Dáil debates

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Development of Cork Prison: Motion


6:30 pm

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I have the height of respect for the prison officers and the governor working there. They are doing an extraordinary job in difficult circumstances. In circumstances where we have little funding available to us, I managed to secure funding to effectively replace the existing prison because in its current form, occupied by persons sentenced, there is nothing we can do with it. It is our objective to provide a better and modern prison facility. It will have full family-friendly visiting facilities. The development must take account of the impact the building will have on residents in the area, which is why the outer perimeter wall is to be constructed first so as to try to delimit the impact on those residing in the area.

We have a prison already in Cork. The new prison is being built essentially adjacent to the existing prison and there will be greater security provision for those who are there.

In an ideal world I would like a prison to be constructed which provided only for single-cell occupancy. The problem is that the perfect is the enemy of the possible. It was little short of a miracle that I was able to secure funding for the construction of the prison in current financial circumstances. The funding was secured because of my view as to the complete inadequacy of the current facility. There will be in-cell sanitation, which is important. The construction of the prison will provide for a modern facility with all of the additional, necessary facilities that come with that to try to contribute to the well-being of prisoners and to reduce recidivism.

The construction of the prison in Cork is not a be-all and end-all by any stretch of the imagination. It is part of my objective that we adopt a different approach in dealing with prisoners. I accept what some Deputies have said, namely, that we should try to bring about a reduction in the number of the prison population while at the same time ensure that people who are sentenced properly serve those sentences and that the public is not put at risk. If a prisoner was to be released early and there is a serious incident because a misjudgement has been made, Deputies on the Opposition side of the House will jump up and down to lay the blame for that event when it occurs.

What we require in this area is a comprehensive approach. We need an approach which involves looking at a whole range of alternative disposals for dealing with prisoners. We are adapting our prison policies in those areas. We now have a scheme whereby prisoners serving medium-range sentences who pose no risk to the community, who have behaved well in prison and are willing to engage in community service, are taking up community service and being released early to the benefit of the community, saving money for taxpayers and relieving the pressure on the prison system. That was something we introduced.

This is a very important development. It is very important that we improve our prison facilities. It is of crucial importance that we change the approach adopted in years gone by which has produced far too great a number returning to criminality within a relatively short period of being released from prison terms.

We must continue to deal with the issue of drugs. In the context of the changes that have been made in the past two years, far fewer drugs are getting within the prison system. The new prison is specifically designed to try to ensure that the problem does not develop with a new prison system. This is a very important development in the right direction.

I have the greatest respect for the Irish Penal Reform Trust and for Fr. McVerry and the work he does but in the context of the numbers with which we currently deal it was a question of either building this prison, a modern, new facility with in-cell sanitation, or alternatively the funding would not be available for something practically double the size if we were to provide exclusively for single-cell occupancy. This prison does envisage single-cell occupancy for some prisoners as part of the prison plan. In the context of the continuing development of prison policy, looking at alternative ways of dealing with prisoners in the context of the community service amendment legislation that we passed in 2012 - the District Court uses it to a greater extent so instead of prisoners being sentenced to short periods in prison they are doing community service - we can constructively reduce numbers while ensuring that there is a consequence of relevance to those who engage in criminality. We can also reduce our expenditure on the prison system by diverting individuals into community service who can contribute to the community in a beneficial way. Of course there is a role for restorative justice, a range of different mechanisms are available.

The directors of the Prison Service and of the Probation Service are working very carefully together. There is a joint policy plan to bring about huge reform and change in ethos and approach, to provide a comprehensive approach to reduce recidivism and to provide better opportunities for those who are in prison so as to ensure when they leave prison that there is a different life open to them to that which resulted in them being sentenced in the first place. The construction of the prison in Cork is just one brick in the wall of the policies we are implementing to humanise our penal system and penal policy.


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