Drug-free prisons would require 'cruel system'


DRUG-FREE PRISONS would be impossible in a humane prison system, the secretary general of the Department of Justice has said.

Seán Aylward, a former director of the Irish Prison Service, also said he was “disappointed” with the Drug Court scheme and it was likely to be wound up.

He was addressing the Dáil Committee on Public Accounts yesterday.

Asked about aims, expressed most forcefully by former minister for justice Michael McDowell, for drug-free prisons, he said a prison system which eliminated “any drug use, at any time in any place would be a very cruel system”.

“The complete elimination of drugs is not possible in a humane prison system. It would mean total isolation of prisoners, no visitors at all and a roof over the exercise yard – no fresh air.”

Smuggling contraband into the prisons entailed “covert behaviours with minute quantities”.

He said prisoners found it more difficult to get drugs in prison than outside and that the supply was intermittent.

The director general of the Prison Service, Brian Purcell, said just under 25 per cent of the prison population of 3,900 were active drug users, while over 80 per cent had experience of using drugs.

The service had had success in reducing the supply of drugs into prisons, using sniffer dogs and security screening of visitors.

“To date in 2009 we have had 700 drug seizures within the system. You’re not going to stop drugs altogether.”

He also said a methadone maintenance programme, currently only available in Mountjoy Prison, would be available in Castlerea next month and in Cork Prison by the end of the year.

“It’s a growing need, but I suppose the services we provide in terms of methadone reflect what the HSE [Health Service Executive] is providing out in the community.”

There was little point offering methadone maintenance programmes to prisoners if upon their release there was no service available in the community, he added. “We are now at the stage in Cork where we feel there are services in the community.”

Mr Aylward, asked about the efficacy of the Drug Court scheme, said he was “not convinced any longer that it was the way to go.”

The Dublin Drug Treatment Court had been piloted in the Dublin 1 and Dublin 7 postal areas from 2001 and put on a permanent basis in 2006. Its aim is to divert non-violent drug-offenders away from the justice system and into rehabilitation.

Participants are referred to the court by the Probation Service and if accepted are under its supervision until they have completed the programme. Their charge is put on hold and struck off if the candidate “graduates”.

The court is supported by a team consisting of a liaison nurse, a probation officer, an education co-ordinator, gardaí and others who can help the participants.

Mr Aylward said the programme was being evaluated, the results of which would be available by the end of the year, but numbers “graduating” from the court had been “disappointing”.

“I am not questioning the bone fides of anyone involved, or their best intentions, but I do think it’s time to think afresh and look at somewhere else.”

Between 2002 and 2008, 22 offenders a year had been admitted to the scheme – a fifth of what had been expected and 17 per cent of these had completed the programme, to the satisfaction of the court.

The chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Bernard Allen, said the court was not “just a numbers game”. The court might function better in a different manner, with a different socioeconomic niche, he said.