year but released to The Irish Times recently under the Freedom of Information Act, found there was significant confusion among life-sentence prisoners about how the parole system operates.

The result is many inmates do not bother to take part in the parole process until immediately before their first hearing, which takes place seven years into a life sentence.

Prisoners feel engagement before this point is “of little consequence and therefore of little point,” according to the report.

The lengthy report mostly focuses on relatively straightforward reforms of the sentence management processes, such as the introduction of annual multidisciplinary reviews of a prisoner’s progress.

Other recommendations, however, will raise some eyebrows, not least the suggestions that the IPS should consider giving lifers their own in-cell telephones and access to video conferencing facilities such as Skype.

The logic is these measures will help prisoners keep in touch with families, including elderly or less mobile relatives, or relatives living abroad. This will help with prisoners’ reintegration on their release.

With restrictions

All of those serving life are there for either homicide offences (327) or serious sexual offences (12). There is likely to be little public support for providing them with conveniences such as in-cell phones or Skype, especially since the prisons have been struggling to stem the traffic of illicit mobile phones into facilities for years.

These efforts were stepped up after Brian Rattigan was caught using a smuggled phone to organise a €1 million heroin deal from Portlaoise Prison in 2008.

However, it should be noted that the report states access to phones must be in line with “normal governance and restrictions”. This means only prisoners in the later years of their sentences and who have demonstrated a willingness to reform are likely to benefit.

Private phones for prisoners are not a new idea. Inmates in Loughan House, Co Cavan and Shelton Abbey, Co Wicklow open centres, most of whom are nearing the end of their sentences, are provided with mobile phones to improve family contact.

And those in the Independent Living Skills Unit in Wheatfield in Dublin have in-cell phones as part of a pilot programme. The report recommends increased use of such units which grant prisoners a large degree of freedom within the prison.

‘Homework clubs’

Among the report’s other recommendations is the building of a new open prison in Dublin to allow lifers serve the final years of their sentences near their families. This is probably one of the more aspirational, or at least long-term, suggestions contained in the document.

More consideration should also be given to parents serving life sentences to prevent them becoming alienated from their children, the report states. The facilitation of “homework clubs” and parent-teacher meetings within the prison should be examined.

A special unit is also needed to deal with the “small percentage” of prisoners who have become institutionalised.

In Ireland, seven lifers have been inside for 25-30 years, 12 have served 30-40 years and two have served more than 40 years.

Long-serving prisoners who have been recommended for release will sometimes frustrate the process by misbehaving, the report notes.

Some of the recommendations, including reform of the parole process, will be dealt with in the forthcoming Parole Bill. This will put the Parole Board on a statutory footing and rationalise the process for releasing life sentence prisoners.

Under the new law, prisoners will not be eligible for their first parole hearing until 12 years into their sentence rather than the current seven years.