Prison not always the answer


ON OCCASION, popular policies are simply wrong. The practice of locking people up for relatively minor offences has been hugely expensive and largely counter-productive. Successive governments made the slogan “tough on crime” a rallying cry for their supporters, even as drug bosses grew more powerful and white-collar crime became more sophisticated. The result is a grossly overcrowded and increasingly dangerous prison system and a sentencing regime that requires immediate reform.

Overcrowding threatens the safety and security of inmates and prison officers alike. Its effects have been detailed by our crime correspondent Conor Lally. Because the courts are sending an increasing number of minor offenders to a prison system that lacks the capacity to accommodate them, nearly 1,000 prisoners are now on early release. In spite of that, the number of inmates in the 15 institutions run by the State exceeds their official capacity. The situation is most grave at Mountjoy Prison in Dublin. Male inmates are sleeping in large communal cells and on mattresses in the reception and basement areas. The women’s centre there is the most overcrowded of all institutions.

Given such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that those in charge have protested in the only way open to them. Two months ago, the governor of the female prison at Mountjoy, Kathleen McMahon, resigned because of a lack of official preparation for what she believed would become long-term overcrowding and a reduction in rehabilitation services. Within weeks, the governor of the male prison, John Lonergan, took early retirement. The official reaction to this deteriorating situation has been to plan for yet more prison places, rather than reduce the number of prisoners by seeking judicial co-operation for alternative penalties.

There is a lack of joined-up action. Visiting committees and prison clergy complain regularly about the “dumping” of the mentally ill and inadequate people into prisons, at enormous public cost and without facilities for their rehabilitation. That situation is likely to get worse now that the Health Service Executive has been ordered to close or refurbish several psychiatric institutions across the State. Funding for community healthcare projects, which is already inadequate, is likely to be soaked up by construction projects. At the same time, the focus of the Irish Prison Service has been on providing an increasing number of prison places, with a planned mega-prison at Thornton Hall being held out as the Holy Grail.

Passage of the Fines Act by the Dáil last month, hopefully, will have the same effect as earlier civil debt legislation. Only 200 people were sent to jail for civil debt last year, compared to 3,500 for the non-payment of fines. But that reform, in itself, will not eliminate overcrowding. Until the judiciary adopts the use of community service orders to a much greater extent and the Government encourages the development of restorative justice, little will change. Only serious criminals should be locked up.