The Irish Times view on prisons: Old problems resurface

Report lays bare system’s shortcomings with urgent action needed to tackle overcrowding

Increasing overcrowding in Irish prisons and the plight of the mentally ill in our jails are separate issues requiring different responses. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Increasing overcrowding in Irish prisons and the plight of the mentally ill in our jails are separate issues requiring different responses. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

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Familiar themes emerged last week around Irish penal policy. Unresolved issues have not gone away and some of the problems that dogged the prison service for years, but which had relented during the last recession, have returned. The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment last week pointed to mentally ill prisoners being left to “languish” in Irish prisons for lack of suitable medical facilities away from the prison setting.

It reported how one man was found lying naked on the floor of his cell, with faeces and urine on the floor and walls, in a “special observation cell” in Cloverhill Prison, Dublin. He was not receiving medical treatment as staff would only open the door to give him food. Another prisoner with severe mental illness was found “similarly distressed” after being kept in such a cell for 12 weeks while a bed became available in the Central Mental Hospital. It also emerged in recent days there has been a big increase in the number of people being remanded in prison while awaiting trial for public order crimes and related offences such as drunkenness and begging. This was driving increased overcrowding in our jails.

The latter phenomenon and the plight of the mentally ill in our jails are separate issues requiring different responses. But both require the political will, and courage, to adapt more progressive and humane approaches.

A Government commitment to establish a taskforce to consider the mental health and addiction challenges of prisoners must be acted on. Confirmation last week that the Irish Prison Service is currently involved in the preliminary phases of that taskforce was welcome news, though the need for real progress was now urgent. More generally, it is clear overcrowding – which ran the prison service into the ground during the Celtic Tiger years – has returned. The automatic commutation of short prison sentences with non-custodial options, including drug and alcohol rehabilitation, should also be explored and imprisonment reserved for serious criminals.

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