Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 8 March 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Penal Reform: Discussion (Resumed)
In our first public session we will have a discussion with the Irish Prison Service in a continuation of a series of hearings on penal reform. The joint committee has identified penal policy and reform as one of its priority issues in its 2017 work programme. I welcome from the Irish Prison Service Mr. Michael Donnellan, director general; Mr. Fergal Black, Mr. Martin Smyth and Ms Ethal Gavin. I also welcome Mr. John McDermott and Mr. Frank Hanlon. On behalf of the committee, I thank them for their attendance to discuss this important issue. The format of the meeting is that the delegates will be invited to make a brief opening statement which will be followed by a question and answer session. It is our hope to conduct this engagement within one hour.
I draw attention to the fact that witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Under the salient rulings of the Chair, members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Mr. Donnellan to make his opening statement.
Mr. Michael Donnellan:
I thank the joint committee for giving us this opportunity to update it on progress and the reforms being made within the Irish Prison Service and also to highlight the planned future direction of the service. I understand the committee is engaging with a range of groups, including the Irish Penal Reform Trust, the Prison Officers Association, etc. The meetings will be very important in helping tjo chart the future of the Irish Prison Service in the context of penal reform.
The committee will be aware that significant change and reform have occurred in the prison system in recent years, addressing many of the issues highlighted by the committee, including prison numbers, overcrowding and prison conditions. For years overcrowding caused a strain on the system and created significant challenges for management and staff of the Irish Prison Service in providing appropriate accommodation and constructive regimes for prisoners. Thankfully, the issue of overcrowding has been eliminated in the majority of prisons. The numbers in custody have fallen by 20% since their peak in 2011, while the numbers on temporary release have reduced by almost 70% during the same period. The implementation of the fines legislation is starting to have an effect, with some drop in the numbers coming to prison for fines offences. Provisional figures for 2016 show a decrease of approximately 15% on the figures for the previous year. This reduction in numbers has allowed the Irish Prison Service to progress and enhance several key services, including enhanced pre-release planning and resettlement; structured temporary release; the community return scheme and the community support scheme; the incentivised regime programme; drug treatment facilities; developing the psychology service; integrated sentence management facilities; working with the families of those imprisoned, as well as working with the third level sector and in-reach services.
The Irish Prison Service has continued to implement a comprehensive capital programme to provide additional accommodation and enhance the quality of accommodation across the prison estate. The priority has turned to improving existing accommodation and rehabilitative facilities. The number of prisoners slopping out has decreased from 1,003 in 2010 to just 49 or less than 1%. The refurbishment of Mountjoy Prison has been completed and all cells now have toilet facilities and wash-hand basins and been returned to single occupancy. In 2016 we saw the opening of a new prison in Cork. It provides high quality accommodation and for rehabilitation for families. It also allows the service to provide enhanced visiting facilities for prisoners and their families. Current and planned capital projects will result in the complete elimination of slopping out across the estate for the first time.
Huge progress has been made to incentivise prisoners to participate in constructive activities. The incentivised regime programme has provided real incentives to prisoners to participate and engage and has also reduced levels of violence across the estate. New training facilities have been provided for the first time in Mountjoy Prison. It is vital that the services and opportunities provided are available to all prisoners. As the committee will be aware, some prisoners are unable to associate with other prisoners for various reasons. These are mainly factors that come into the prison from outside and prison management must ensure the safety of all who work and reside within the walls. That said, we have made huge strides in reducing the numbers of prisoners who require protection or are accommodated on a restricted regime. The number of prisoners on 22 or 23-hour lock-up, or solitary confinement, has decreased from 211 in July 2013 to 72 in January this year. While this figure can fluctuate, we hope to and I am confident that we can eliminate solitary confinement as we know it when we implement the Mandela rules and our new policies.
The work we have undertaken has positively contributed to the goal of a safer, fairer and inclusive Ireland. Since 2013, in partnership with the Central Statistics Office, CSO, annual recidivism studies have been published that show a reduction in recidivism levels from 55% in 2007 to 45% in 2010, a drop of ten points. I am confident that we can take that down by another ten points over the next ten years and meet the best practice within Europe.
There are still significant challenges facing the Prison Service, including issues of mental health, the management of prisoners on protection and how the service can best manage violently disruptive prisoners. I am confident the Prison Service can meet these challenges and the work being undertaken by the committee will assist in our endeavours.
I am confident that the successful implementation of our strategy for 2012 to 2015 and our new strategy, built around four pillars - supporting our staff, supporting our prisoners, supporting victims and enhancing our organisational capacity - will see further improvements across the Prison Service in the years to come. I have no doubt that we could become a world-class prison service.
Mr. Fergal Black:
Drugs are a significant problem in prisons. Prisons are always a microcosm of society. We engage with people in prisons to deal with the situation we encounter. All prisoners who are on committal will see a nurse or doctor within 24 hours. Where people who have addiction issues give a history of opiate use and test positive for opiates and where they have been maintained on methadone treatments in the community, we will continue that treatment while they remain in custody. There are currently just under 10,000 people on methadone treatments in the community. Additionally, we have a contract with Merchants Quay Ireland to provide addiction counselling in 12 of our 13 institutions. We have addiction pharmacists in Mountjoy and other facilities, and we have general practitioners, GPs, with a special interest in substance misuse.
In summary, we provide a range of services for people addicted to drugs within the prison system. While the numbers on methadone in the community have continued to rise in the last few years, we have seen a significant reduction in prisons. There were 750 people on methadone maintenance across the prison system when I came to the Prison Service in 2008. There are 465 today. There has been a change in that, notwithstanding the reduction in numbers.
We regard prison as an ideal opportunity for somebody to address his or her addiction issues. We have a self-directed detox programme in the Mountjoy campus where people can reduce their methadone intake by 5 ml a week under the supervision of the doctor and pharmacist. We did research in the last two years, from June 2014 to December 2016. We had 530 patients involved in self-directed detox in Mountjoy. Some 120 have come off methadone completely and 88 are still off methadone as of last week. Some 197 reduced their methadone intake by a minimum of 20 ml.
We are concerned about other drugs, particularly new psychoactive substances, NPS. Deputies will be aware from looking at recent media footage of what is going on in English jails of the impact of NPS on violence and deaths in custody in English jails. We have not seen it to any significant extent here yet. We have seen some small episodes of it. We have brought over our colleagues from Public Health England and the National Health Service, NHS, to help us to try to ensure that we are prepared if NPS becomes a real problem in the way that it has in English and Scottish jails.
Mr. Michael Donnellan:
It is for a variety of reasons. Those 72, as of 1 January, are people who would be in their cells for 22 or 23 hours a day. They would mostly be people who have mental health problems and may be awaiting a place at the Central Mental Hospital, CMH. They may be people who fear for their lives and that they are going to be attacked because of the crimes they have committed. We also have other people there for a whole range of reasons, including debt, money and drugs, who say to us that they cannot come out onto the landing, cannot associate with others and that we need to protect them. We have to work with that group because we know the psychological damage that that does to people. We are working to eliminate that practice.
I thank Mr. Donnellan for his presentation.
My first question is about therapeutic communities and whether the Irish Prison Service is open to incorporating or piloting a therapeutic community within our current system.
Mr. Michael Donnellan:
We have set out in our strategy that we want to develop a therapeutic community. That will not happen in the short term due to our current staffing issues. We hope that we could develop a 40-bed therapeutic community in the beginning of 2018, in the area that was occupied by children in St. Patrick's Institution, which has been significantly developed. We are working with a number of providers and hope that we could develop a therapeutic community model in prisons. It has never been done in Ireland. We have visited a number across Europe and we think that there is a real benefit but we have to wait to get the staff.
There are some rumours about the drug-free unit in Mountjoy and it potentially being removed or temporarily changed within the current operational setting. I ask for an update on the drug-free unit in Mountjoy.
Mr. Fergal Black:
The Irish Prison Service has gone to considerable lengths both in trying to stop contraband from getting into prisons and in providing appropriate treatment services for people who have addictions while in prison. We have canine units, nets, search procedures and all of those things. The reality is that it is almost impossible to stop drugs from getting into prison. There is a situation in which families are under significant pressure to bring in drugs from all sorts of sources. We are very conscious of that.
The training unit in Mountjoy does not have in-cell sanitation and we were looking at it. It offers a drug-free location for people. Given that our numbers have fallen, we have to consider the growing number of older individuals in custody when developing our overall infrastructure. The number has risen from a very small base, but today we have about 250 people over 55 years of age. International research shows that older prisoners compare unfavourably with their counterparts in the community. Old age would be at 55 rather than 65. We have decided to refurbish the training unit as a facility for older prisoners. We are going to refurbish that over the next 18 months and ensure that we develop a state-of-the-art facility for older prisoners which meets their needs.
We will then relocate the current facility in the training unit into what was the old St. Patrick's Institution but will continue the same regime within that. Our intention is to continue to offer a facility for people who are not involved in drugs and for people who have addressed their substance misuse and to effectively operate in the same was as we have always done.
In the next 18 months, while that change is occurring, what is there for a prisoner who has gone through the rehabilitation programme? What has been incorporated into the current setting so that prisoners can have a drug-free environment?
