Prisons: a lot done, more to do

Victorian-era requirement of ‘slopping out’ is, thankfully, coming to an end

A High Court judge ruled last week that a former prisoner’s constitutional right to privacy was breached by the “slopping out” regime in Mountjoy Prison. This Victorian-era requirement is, thankfully, coming to an end as facilities are upgraded and in-cell toilets are installed. More than half of all inmates are now accommodated in single cells with flush toilets. Because of multi-cell occupancy, however, four-out-of-10 prisoners still have to use the toilet in the presence of others. This infringement of their right to privacy must be rectified.

While significant problems remain in the State’s prisons, very substantial progress has been made in recent years in terms of reform and the humane treatment of offenders. Keeping young people out of jail through involvement by the Probation Service and by way of Community Service orders is the way to go. A mentoring programme for young offenders within the Probation Service has been particularly successful and deserves political support.

Reduced consumption of drugs and alcohol and improved self-confidence was recorded for those involved. The introduction of a social enterprise strategy this year, designed to provide sustainable employment for inmates when they leave, offers further opportunities for development. Two-thirds of young people who participate in these schemes are regarded as unlikely to re-offend. This compares to a recidivism rate of 85 per cent among fine defaulters.

Because fine defaulters clogged up prisons, legislation was passed in 2016 allowing fines to be paid in various ways or, failing that, through the imposition of long or short terms of community service. Some offenders deliberately opt for jail, rather than pay fines. Because of a shortage of prison places, they are detained for a few hours before being sent home. They are aware that this will be the case. The answer will not be found in additional places but through the development of community service orders. These individuals are not serious criminals. But they have broken the law and should be seen to contribute in some way to society. That will require further investment in community and oversight services.

Keeping citizens, particularly young people, out of prison should be the overriding priority for those in the judicial and prison systems. Having made a mistake by adopting a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to all forms of crime in the late 1990s, our prisons became dumping grounds, with numbers peaking at 4,480 in 2011.

Since then, there has been a slow decline in numbers along with improvements in policy and prison facilities. Our prison population is reaching Nordic levels, at 79 persons per 100,000. That is a major achievement. In the United States, nearly 10 times that ratio is behind bars and nobody feels any safer.