The Irish Times view on prisons: a progressive figurehead leaves the stage
Michael Donnellan showed what can be achieved in public service
As director general of the Irish Prison Service, Michael Donnellan embarked on a programme of change underpinned by a more progressive ethos than that which prevailed at the time. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
The retirement of Michael Donnellan from his post as director general of the Irish Prison Service has passed largely unnoticed. But his contribution to public life should not be underestimated. That he succeeded in turning around the prison system during the recession is proof of what can be achieved with a desire to change and a willingness to pursue at times unpopular reforms, even if funding is tight.
Having spent six years as director of the Probation Service, Donnellan took up his post at the prison service in 2011. He immediately embarked on a programme of change underpinned by a more progressive ethos than that which prevailed at the time. An incentive regime was introduced in which prisoners with a clean discipline record, and with a willingness to engage with rehabilitative and educational services, got rewards.
Donnellan was helped by the fact that recorded crime decreased during the recession. That led to fewer prisoner committals and so less overcrowding
On Donnellan’s watch a community return scheme was introduced. Prisoners who demonstrated they could be trusted were allowed periods of day release several times each week to leave jails and work in the community. And there was also a system of enhanced remission, prisoners being able to earn remission of up to one third, rather than the standard 25 per cent, if they genuinely committed to programmes in the jail that would help them remain crime free on release.
There were improvements too to the prison infrastructure, notably with the ending, at last, of the practice of slopping out. And so even Mountjoy Prison cells were fitted with showers and toilets, after decades of claims from governments that that jail was beyond rescue.
Donnellan was helped by the fact that recorded crime decreased during the recession. That led to fewer prisoner committals and so less overcrowding, affording him breathing room to bring about changes. However, his term was one characterised by a hunger to change – to make the prison service better, more professional and more compassionate. It is an outlook his successor, whoever that may be, will hopefully also possess. And it is one which the Garda, for example, could learn a great deal from.