Mr. Michael Donnellan:
Mountjoy has been transformed. The plan for Mountjoy within the next three months is that the C and D divisions will accommodate ordinary prisoners, while the A and B divisions will accommodate protection prisoners. Mountjoy west, which is the old St. Patrick's Institution, will accommodate super-enhanced people, that is, the old training unit people. There is in-cell sanitation there. Then we will work on the training unit. There is a natural flow within the Mountjoy campus for everybody from the inner city area of Dublin.
My next question relates to the cost per prisoner per year, for which various figures are bandied about. What percentage of the cost is attributed to rehabilitation, education and support? I ask the witnesses to give a breakdown of the unit costs per prisoner and an outline of what the Prison Service does to provide an appropriate, wraparound intervention for the individual.
Mr. Michael Donnellan:
As the Deputy knows, we have an annual budget of over €311 million. Approximately 75% of that budget is for staff costs, with the rest for programme costs, including maintenance, food, clothing, light, heat, power and providing the regime. The latter is Mr. Black's area so he can provide more details.
Mr. Fergal Black:
Our annual budget is just over €25 million. Effectively, I have responsibility for non-security issues. I am responsible for education, work training, psychology, chaplaincy and all of the services that are there to assist prisoners. In terms of education, for example, the service is provided by the Education and Training Boards, ETBs. They provide the 220 whole-time equivalent teachers across the 13 prisons. The cost of their salaries is not included in our budget of €25 million. Similarly, the cost of the 250 work training officers that we employ, which amounts to approximately €16 million, is not included in our budget. The programme costs also include pharmaceuticals and all of the other elements of a care and rehabilitation service.
Mr. Michael Donnellan:
I think that with 20% fewer prisoners in jail today than five years ago, we are getting there. When we had massive overcrowding problems five years ago, rehabilitation did not really feature because it was so difficult to get to people. Our numbers have come down and we now have about 97 per 100,000, whereas our colleagues in England have double that. Now we have an opportunity for the first time in Ireland to really address the purpose of prison, namely to rehabilitate people and create fewer victims by ensuring that people who come into prison have the best opportunity to change.
A report by the now deceased former Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, in 2016, recommends that responsibility for health care in prisons should be transferred to the HSE. Does Mr. Donnellan agree with that recommendation?
Mr. Michael Donnellan:
As the Deputy knows, the untimely and unfortunate death of the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, occurred in November 2016. The Department and the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality have decided that a new inspector will be appointed through the Public Appointments Service, PAS. The position will be advertised in the coming months and a new Inspector of Prisons will appointed through the PAS system. In the meantime, we have an individual in the Inspector of Prisons office who is acting in that capacity.
The witnesses mentioned methadone and how it has been incorporated into the community in terms of the provision of health care. What wraparound services are available within the Prison Service to enable people to move on from the harm reduction, appropriate intervention stage and move beyond methadone or is methadone where it stops?
Mr. Fergal Black:
As I said earlier, prison offers a unique opportunity for people to address addiction. We have the national drug treatment programme, which operates in the medical unit in Mountjoy. We commissioned a review last year and are building a full curriculum around that. We have organisations such as Coolmine Therapeutic Community, Ballymun Youth Action Program, YAP, the Ana Liffey Drug Project, Merchants Quay Ireland and the Harmony Programme operating that service on our behalf. There are 18 beds in that unit. When individuals come into prison who are using illicit substances, the first thing we do is try to get them to stop using those substances and get them stabilised on methadone. Then, when and if they are ready, we try to wean them off or detox them from methadone. If that proves possible, they can go on the drug treatment programme and get to a drug-free status. Beyond that, we need to provide appropriate locations so that they can maintain that drug-free status. In that context, we have more than 20 addiction counsellors from Merchants Quay Ireland who provide supports. We also have 140 nurses who operate 24/7 and doctors with expertise in addiction psychiatry. We have a range of services available, including educational services. All of those services are there to assist people, ultimately, to leave prison and live more purposeful lives.
I have met a lot of people who were in prison and who have gone to the Coolmine Therapeutic Community. While the witnesses would argue that the prison provides an environment for prisoners to end their addiction and to avail of wraparound services, many of the people I have met would have a contrary view. Many told me that the prison environment made their addiction worse. In fact, many of them developed polydrug use while in prison and their level of addiction actually increased.
How do we balance their real, raw stories against the comment that prison is the ideal environment for people to get proper rehabilitation, particularly if rehabilitation is only now becoming a priority in the Prison Service in the context of the budgetary allocation? Does Mr. Donnellan think the current budgetary allocation is sufficient, given that the training unit in Mountjoy is closing? Are we doing our best, in terms of the current allocations, to provide rehabilitation for prisoners?
Mr. Michael Donnellan:
I think that within the current resource allocation we have really tried to put a focus on rehabilitation. It makes no sense that anybody would leave prison worse than when he or she went in. Overcrowding really did not allow for much to be done, apart from crowd control and the warehousing of people. We now have an opportunity to have a debate about the importance of prison and its potential contribution for people. I believe that it is possible to engage people, in their hearts and minds, and to encourage them. Realistically, a lot of people come into prison with problems. We estimate that approximately 70% of people come into prison with an addiction or substance abuse problem. That is the reality and they do not give it up when they come into prison. They will use every opportunity to further that but we must be there to encourage change.
Has the Prison Service had any interaction with the Department of Justice and Equality about getting additional resources, on top of the current allocation of €311 million, to do the very things the witnesses have been talking about in terms of rehabilitation and giving people a second chance?
It is appropriate, in that context, to remind the committee that we will be dealing with the Revised Estimates for 2017 of the Department of Justice and Equality on 5 April next. Perhaps there is a small window of opportunity to knock on the door of the Department with a good, strong hand. We will now move on to Senator Frances Black.
I can only talk about my own experience. I worked in Dóchas and ran some programmes with the organisation with which I work. I found it an amazing experience. I worked with prisoners who were incredible. They really wanted to recover. It is very difficult for prison officers to work in the chaos of addiction. We have worked with family members who have a loved one with an alcohol, drug or gambling problem and the chaos for them is soul destroying. People do not know how to cope. There are significant mental health issues for those suffering from an addiction and their family members. I saw this in the Irish Prison Service in general with the staff, who are under significant pressure in working with those who are in the chaos of addiction. The problems in Dóchas were not related to heroin alone, there was a significant issue with prescription medications which were probably more of an issue. A lot of the women in prison were there for crimes related to alcohol. They also had alcohol issues. Is there a programme for prison officers to give them information on the impact of addiction and how they can deal with it? I have no doubt that there is burnout among staff. If they burn out, they will become angry and frustrated and get fed up. Personal mental health issues also arise. Are there supports in place for staff to deal with the chaos of addiction?
Mr. Michael Donnellan:
There is no doubt that the role of the prison officer is very difficult. Prison officers interact day in and day out with people who are chaotic and need help and support. We have a training college where we train all prison staff. We have a number of courses which prison staff can attend. Recently, we developed a mental health course for staff, which is really effective because it begins to help staff to get an insight into people's mental health problems and know the signs to look out for. Suicide is an issue in prison and very traumatising. We have a range of supports in place. We also have a staff support system under which we have staff support officers available to whom staff can go for help or to get advice. We provide a counselling service, have an employee assistance programme and a freefone number which prison officers can ring 24/7 if they go home from work and have experienced something really difficult.
The Senator is correct - prison can be chaotic because one has a range of people with different needs and from different backgrounds. The majority have come from highly traumatised backgrounds with early childhood problems that play out in the prison environment. For many prisoners drugs offer pain relief and they do not care what they take. They take it to soften the damage caused by their pain. It is about getting through that barrier with them and supporting staff. As the Senator said, it is a very difficult environment.
That is something to think about, namely, specifically training staff to understand the impact of addiction, but it is also important for them to learn how to cope with those in the chaos of addiction. We only ran three programmes because the funding ran out. Unfortunately, education which is very important for prisoners got in the way of the programmes we were running. Many of the women had been born into homes where there was an addiction. What we tried to do was to help them to understand why they were suffering from an addiction and to find compassion for themselves so as not to constantly beat themselves up about being a bad person because they had an addiction. That is from where I am coming. Unfortunately, the education programme got in the way of that work. What I mean is that the women had to go to their education classes in order to get certificates that would be good for them following release. Would it be a good idea to prioritise addiction services and recovery and provide certificates for attendance at therapeutic instead of education programmes? I do not say education is not good because it is very important, but, unfortunately, it got in the way of some of the therapeutic elements of the programmes we ran.
Mr. Fergal Black:
It is about creating a balance. We try to celebrate any achievement of prisoners. Most prisoners have dropped out of society. As Mr. Donnellan said, they have had a poor educational experience. They are poor economically, but they are also poor emotionally, psychologically and in other ways. We are dealing with a range of complex issues. On the drug treatment programmes provided by the Red Cross and Samaritans, we look to celebrate any achievement of prisoners because they have not had many opportunities. To answer the question specifically, it is really about where a person is at. He or she needs to want to be part of the addiction programme. We will support anyone to manage his or her addiction, but we also want to encourage people to engage in education, work training and offence focused work with the psychology, chaplaincy and all such services. I personally believe it is about creating a balance within a prison. I remember an occasion in the Dóchas Centre in the education unit a couple of years ago with Senator Frances Black where there was unnecessary friction or competition.
