Mountjoy to stay open when new jail built

 

MOUNTJOY PRISON is to remain open even after the planned new Thornton Hall prison that was to replace it is completed and operating.

Plans for the new prison, in Kilsallaghan, near Swords, north Co Dublin, have been scaled back to save money to such an extent that it will only be able to take 500 prisoners rather than the 1,200 originally envisaged. It will now be too small to replace Mountjoy, which houses between 800 and 900 inmates. This is despite Thornton Hall having been planned for the specific purpose of replacing Mountjoy.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust said the Irish Prison Service and previous governments had decided Mountjoy was no longer suitable to house inmates, but now it was being decided that the 200-year-old jail is suitable again.

The reform trust’s executive director Liam Herrick said that when the planned 500-space Thornton Hall was completed the Government should follow through with its original plan to close Mountjoy.

While there would be a shortfall of some 300 to 400 spaces, new non-custodial policies could be developed that would keep non-violent offenders out of the prison system and substantially reduce the prison population. This could be done through greater use of community service as an alternative to imprisonment, as well as more effective use of remission and parole. “Even with planned renovations done in Mountjoy, there is a definite question mark over the viability of the prison,” Mr Herrick said.

In response to queries from The Irish Times, the Department of Justice confirmed the closure of Mountjoy in the medium term would not be possible. It said in a statement: “There are two reasons: the prison at Thornton Hall will be smaller than the prison previously envisaged; and it will take time for non-custodial community-based sanctions to have effect on the size of the prison population.”

The Thornton Hall review group, whose report on the future of the troubled mooted jail was released last month, had already cast doubt over plans to close Mountjoy. It said the scaled-down size it envisaged for Thornton Hall would not provide sufficient accommodation for all inmates currently in the Mountjoy campus.

However, the Government had until now not confirmed that Mountjoy would remain open.

The Mountjoy campus on Dublin’s North Circular Road houses the main Mountjoy men’s prison, the women’s Dochas Centre, and St Patrick’s Institution for young offenders. Between 800 and 900 inmates are housed at the facilities at any one time.

When the Thornton Hall project was devised in 2005 by former minister for justice Michael McDowell, it was proposed to replace the outdated, unsafe and unhygienic accommodation in Mountjoy and alleviate overcrowding across the prison system.

However, six years on it has emerged that Thornton Hall will achieve neither of those aims.

The project has been controversial since it emerged the previous government paid €30 million in 2005 for the prison site at Kilsallaghan. This was many multiples of the price of comparable lands, even at the height of the property boom.

Details released by the Department of Justice six months ago revealed that some €7.4 million had at that time been spent on professional and consultancy fees, as well as the near €30 million spent on the initial purchase of the site.

A total of €500,000 had been spent on landscaping the site, which is in effect still an open field, and €500,000 had been paid to security firms patrolling the site.

A further €2.9 million had been spent on “site preparation and various surveys”. These surveys involve geological, engineering, archaeological and environmental studies needed for such a large- scale development.

Total spending at that time was close to €50 million and it is believed to have exceeded that now. Despite the vast expenditure there is still no indication when construction will start, and a contractor to build the jail has yet to be selected.