I will give a very good example of a woman with whom we worked whose son was coming out of prison, but he was going to have to go back in again. At that point he wanted to move into recovery. He wanted to get into a treatment centre, but, unfortunately, they could not get him in anywhere. She ended up ringing the Joe Duffy show. I have given this example previously. Thankfully, as a result, he got into a treatment centre and is now doing really well. He graduated and is fantastic. He was in and out of prison constantly, but he has not gone back to prison since. Is it possible to have intervention when people are going through the courts and for a judge to give a person a choice of six months in recovery or six months in prison? Would the delegates agree with having such an approach?
Mr. Fergal Black:
My colleague might be best placed to respond, but last year, of the clients in prison who engaged with the Merchant’s Quay Project, 98 were released from prison into a treatment centre. We actively support that continuum to ensure people will be given the opportunity. Perhaps Mr. Smyth might want to say something on that point.
Mr. Martin Smyth:
Essentially, what Mr. Black has said is correct. We do everything we can to incentivise prisoners to engage in drug addiction programmes and face up to the challenge of overcoming their addictions. We do not have a specific checklist in considering concessions for prisoners such as release under a community return scheme, for example. There are a number of factors we consider, but we always pay particular attention and give credit to any prisoner with addiction issues or who had them in the past and has made efforts within the prison to tackle them. Essentially, we are talking about an issue of security - fighting the contraband and trying to prevent smuggling. There is also, as my colleague mentioned, the issue of rehabilitation. To incentivise prisoners, we give credit in assessing people for onward movement to open centres or even to external drug treatment facilities.
I wish to raise a couple of issues. I thank the delegates for coming before the committee. I am sorry that we have dragged them away from their other responsibilities as we know very well about the good job they do.
Before I forget it, I will mention the Red Cross first. I was going to bring up the issues of programme also. Reference was made to the importance of celebrating achievement and validating people's experience. It is critically important to normalise prisoners as productive members of society. We have seen the value of this and other programmes.
We had organised a visit to the Oireachtas for some of the participants in the scheme - current and former inmates who are willing to give up their time and explain to colleagues what that job involves. Everything was ready to go but, as members know, it was pulled at the last minute. My belief is that somebody in the Department of Justice and Equality probably panicked and thought the gutter press would go on a rampage about criminals drinking tea and eating sandwiches in the Dáil while crime spirals, or the usual sensationalised rubbish. That is the only reason I can see because it is utterly valid for those people to come here and talk about this programme. We want to do that again. Without putting the witnesses on the spot in any way, our belief is that this is valid and would be good. I presume the witnesses do not have any fears that there would be any negative consequences. Nobody will be harmed by it. Could the witnesses give us their views on that? Would they like to come in? I do not mean to be unfair or put them on the spot but could the witnesses talk more about that programme and how it would be good if they came here and presented it?
I thought Mr. Donnellan's point that, for the first time, the Irish Prison Service is in a position to really deal with the problems and tackle the rehabilitative end was interesting. I have no hesitation in saying that this ideology and ethos is at the top of the Irish Prison Service and is shared by many of the staff. The question of whether we are any nearer achieving it is probably a different story. It is not because of any lack of will. I fully appreciate that but there is a huge gap in terms of delivering it. The drugs problem starts with sentencing. I do not understand why people who have a drug problem are being sentenced to prison. They should be sentenced to some rehabilitative facility if they wish. What is the witnesses' level of knowledge of people who are being cajoled, threatened or forced into bringing drugs back to prison when they are on a day out, possibly to pay off a debt? That vicious circle is very difficult to address. Even when people are trying to get off drugs, if they are in a chaotic environment where they are isolated, the instinct to go back to drugs is there. The challenges in this area are huge. Do the witnesses have any comments to make about criminal involvement sinking in?
Ultimately, training is key. Following on from the points made by Deputy Jack Chambers, I still do not really get what is happening in the training unit. The explanation did not satisfy me. The training unit as an ideology was ahead of its time in the European context. The training unit in Mountjoy was very high spec and involved working with people who were drug-free, rehabilitating them and normalising their life inside. It is the only facility in Dublin that does so. The inmates sleep and eat there, and the staff ratios are incredibly low. It is probably the cheapest facility the Irish Prison Service runs and yet there have been no assaults and no problems with staff and inmates. I could not believe it when I heard that it will be shut down in three months time. I do not see why an old people's facility could not be developed alongside it because it is about more than training. It is about adjusting to a way of life and it is incredibly efficient. I would be very worried if it was to go because from where will that experience and acclimatising be replaced? I do not see how.
In respect of training for staff, there is a view among some prisoners that new staff often come in and are "up for it" with lots of new ideas but that gets knocked out of them fairly quickly. They become demoralised or institutionalised. Some of the older staff then feel that they have been there for far longer and are not appreciated. Sometimes they feel that they are put in vulnerable positions where they do not get backup. They can become dehumanised themselves because of being cut off and the circumstances they are exposed to. While there may be some access to supports, it is never enough in any job. We need to pay a lot of attention to staff in terms of welfare because the environment plays with people's heads and affects the way they think. People can become dehumanised and institutionalised on all sides and that needs to be addressed. There is a need for enhanced training. I am interested in the mental health training programme that was mentioned but that should be mandatory for everybody and should be of a high level. That obviously means money. I am not blaming the witnesses, but is that their view?
How many people are in prison because of society's failure to fill the gap caused by shutting down all these horrendous institutions we read about day in and day out, even the psychiatric hospitals? Previously, people who had problems were sent to these hospitals and locked behind closed doors. Nobody wants that but there is a huge gap. How many of these people are now in prison so that the management and staff have to pick up the pieces regarding people who need help? I know evidence was given to the Committee of Public Accounts that there are 30 inmates with severe psychiatric problems and it is the staff who must deal with them. In respect of the relationship with the Central Mental Hospital and how it could be improved, it is completely unacceptable that management, prison staff and prisoners are left in a situation where, when somebody requires urgent medical help, only one person is taken in for a couple of weeks and then sent back again. It is just not on. I am amazed nobody has been killed in our prisons. It is incredible. Is there anything we can do to deal with that issue? To me, that is the key. If people who should not be in prison at all got help for issues, it would simplify things. If we got all of these people out of prison and got them treatment, we could do what they do in Norway where, when somebody comes into prison, he or she is told they will be working with a specific person until he or she leaves prison. The day ones go in, one is on a pathway to how one reconnects when one goes back out. Unless we get there, the rates will be higher. These are just a few observations.
Mr. Michael Donnellan:
The training unit was state of the art 20 years ago, but it is no longer state of the art. It is the only facility on the Mountjoy campus that does not have in-cell sanitation. Every other cell in Mountjoy has in-cell sanitation. Time has moved on. The training unit was in its heyday when Mountjoy was very poor in terms of accommodation and in-cell sanitation so we find it quite difficult to get people to go to the training unit because the conditions in Mountjoy or the Midlands Prison are far superior. What we must do is move on and look at what accommodation we have and how we are going to re-purpose it. If members have ever visited the training unit, they will know that it is a very low-rise, sprawling building. We think it would make an ideal facility for older people. That is the issue regarding the training unit.
The Red Cross and the Samaritans listener scheme are so important to the Irish Prison Service and do phenomenal work. The support we get from the Samaritans and the International Red Cross is phenomenal. The media keeps a focus on prison and we are always judged on our last mistake. We do 99 good things every day but if we make one mistake, we will always get into the newspapers for it. That is the reality of prison life and I do not think I can change that but we just have to tell it as it is, try to be honest and put our hands up when we get it wrong. From time to time, we get it wrong so we have to say when we get it wrong and be honest with the media and change the narrative.
Deputy Clare Daly and this committee can also change the narrative regarding how we deal with offenders. If we deal better with offenders, we will have fewer victims. We will have fewer victims if we pull in these people and try to support and help them.
The mental health training is absolutely fundamental. It is a very detailed programme that has been worked out by psychology, psychiatry and our prison staff. People very much enjoy it and we need to do it more.
Drugs continue to be an issue, and we have addressed that. In 1950, there were 30,000 people in mental health hospitals. Today, are there 1,100?
Mr. Michael Donnellan:
Furthermore, prison in the 1950s was tiny. Prisons held 370 people. Today, 3,700 are held in prisons. There is therefore no doubt but that there has been a displacement of essentially poor people - not just economically poor, as Mr. Black has said, but poor in every way. There is an opportunity in Ireland to have a reasoned debate as to what the quality of prison should be and what contribution should be made in that regard. Prison is important for violent people and people who commit very serious offences. Prison is important and it will always be there but we must look beyond prison, as 99.9% of people in prison will come out into their home communities. We must make sure we get ready for that.
Mr. Martin Smyth:
I wish to add that I acknowledge people's concerns about the training unit. Apart from its structural, physical relocation, the training unit's purpose of normalisation and resocialisation, particularly for prisoners coming towards the end of long sentences, will remain. A large proportion of the prisoners in the training unit have been through the parole board process and are on programmes already approved by the Tánaiste. We will not be changing this in any way. I wish to give an undertaking that the position of non-parole board prisoners, that is, those prisoners whom my staff sentence-manage directly, who are going in and out every day to engage in employment or training etc., will not change. We are not moving these people to a darker place or moving away from our ethos of renormalisation. I wish to put the Deputy's mind at ease regarding that aspect of the matter.
I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee. Since Deputy Clare Daly has robbed all the time and the questions, I will be as brief as I can. I am disappointed to hear that if I end up in prison, I will be considered an old man, given that I am over 55.
It has been brought to our attention and highlighted to us that while there have been huge improvements in Cork with the new prison - the old one was in a very dilapidated condition - chronic staff shortages at the prison has left one of the wings in a bad state, with low staff morale, widespread bullying of prisoners and deteriorated staff-prisoner interaction. Are staffing levels a big problem? We understand further that many retirements are coming down the track. Will recruitment numbers be sufficient to fill the gap? On the same theme, I think we all agree that rehabilitation and dealing with prisoners' mental health challenges and drug use are important. We know what needs to be done. We are probably a little sceptical that we can make serious progress in these areas unless the Irish Prison Service gets more resources. What do the witnesses think about this aspect of the matter? Deputy Daly talked about the media. It is unfortunate that sometimes, some people do not do the right thing because of how the media might react to it. I think we would all be better off if we cared less about what the media think and just went ahead and did what we think we should do.
Would it be more difficult to control the prison population if there were no drugs or is that a false notion?
Ms Ethel Gavin:
Would it be more difficult to run prisons if there were no drugs? No, I do not believe so. If there were no drugs, we would have achieved the perfect prison. One would expect we would have achieved a highly motivated prisoner population at that point because they would not want drugs. In other words, we do not encourage drug-taking in prisons at all. It does not make our working environment better. As Mr. Black and my other colleagues have already said, we are encouraging prisoners to avail of the therapeutic services in place such as those provided by Merchants Quay Ireland. Methadone clinics also assist prisoners towards achieving their personal goal of giving up drugs. It would therefore not be easier at all, to my mind. It would be much easier if we had a drug-free environment.
The mental health training is a six-hour programme which every single governor in the system is encouraging our training liaison officers to make sure is part of the overall training plan so that every single officer gets the training in a short timeframe. We are very motivated towards ensuring that training need among our staff is satisfied.
Yes, there are many retirements but this correlates with the fact that many staff came in 30 years ago and have the opportunity now to leave. This is an unfortunate situation. Perhaps the closing of the training unit will consolidate resources for the short term in order that we can acknowledge the elderly within our prison and give them for the first time a unit specific to that category of prisoner. It is very difficult when people have to move but as the training unit is on the Mountjoy site, both staff and prisoners, as my colleague in operations has said, will be facilitated and I think the greater good will be achieved in closing the unit.
Mr. Michael Donnellan:
Regarding staffing, realistically, we have not recruited a prison officer in eight years. We have come out of one of the worst times economically, as the committee is aware. Our budgets were cut and cut and cut and we had to make phenomenal savings. This year will be the first time a newly recruited prison officer will be seen coming into the Prison Service. That is the reality of where we are with our staffing. Next year we will really build on that and have significant recruitment. We have not been allowed to recruit prison officers because of the moratorium and our budgets. This is the first year we will put this right but we have recruited other people and Mr. Black can perhaps-----
Mr. Fergal Black:
To pick up on the point about rehabilitation, we have recruited chaplains and have significantly increased psychology resources because we are growing that. We have also recruited nurses in the past two months. We brought in six new resettlement support workers because we see the importance of the Prison Service being outward-looking, working with organisations to facilitate the transition from custody to community. Our resettlement support workers link in. We now have a protocol drafted with the County and City Management Association on accommodation provision. We have a memorandum of understanding with the HSE to ensure those eligible for medical cards have continuation on release and with the Department of Social Protection. This is always difficult for us because the media can portray it differently but we see this very much as providing protective factors for people leaving prison to ensure society is safer. If someone has uninterrupted prescriptions, access to a general practitioner, accommodation and income, we believe they have a significant chance. Our job is to make these links. We cannot provide the services - we are the Prison Service - but we have fairly effectively mobilised the other organisations in the State to help us to ensure this transition is successful.
We believe the Prison Service has the right attitude and that it is doing its best but we are of the opinion that not nearly enough people are coming out of prison better than when they went in. We are not saying it is the Prison Service's fault but we are convinced it will be necessary to put many more resources into the Prison Service if we are to get the results we would like. The chances of getting them without actually investing in it is just pie in the sky.
Is the special unit being built in the midlands still going ahead? There is probably a need for such a unit close to every prison.
All manner of figures are thrown around about the number of prisoners today who have mental health issues. Can the Prison Service representatives put a percentage on it? What percentage of prisoners have mental health issues?
Ms Ethel Gavin:
The violently disruptive prisoner unit is being developed. We hope to have it open in September or October. We are refurbishing a particular area of the prison that we have decided is the most appropriate.
This will be the first therapeutic unit dealing with violently disruptive prisoners. It will be led by an operational governor and psychology personnel. This is the first time psychology will be leading equally with us on the project. We are confident this will assist with the small group of people who heretofore have not been managed as well as we would have liked.
Mr. Fergal Black:
We do not capture figures on that. However, the case load of the national forensic mental health service at the Central Mental Hospital is of the order of 220 patients at any time. These are people in prison with a severe and enduring mental illness. The greatest challenge we face within the prison service is managing these people in a safe way. Notwithstanding the best efforts of all our staff, including prison officers, nurses and doctors, this is a major challenge for us.
The imminent announcement of the opening of the new Central Mental Hospital should help. Recently, we have secured some additional consultant psychiatrists for the prison in Castlerea. We are about to get posts for the prisons in Cork and Limerick. We will have a full spread of national forensic services in all our closed prisons. The HSE and the Prison Service are delivering more forensic services to the prisons because that is where the need arises.
Mr. Fergal Black:
There are a very significant number of people in the lower level. One of the reasons that we have recruited assistant psychologists and we are growing our psychology service is that we believe there is an underbelly of people from that severe and enduring group who have adjustment disorders, depression and anxiety. We have brought in new services to try to assist those people in managing and coping with their sentences. I cannot give the Deputy a figure because I do not have it. However, we recognise that there is a significant underbelly of people in custody who have mental health issues. Numerous reports have identified this too.
Most of the questions have been answered. My first question relates to the detox programmes. I know the deputation touched on methadone. What other detox programmes does the Prison Service run? Does the service run any other medicated detox programmes apart from methadone?
Mr. Donnellan touched on another point. He spoke of the continuation of supports when people are leaving prison. That is critical. Let us face reality: the vast majority of people who go into prison are there for a short period. Let us suppose they go in with a substance misuse or addition problem and they start a detox programme. It is critical that the programme is continued on the outside.
Many of the people I meet find it really difficult to continue the programme of detox and supports when they come out of prison. I realise this is probably outside the remit of the Prison Service, because it relates to what happens back in the community, and I realise the Prison Service staff do the best they can to try to match up those services. However, this needs to be worked on in a holistic fashion. It cannot simply be left to the Prison Service to try to ensure the continuation of supports and services. That is one of the failings currently in terms of trying to address addiction problems in prison when prisoners come back out.
Mr. Michael Donnellan:
Absolutely, the continuum of support is vital. It all goes for naught if the person comes out and does not have methadone or supports. Our new job in the prisons is to make those connections with people as they come back into the community. The first 24 or 48 hours is the most dangerous period for the community when someone comes out of prison. We need to ensure they have the supports that are needed. The committee will have representatives from the Probation Service in next. The Probation Services provides much of that support on release. The Deputy is correct: it is critical for us to ensure support is available.
We do a good deal in this area. We maintain we should not let people out of prison on a Friday afternoon or Saturday or Sunday because there is no support available for them to pick up. Several people could go on community return or support. However, we will not let them go because they have no house, flat, bed or hostel or they are not connected with a treatment facility.
Five years ago, we simply had to let these people go. There was no choice because a further 100 people were coming in and we could not cope with the numbers. However, for the first time we have a chance to properly plan for release into the community.
Mr. Fergal Black:
For anyone coming into prison who has an addiction, we have medically-assisted symptomatic detoxification. The service is not only for opiates; it also operates for benzodiazepines etc. The reality is that for those who are not linked in with treatment services in the community, we have to ensure that on release, a treatment place is available. We can only start people on a programme where we can ensure that the place is available on release. The system has got better in recent years. We are involved with the Department of Health in the oversight forum on drugs. Several pockets exist throughout the country where problems arise. However, we try to link people in. We work with our colleagues in the voluntary sector to try to ensure that people are linked in with services but it is not always possible.
I apologise for being late. I have read the opening statement from Mr. Donnellan. I congratulate Mr. Donnellan on his reappointment as director general of the Prison Service. I believe it was a wise move because he has done an extraordinary job. The resources of the Prison Service have been cut considerably in recent years. Yet, what the service has achieved has been remarkable. We have gone from 1,000 people to 50 people slopping out. That is only one figure but it is remarkable.
The Prison Service officials can take it from the tone of this committee that we are very much in unison in terms of the work the Prison Service staff are doing, their attitudes and their approach. We are very much of the view that when people go to prison, it should be for rehabilitation. This view is not shared by the public, unfortunately, and that is the job we have to do. A prisoner may be given a sentence for several years. Society needs to embrace the fact that these individuals and citizens will be back out in the community. We have a duty and responsibility to rehabilitate them.
I am one of the longest-serving members because I was on the last committee. We visited Mountjoy Prison and Cork Prison, before the new prison building was constructed there. It would not be a bad idea, Chairman, if we were to revisit Cork Prison to see what is happening in the new prison. There is nothing better than being in a place to really get a flavour for what is happening.
The idea of prison as an absolute last resort is something we all support. I am keen to offer whatever practical assistance those of us in the Oireachtas can give, outside of funding. The fines legislation has certainly made a difference. I note that Mr. Donnellan has indicated the Prison Service is already noticing the difference in this regard. Are there other areas where we can assist? Would other legislation assist in ensuring that those who should not be committed to prison can be dealt with in another way?
I agree with Deputy Clare Daly's suggestion that mental health training should be mandatory. The committee should write to the Minister and look for additional funding to be made available to the Prison Service in order that it can provide mental health training to all staff. It is a good thing that new prison officers will be recruited this year. That is important.
My final question is important from our perspective. I am not convinced that prison visiting committees serve any useful purpose. I am keen to hear the view of Prison Service officials on how effective they are. Is there a better or more meaningful role for them? Is there something better they could do?
My next comment is on the whole structure of whistleblowing within the structures of the Prison Service.
Based on what is going on in An Garda Síochána, I presume the Prison Service has an established protocol for whistleblowers who have concerns about, for example, what Deputy Wallace was saying about bullying. If someone were to come forward, are proper structures in place to deal with it?
Mr. Michael Donnellan:
What the committee and Oireachtas Members generally can do is have a consensus about how penal reform should happen into the future. Punitivism does not really work. Many countries have tried it and it fails again and again. We have to go beyond punitivism and look at other things.
Prison visiting committees have an important role. They comprise ordinary citizens who have the right to come into prisons, walk around and interact with prisoners and staff. That is important because prisons are closed, institutional places and the more that people come from the outside in, the more helpful it is.
On whistleblowing, we also have protected disclosures just like everyone else. There is no doubt that bullying happens. In the prison environment, prisoner on prisoner bullying happens, but we try to deal with it as effectively as we can.
There are many other questions we would like to pose and tease out with the witnesses. Unfortunately, the clock is going to beat me. There were themes running through all of the questions and contributions. Some words recurred. Mr. Donnellan referred himself to "cut, cut, cut" but what I heard on this side was "drugs, drugs, drugs". There are so many areas we have not had the opportunity to address. If it is within the witnesses' gift to offer any additional information in a written submission subsequent to the meeting, I would be very interested to hear about work and education opportunities within prisons. These are words that have not come into our dialogue this morning, which concerns me. Sport and recreation are others. I would be very concerned if we were driven into a particular set of focuses rather than to look at the whole subject holistically. These are essential areas to address which, unfortunately, the ticking clock will not allow me to get to. I will not even give myself the opportunity to add an addendum at this point. If the witnesses could offer a written precis of these services currently, it would be greatly appreciated.
My final task relates to the group photo. That is why we have such a great attendance this morning. Members love getting their photographs taken with visiting representatives. Deputy Wallace even got a new perm this morning. We like to include each of the participating witness groups in our reports. The photographer for the Houses of the Oireachtas is outside to take a picture and I invite the witnesses to join us for that.
Before suspending the meeting for five minutes to attend to that photograph, I thank on behalf of the committee the witnesses and their colleagues for their contributions this morning. I found them hugely informative, very interesting and encouraging in terms of wanting to learn more.
Our second engagement this morning is with the Probation Service. The purpose of this part of the meeting is to engage with the service on the issue of penal policy and reform. For the information of our guests, the joint committee has identified penal policy and reform as one of its priority issues for the 2017 work programme. I welcome Mr. Vivian Geiran, director of the Probation Service. He is joined by Ms Ita Burke, Ms Úna Doyle and Mr. Brian Dack. On behalf of the committee, I thank them for their attendance here today to discuss this very important issue. I apologise for the late start. Our first session, with the Prison Service representatives, ran on a little. The format of the meeting is that the witnesses will be invited to make a brief opening statement, and this will be followed by questions and answers.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should neither criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members should be aware that, under the salient rulings of the Chair, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Mr. Geiran to make the opening statement.
Mr. Vivian Geiran:
I am thankful for this opportunity to contribute to the committee's deliberations on penal reform. I am joined today by my colleagues: deputy directors Ms Ita Burke and Ms Úna Doyle, and assistant director Mr. Brian Dack. I propose, in these opening remarks, to give the committee a brief overview of the role and work of the Probation Service and to highlight some key issues that may assist the committee. In the more extensive briefing paper, which will have been made available to members ahead of today's hearing, they will see more detailed information about the structure and work of the service. In addition, my colleagues and I will, of course, be more than happy to answer any questions and engage in further discussion on any matter as the committee sees fit.
Probation, as a concept and a practice, has been around, both in these islands and internationally, for more than 100 years. The 1907 Probation of Offenders Act is still very much the core legislation for what the Irish Probation Service does every day. Probation, across the world, is based on the idea of offering offenders a second chance to make good for the harm they have caused, and specifically not to reoffend. Probation also works on the basis of a classic carrot-and-stick approach, that is, offering helpto the offender to make positive changes in their life, but within specific boundariesof supervision, surveillance and control. While there is an undoubted need for custodial sanctions – prison – in penal systems, international research consistently shows that punitive responses to crime alone, such as imprisonment, are in themselves statistically not as successful in reducing reoffending as community-based sanctions such as probation, which are shown to be generally more effective in reducing the risk of reoffending.
The two primary areas of work undertaken by the Probation Service are offender assessment and offender supervision. Most assessments are undertaken by probation officers at the request of the courts to assist in sentencing decisions and to identify what factors need to be addressed to reduce an individual's likelihood of reoffending. Other individual offender assessments are undertaken by probation officers on behalf of the Parole Board and the Irish Prison Service, for example.
Offender supervision programmes come under two broad headings: probation-type supervision and community service. Probation supervision includes a range of interventions undertaken with offenders, mainly in the community, aimed at helping them to reduce their risk of reoffending and make good the harm caused by their offending. Specifically, these interventions, which are based on the probation officer's initial risk and needs assessment, enlist the co-operation of the offender and those around them, such as family and other positive supports, to address any dynamic - by which is meant open to possible change - issues or factors that may have contributed to their offending. These factors can include anti-social attitudes, pro-criminal associates, substance misuse or addiction, homelessness, mental health issues, lack of positive role models, poor problem solving and self-management, and unemployment, among others. What we term "probation-type supervision" also includes work with those in custody, helping them prepare for reintegration in the community, again with a focus on helping to reduce their risk of reoffending. Community service is a direct alternative to prison, available to the courts for those 16 years of age and over who are guilty of an offence that would otherwise attract a custodial sentence and who can then be ordered to perform unpaid work in the community as an alternative sanction.
At the core of what probation staff do across all our programmes is to motivate offenders to change, help them increase both their ability to change, and facilitate improved opportunities for change. Probation officers do this through the development of positive professional relationships, within clear role boundaries, and using skills and interventions based on those shown by research to be effective. These, in turn, are founded on social work training and national and international standards of good practice, including for example the Council of Europe probation rules of 2010.
While those we work with are, in the main, those who have committed criminal offences, a central focus for probation work is the impact of offending on victims and the needs, rights and position of victims of crime. Our work would be one dimensional if we focused only on the offender. In doing what we do, we need to be conscious of, and seek to repair where possible, the broken relationship between offender, victim and the wider community. We do this in a number of ways. When preparing a pre-sanction assessment on an offender, we assess, as part of that, the impact on the victim or victims, the offender's understanding of that impact, and how we can help that offender to avoid creating more victims again in the future. We also provide opportunities to offenders to make good the harm they have caused. This includes performance of community service as well as a number of reparative and restorative interventions and programmes that we run, many in conjunction with partner agencies.
The Probation Service is an agency of the Department of Justice and Equality. The organisation, which functions independently, in practical terms on a day-to-day basis is headed by a director who is also a member of the Department's management board and answerable to the Secretary General. We have almost 400 staff based in offices throughout the country. We have a presence in every county as well as in every custodial institution in the State. Our annual budget is now €46.3 million. On any day, the Probation Service is assessing and supervising more than 8,500 offenders in the community as well as working in all 14 prisons and the children detention school.
Of the 8,500 people being managed in the community every day, around 2,200 are on community service and 3,500 are on probation supervision as direct sanctions from the courts. Just over 1,300 of the 8,500 are women, 260 are under 18 years of age and more than 1,200 are on post-release supervision after serving a custodial sentence. Every year, the Probation Service assesses and-or supervises around 15,000 offenders, mainly in the community. Those referred to us have offended across the wide spectrum of crimes, from relatively minor to the most serious violent offences.
While all criminal justice agencies bring their own unique skills, roles and ways of working to how we respond collectively as a society to crime and offending, no single organisation or agency has all the answers. Probation cannot do what the Prison Service does nor what An Garda Síochána does, and vice versa. Reducing offending is a societal problem and needs a whole-of-society response. That co-ordinated response has to start with a whole of criminal justice system approach in the first place. One key to the success of the work that the Probation Service does is the nature of our interagency and multidisciplinary approach to what we do, especially with our justice partners, namely, the Irish Prison Service, the Courts Service, An Garda Síochána, the Irish Youth Justice Service and the Department of Justice and Equality. The Probation Service is a community-facing organisation, and community-based organisations are a key group of partners for us in our work. We channel €15 million in funding from the Department of Justice and Equality every year to community and voluntary organisations that partner with us throughout the country in providing essential services to help in reducing offenders' risk of reoffending and facilitate their reintegration in their communities. These organisations provide a diverse range of services, addressing offender needs in the fields of training, education and employment, accommodation, addiction treatment, resettlement and mentoring, among others.
In many jurisdictions, probation tends to be seen as either an alternative to imprisonment or as something for diverting those guilty of really minor offences, particularly first-time offenders, away from more serious sanctions. While probation can and does usefully fulfil both of those functions, it is in fact most appropriate and most effective with those who present a medium to high risk of reoffending and who can safely be managed in the community. Probation officers carry out their work with offenders broadly from the standpoint that the individual person has committed an offence and must be held accountable for the offending and take responsibility for his or her own rehabilitation. In addition, we recognise that offending typically takes place in a wider family and social context, which must be taken into account in trying to help the offender turn his or her life around for the better. We also recognise that change is usually difficult and that people are more likely to be successful in making and maintaining changes in their lives if they have the benefit of skilled professional help, which is what we provide.
While the full range of work that the Probation Service undertakes is important, I want to highlight some particular priority categories of offender with whom we have been undertaking specific initiatives. First is prolific offenders. Recognising that a significant percentage of certain offences, such as burglary, are committed by a small percentage of prolific offenders, the Probation Service, in partnership with the Prison Service, An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice and Equality, has established the joint agency response to crime, or JARC. This programme, developed in four areas of Dublin since 2014, is being extended to a number of areas outside the capital and targets in a uniquely intensive, interagency approach those identified as being the most prolific offenders in their areas. Burglary and violent crime have been the two primary offence categories targeted under JARC, with observable success.
Second is young people. Recognising that the mid to late teens and early 20s are statistically the peak ages for offending by many individuals, the Probation Service has a dedicated division, young persons probation, that specialises in work with this age group, primarily those under 18 years, but extending the same focused and age-appropriate supervision to those up to 21 years of age.
Third is women. Women are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and face unique issues in addressing and reducing their risk of reoffending. For that reason, we have put in place a number of responses to take these issues into account. These include, for example, gender-appropriate assessment and supervision, female-specific community service projects, peer mentoring, and accommodation programmes.
Fourth is sex offenders. As well as working closely with our psychology service colleagues in the Irish Prison Service in delivering sex offender treatment programmes to those in custody, we also run, with a number of partner bodies, similar treatment programmes in the community as well as accommodation support initiatives and circles of support and accountability programmes. Since 2010, the Probation Service, An Garda Síochána, the Irish Prison Service, Tusla, the child and family agency, and local housing authorities have worked closely, through the sex offender risk assessment and management, SORAM, initiative to supervise and manage jointly the risk posed by sex offenders in the community. This work is overseen nationally by a strategic co-located interagency team based in Harcourt Square.
In respect of post-release supervision, the Probation Service traditionally worked with those referred directly to us by the courts. More recently, we have supervised an increasing number of people on post-release from custody under a number of legislative provisions. Approximately 15% of all those we supervise in the community are now on some form of post-release programme. These programmes, including community return and community support, have proven very successful and mean that virtually all those released from prison on temporary release now are on one or other form of structured post-release programme, involving some probation input. Much of our work in relation to life sentence prisoners is undertaken under the umbrella of the parole board process. As well as preparing assessment reports on life sentence prisoners for the parole board, probation officers work with such prisoners in addressing issues related to their offending and helping them prepare for release and resettlement. The Probation Service, with the Irish Prison Service and the parole board, is developing a more co-ordinated interagency approach to the management of life sentence prisoners.
The Probation Service has developed a number of restorative justice programmes over the past 20 years or so. Restorative justice services in Dublin and the restorative justice in the community programme, based in Tipperary and Cork, run community-based reparation panels where offenders have an opportunity to confront their offending and its impact on their victim or victims through discussion with panels of people representing community interests, including victims where appropriate, and to take specific actions to go some way towards making good the harm caused. As part of our restorative justice strategy, the Probation Service now also offers a range of victim-offender mediation interventions, including in relatively serious cases.
How effective is probation? This is a frequently asked and important question. On the face of it, such effectiveness is something that can be measured quite easily in terms of the rate of reoffending by those who have been under probation supervision. On that reoffending measure alone, probation is effective both here in Ireland and internationally. For the past four years, in partnership with the Central Statistics Office, CSO, reoffending rates by all those who have been on probation orders and community service each year has been measured. This is tracked over a three year follow-up period. Findings, which are published by the CSO, show that six out of every ten probationers have no further convictions in the follow-up three year period. This compares favourably with statistics for those who have been in prison and also with probation comparators internationally. I appreciate there is no room for complacency and we are constantly reviewing our practice, based on statistical and other evidence, to improve our outcomes.
Effectiveness in probation needs to be measured on other scales apart from reoffending. As well as probation’s effectiveness in offender rehabilitation, some of those other effectiveness measures include: probation’s relative cost-effectiveness as a sanction; promoting citizenship and social justice; its value as a proportionate and just sanction and as an alternative to custody; reducing the impact of imprisonment on prisoners’ children and families; as an aid to sentencing decisions; in resettling ex-prisoners; in building up communities; through the unpaid work undertaken in communities by those on community service; and by helping those who have offended to be reintegrated in their communities and to become positively contributing members of society. In monetary terms alone, supervised community sanctions cost a fraction of custodial ones: €1,500 for a community service order and €5,000 for a probation supervision order. The unpaid work done annually by people on community service, estimated with reference to the national minimum wage hourly rate of €9.25, is the equivalent of a total of €2.7 million worth of work done in local communities across Ireland every year. It is valuable work which would not otherwise have been done.
Penal policy has been the subject of ongoing consideration for some time. A previous Oireachtas justice committee reported in 2013 and made five recommendations, a number of which have been substantially achieved. The report of the strategic review of penal policy was published by the Minister for Justice and Equality in September 2014. This report contained 47 recommendations, across the penal policy field, half of which relate directly to the work of the Probation Service. The Probation Service is fully committed to implementing penal policy, as set out in the programme for Government and the Department of Justice and Equality strategy. We work closely with our partners to implement Government and departmental policy and, specifically, the actions in the 2014 strategic review of penal policy. We report regularly to the relevant implementation oversight group, chaired by Dr. Mary Rogan. Implementation reports are published on the Department of Justice and Equality website regularly. In that regard, we are well on track towards implementation of the review’s recommendations. Much positive and productive change has been achieved in Ireland in recent years. More remains to be done and that work programme is being advanced in a collaborative way across the justice agencies.
Probation work done well makes a difference and adds significant value to the criminal justice system as a whole and to making Ireland a safer and fairer place. The Probation Service’s unique role is in helping to create safer communities and fewer victims through offender rehabilitation. Probation staff are in the business of hope, hope that is based in reality and evidence-informed practice. In that way, we provide unique services, reducing reoffending and victimisation as part of a proportionate, just and effective response to crime, offending and offenders.
Before inviting members to offer their questions and observations, I remind people the recording staff are having difficulty with the sound quality as a result of telephonic matter that is not switched off. Will people check their phones and ensure that they are decommissioned for the rest of the meeting?
I thank the witnesses for coming in. Mr. Geiran mentioned in his presentation that women are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. What does he mean by that? Is it a reference to the fact there are much fewer numbers of women in prison? What does it mean?
Mr. Vivian Geiran:
There are far fewer numbers of women in prison than men. Equally there is a relatively small proportion of women under our supervision in the community but in comparison to the number of crimes being committed by women, the number of women in prison or on probation is disproportionately high. That is what I meant but, as the Deputy correctly said, the absolute numbers are relatively low.
In 2011, the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act, which provides for judges to consider the imposition of community service instead of imprisonment, was enacted. Has that increased the workload of the Probation Service? Has there been an increase in community service orders since 2011?
Mr. Vivian Geiran:
The number of people subject to community service orders decreased significantly a number of years back. As a result of a number of initiatives, including new legislation and a value for money review of community service, there was a significant increase in the number of people on community service. The number peaked in 2011. The numbers on community service have dropped since then but there are several reasons for that. The number of people in prison has also gone down. Since that time, there have been a number of other legislative provisions introduced for different types of sanctions. The 2006 Criminal Justice Act introduced, on a legislative basis, the possibility of fully suspended prison sentences, with or without supervision, and also part-suspended sentences of which there has been an increase. I referred in my presentation to the fact we have an increasing number of people that we supervise on post-release supervision. I guess that some of those have displaced some of the community service orders.
Mr. Vivian Geiran:
Yes. They are working very well. The Fines Act, which comes fully into operation in terms of the various stages of sanctions that are available to the courts, will be fully operational this year. We expect to see a significant increase in people being referred to us for community service as an alternative when they have not paid a fine. Those people would have previously had a prison sentence imposed.
I do not know if Mr. Geiran has seen the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Bill. We had a presentation last week from a person on behalf of the Victims Rights Alliance. One of the concerns she had was that it does not include specific recognition of restorative justice. Is that something Mr. Geiran is concerned with? Will he comment on that?
Mr. Vivian Geiran:
As I mentioned in the presentation, we have been running various restorative justice initiatives for the past 20 years and I believe we should not wait around for legislation to do what is good practice. If that or any other legislation introduces specific measures on a legislative basis, we will implement them but we are already doing quite a significant amount of work in the restorative area without the need for specific legislation. There is provision under the Children Act for certain types of restorative intervention but, more generally, that is not the case.
Mr. Vivian Geiran:
The one area I would suggest is that the Criminal Justice (Community Sanctions) Bill, which was published some time back, would ultimately replace the Probation of Offenders Act 1907, which has served us well for around 110 years. It has stood the test of time. It would be worthwhile modernising that legislation in a community sanctions Act eventually.
I thank Mr. Geiran for the presentation. It was really comprehensive. We are getting a greater understanding of the number of different agencies and services that are there and integrating into each other in this area. Community service is something we constantly put forward as a much better alternative to prison in terms of the damage done and the cost. I note the points Mr. Geiran made about why the numbers might have decreased. Is the option of community service available nationally? Are there areas where the judges do not use it so the facility to take it up is not really there and there is difficulty in getting useful community labour or employment for the person?
Is it a seamless set-up in all areas where the services are there? If a judge sentences somebody, is there a ready and useful project into which the person can be integrated?
The next question might make me sound really stupid. With regard to the national spread of the 400 staff, does a probation officer require a social work background or are they people with good life experience? Who would be a probation officer and what is that person's educational background or experience? Are we dealing with young people or people from the communities? Is it a mix? It is a good number but I would say more are needed. The issue in prisons is something I would like to explore a little. The service has people in every prison but how many people are there and are they in the prison all the time? If I am a probation officer in the Dóchas Centre, is it my only job or am I only there for a couple of days? It is my understanding that people want to access the Probation Service but they cannot necessarily do so. Ideally, the first day somebody is in prison, he or she should be able to have access to a probation officer. My understanding is people are often told by prison authorities that they are not long enough into a sentence and they do not need an officer. Such prisoners should be worked with from very early. Will the witnesses comment on that?
The next question relates to restorative justice. How many people would have been put through those programmes? I like the point made that we should not be waiting on legislation. It is great that there have been some programmes but they are probably under-advertised. Their success is probably not well known but all the studies show the really positive impact they have. It is great to see them up and running so is there anything more we can do in that regard?
It is critical to work with people post-release and whereas they obviously need the greatest support if they have a drug problem, they also need employment and housing. The Irish Prison Service has told us it has a protocol with the city and county managers with regard to housing. Where are we in delivering employment opportunities? Before the recruitment ban in the public service, we could have got a fellow into the council or as a porter in a hospital. That has gone so we need an alternative public source of employment for people coming out. Where are we with that?
Mr. Vivian Geiran:
I will start with the community service projects and Ms Doyle can respond to the staffing issues. Mr. Dack can deal with the questions related to prisons.
We have community service programmes available across the country and a staff presence in every county. We are currently recruiting more probation officers and community service supervisors. We have always worked hard to maintain that availability of community service work across the country in all areas. Sometimes if we have a particularly high number of referrals, there might be some delay in getting people placed in projects. Our focus is always on having work available in a timely way so we can place people in work programmes as quickly as possible after the order.
Ms Úna Doyle:
I thank the Deputy for her question. The majority of probation officers, which form the bulk of our professionally trained staff, are qualified social workers with a recognised qualification in social work. It is not a requirement to become a probation officer but we have been very successful in attracting people of that calibre and grade. It is certainly a preference of ours and it is the direction in which we should go given what the director has indicated in terms of social work qualification, knowledge and skill base, as well as effectiveness in engaging with offenders and motivating change.
Like much of the public sector, our overall staffing numbers had decreased over the period 2008 to approximately 2015 or 2016, as Mr. Geiran has alluded to. We are in the process of recruiting and in 2016 we were successful in running a permanent probation officer competition. We are seeing the benefits of that now with an intake. We have taken in an additional 20 probation officers since the end of last year, which is a very positive development.
In terms of service delivery and its implications, as we are a national service with a footprint in every county in the country, as there is ebb and flow in the rates of referral or the demands placed on us to respond, we are in a position where we can do so by reassigning staff across the service. That is facilitated through people with geographical transfers. To answer another of the Deputy's questions, in the main most of our staff are based in the three urban hubs, as that is where the critical mass of the population tends to be. That is in Dublin, Cork and Limerick. That said, we have 40 staffed offices nationwide. Our staff in prisons are assigned to a prison for the duration of an assignment and, for the most part, staff are based there on a full-time basis. To use the Deputy's example of the Dóchas Centre, staff assigned there would work just there. It would be the same in other prison complexes.
Ms Úna Doyle:
They are based nationwide and particularly in the critical masses of Dublin, Cork and Limerick to meet demand. The availability of community services is a nationwide provision. We have supervisors to supervise people on-site. Additionally, in meeting the needs of the potential participant, from time to time we may look at a more bespoke model to suit the needs of an individual.
Mr. Brian Dack:
With regard to community service, there are certain realities relating to critical mass and what services we can provide. We have community service available nationally in every county. There are certain particular types of projects in which we can excel and bring them forward in areas where there are larger populations. In Dublin and Cork, we have a graffiti removal project that we operate in tandem with local authorities, targeting different hot spots in order to clear the graffiti. We are able to do that because we have mobile community service buses manned by community service supervisors with a team of individuals sentenced to complete community service. It is not something we can do in every county in the country but we have a variety of ways of operating. We have community service supervisors in every county and in some areas where we do not have community service projects based in schools, community centres or youth clubs, we have individual placements in host agencies where we have negotiated and agreed they would undertake supervision with support from ourselves and constant monitoring. To answer the Deputy's question, the service is available nationally.
We have had a presence in prisons since 1960, when the chaplains and ourselves were the only services of a helping nature there. The environment has changed greatly since, as I am sure the Deputy is aware, and we have changed accordingly. We work with prisoners throughout their sentence in terms of the amelioration of the worst excesses of the prison environment, helping people cope while in prison and supporting families. Our focus is towards the latter end and the preparation of people for integration into the community. That is where the majority of our work exists. As Mr. Geiran highlighted earlier, there is a number of people in the system with post-release supervision orders from the courts and they are our primary focus. That is not to say we would not work with prisoners during the course of their sentences who do not have post-release supervision.
I thank the witnesses for their very comprehensive presentation. I thank the service for its great work. What happens with somebody who is serving a life sentence in prison?
What is the procedure in terms of the Probation Service for when they are ready to be released? I simply want to find out the way that process works. Is training provided for probation officers throughout the country on how to deal with people with mental health issues and addiction?
Mr. Vivian Geiran:
In terms of the life sentence prisoners, we would engage with all life sentence prisoners when they are in custody because, apart from anything else, ultimately we will be supervising all of them when they are eventually released, assuming they are released, and, by and large, everybody who receives a prison sentence is released at some stage. On any given day we would supervise approximately 80 life sentence prisoners in the community and we work with a couple of hundred others who are in custody. The two main areas of focus for us in our work with life sentence prisoners are addressing the issues that may have contributed to their offending and reducing the risk of their reoffending. We also help them to prepare for release and address any issues that might need to be addressed in the context of their resettlement in their local community. Those are the areas we would address with them.
All life sentence prisoners would go through the Parole Board process. At the request of the Parole Board, we would prepare assessments on people serving life sentences, as would other services, and subsequently the Parole Board would make recommendations to the Minster regarding a prisoner's release or otherwise. Probation officers would be involved in that at every stage of the process.
Regarding probation officers' training in the area of mental health, I will ask Ms Doyle to respond to that question and following that response I will ask Dr. Burke to respond to the previous question on restorative justice.
Ms Úna Doyle:
As part of their progressive career development, probation officers would have in-service training. We have a dedicated team. That training focuses on the issues presenting at any given time within the context of our work. In the area of addiction and mental health, which are quite prevalent at this time, we would work alongside other service providers to develop programmes, in-service training and supports for our staff within that context. We are currently adopting and rolling out the SAOR assessment model, which is an assessment that will complement our general assessment in regard to addiction, to support staff in identifying particular areas of addiction, as addiction is one of the most significant factors that is relevant to people offending. Within that context, we move on to integrate that into what is called their case management work etc.
One of the new changes that is happening in the area of addiction, which we are examining, is the move from opiate-based to non-opiate-based problems. That is an area in which we are on a learning curve and it is one to which we need to be able to respond in terms of working with our client group.
Similarly, in the area of mental health, we would draw resources from our colleagues in the Prison Service, particularly the psychology service and also the community mental health teams, in helping us support our staff, build awareness and upskill them in that area.
Ms Ita Burke:
To follow on in the addiction area, we are involved with funded projects in helping women recover form addiction. It is the peer support, lived experience model in respect of which we have trained some of our staff in the reduce the use and recover me programme. It is focused on people dealing with recovery from addiction and relapse prevention. It is a very innovative programme and it is working extremely well. Women are training other women and workers in the homeless field and the criminal justice field around recovery. It is a particularly good programme and one we encourage and want to continue.
In terms of restorative justice, Deputy Clare Daly will be aware, the Probation Service funds two dedicated restorative justice projects, which cover the Dublin area and the midlands, and the Cork area. The Deputy inquired about figures. During the past two years both of those projects would have catered for up to 400 offenders. Apart from those dedicated projects, all our probation officer staff would be trained in restorative work. We have worked with judges throughout the country and judges can look for restorative interventions as part of their pre-sanction assessment. We are involved in that work. It could range form a letter of apology to some reparative work such as painting and getting involved in a local community. The other area in which we are involved is victim offender mediation, where a mediator would work with an offender and a victim, and it would all be about repairing the harm. It must be voluntary. We have found from our work with victims over the years that what they want most is for the offender to stop offending, and that would be very much to the fore in our work in the restorative justice area.
I thank the witnesses for attending and Mr. Vivian Geiran for his comprehensive statement. I have two brief questions. The first relates to the potential expansion of the Drug Treatment Court as a model of intervention and giving people another chance. Has Mr. Geiran a view on that? It might be a possible intervention as part of national drugs strategy. Could the Probation Service manage that expansion of that programme throughout country?
My second question relates specifically to work opportunities for people. Do all the agencies of the State co-operate with the Probation Service or does the service have a difficulty in forming those relationships that are required? Is there any intervention from a political perspective that could perhaps come from a senior level within Departments to impose an obligation on different agencies to work with the Probation Service to give people an opportunity and another chance?
Mr. Vivian Geiran:
Currently, we have a probation officer assigned to work in that court. The approach works very well for certain offenders. When I speak to people, particularly from other jurisdictions, about Drug Treatment Court models, I am conscious that in Ireland we have a District Court system that operates very much in that way. Clearly, the Drug Treatment Court is a more focused version but District Court Judiciary and the District Court generally want to give people who have addiction issues a chance to address them, and we work with many of those people on behalf of the courts. If there is anyway we can extend and make that approach more available, that would be welcome from my point of view.
The Deputy's question about the work of other agencies and Departments is very important. I referred in my opening statement to the need for a whole-of-Government approach. One of the recommendations in the report of the strategic review of penal policy pointed to the need for a whole-of-Government approach as well as the implementation oversight group, to which I referred, to which we and the other organisations have to report. An interdepartmental group was also established at the initiation of the Department of Justice and Equality at the most senior level, which invited all of the Departments and significant agencies to be represented. That group is chaired by Dr. Ruth Barrington; it has been convened since last year, and I believe it is making very good progress in that regard. It is clearly a very important area that we need to continue to work with.
I found the presentation very interesting. The Probation Service obviously has a good role to play in addressing many aspects of how we believe things should be done better in respect of prisons and offenders. I am curious about the framework. I have never really known enough about the Probation Service. What work do most people do when doing community service? Does the Probation Service work hand in hand with the local authorities everywhere?
Mr. Vivian Geiran:
The work people do broadly falls under two organisational headings. Most people who do community service work do it under the supervision of a community service supervisor employed by us, namely, one of our staff. They perform the work as part of a group, supervised each day. We are in a position to put a small percentage of the people we supervise on community service in individual placements because they are probably more capable and have potential to do work with voluntary organisations that we can monitor and which would qualify and be classified as community service. The bulk of people, however, do their work as part of a group programme supervised by one of our staff. As Mr. Brian Dack mentioned, in some locations, such as Dublin, Cork and one or two other places, there are graffiti-removal projects. We have our own equipment in a van and do the work in collaboration with the local authority. This relates to the Deputy's other question. Apart from this work, we do a lot of work for voluntary organisations and community groups around the country. This may involve site clearance, litter removal, painting and decorating, refurbishment and sometimes small building-type projects. Much regeneration and renovation work is of a kind that we do. We engage with Tidy Towns committees. In a number of places, we have been able to build special gardens for schools or community facilities.
With regard to the question on local authorities, we have a good relationship with a number of local authorities, particularly in areas where we have graffiti-removal programmes running. Currently, we are in the process of developing a relationship with a wider range of local authorities in the area of waste management. Mr. Brian Dack might be in a position to say a little about that.
Mr. Brian Dack:
The Minister is launching next week in Ballinasloe the new anti-dumping initiative for local authorities. We have been invited to present there. We recognise the possibility of establishing relationships with local authorities throughout the country to assist in clearance where dumping takes place. We are looking forward to that. It will be a win-win situation, for us in terms of generating work for offenders we are supervising and for local communities where we help to eradicate unsightly dumping that takes place.
Mr. Vivian Geiran:
Yes. They often do. We do not always give ourselves enough credit for our community service in Ireland. As the Deputy will be aware, in some jurisdictions, including some that are not too far away, people have to wear special clothing that identifies them as participants on community service. We absolutely do not stipulate this at all. We do not make the people working in the local community identifiable as having been convicted. In some places, it appears as if the probation services get people to do the most menial and meaningless work. We always try - sometimes it is a challenge - to ensure the work people do on community service is not only valuable to the community but also allows the individual to feel it is meaningful and contributes something positive in his or her local area.
Ms Ita Burke:
We have been very involved with youth projects and sports organisations. We place female offenders in individual placements - for example, in many of the charity shops and meals on wheels units. The main point about these is that they are available in every community. If one does not have a community service supervisor, one can link in with another voluntary organisation. It is actually making a difference to that local community so it is repairing the harm. Therefore, it works very well.
Ms Úna Doyle:
Let me add to the comments on community service. While the primary function is to implement the court order in terms of the work being done, we recognise the secondary benefits associated with developing a work ethic, skills, team-working and all the elements that will contribute to somebody's skills base when he or she seeks employment or engages in other activity himself or herself. For us, that is a really important element of the programme.
With regard to getting people back to work after their having being cleared, does the service tap into the apprenticeship concept? We have a big problem in the State owing to the lack of apprenticeship schemes. In the construction sector, for example, there used to be a great apprenticeship system years ago but it is now gone. Has the Probation Service examined this area? It can be difficult for somebody with no work culture or work experience to get work. The apprenticeship scheme was good because an apprentice did not cost the employer too much. The employer was not losing too much money on the apprentice. It was a great opportunity for the individual to learn. From where should the initiative come on apprenticeship schemes? The State probably has a role to play. That there are no apprenticeship schemes now is a big problem. We should be considering reinstating them. Services such as the Probation Service could make great use of them.
Mr. Vivian Geiran:
The whole area of employment is clearly very important. Whether one has a job can have a big influence on whether one stays away from crime. There are a number of initiatives. Mr. Dack already mentioned the organisation we fund and which has training and employment officers who engage directly with the people under our supervision across the country. That is one initiative. With the Irish Prison Service, we have a joint project established in which we have employed a national co-ordinator in the area of social enterprise to try to develop different types of employment opportunities for offenders, including self-employment and social enterprise. Therefore, there are a number of areas that we are developing.
As part of the interdepartmental group I mentioned, we are engaging very well with the Department of Social Protection on trying to fit what we do with the people under our supervision with its employment activation programmes and so on.
Mr. Brian Dack:
Under an initiative we have with the Prison Service, the community return programme, people emerging from prison at a halfway point in their sentence, having been carefully selected through a series of processes, work on community service sites alongside people doing community service. That programme has proven to be extremely successful. I am sure it was mentioned earlier. I refer to the experience of having a working day, being trained, supervised and having a good relationship with the community service supervisors, who are critical to the work we do on pro-social modelling and giving a lead to the people they are working with, and to the sense of well-being participants get from giving back to communities. We frequently find that when people have finished their sentence and paid their dues, they still want to stay on because it is a meaningful activity for them.
We also ask the training and employment officers to do a couple of sessions with every person on the system so that they have the opportunity to continue with the training employment officers who link with the Department of Social Protection to explore pathways into employment. We are positive and hopeful of employment becoming more available. We did a small survey recently on our Dublin sites and we found very good figures for people finding employment and moving on. Some good green shoots are being seen.
In the report of the strategic review, which was published towards the end of 2014, some 50% of the recommendations were particular to the Probation Service. Mr. Geiran indicated in his opening statement that the service is on track in implementing them. Are there specific obstacles to any of those that it has not yet been able to introduce? Are there any legislative, regulatory or resourcing needs that need to be met in order to ensure that the recommendations can be introduced and implemented? We will be producing a report for the Minister with recommendations. We are always very anxious to see that they are activated. Could Mr. Geiran indicate whether there are any particular reasons why, at this stage, any of those recommendations have not yet been implemented?
Mr. Vivian Geiran:
From recollection, some recommendations are progressing faster than others. The one I would highlight is, as I said earlier, the whole-of-Government approach. Progress is being made in that regard. By virtue of what has been achieved, there is still much more that can be done. Very often, it is not legislation, per se, or resources that stop things happening, rather it is the will of the people involved. I include myself in that. If we can continue to build that whole-of-Government, whole-of-society response, then legislation and resources will follow.
We appreciate that. I thank the witnesses on behalf of the committee for their contributions, their insightful responses and very comprehensive opening statement, which is helpful to our work in preparing our report.
The committee will not meet next week as we will all be getting ready to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Our next meeting will be on 22 March, when we will meet the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice and the Irish Prison Officers Association. That will be followed a week later by our discussion, at the request of Senator Black, with the Simon Community.
We invite the witnesses to join us for a photograph. This is not just a memento - although Deputy Wallace is collecting them for his mantelpiece - it is for the report which we look forward to concluding in the coming weeks.