Thursday, 1 February 2007
Prisons Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to present the Prisons Bill 2006, which completed its passage through the Seanad on 5 December 2006. It deals with a range of issues relating to prisons and prisoners and its purpose is manifold. It provides for video conferencing of certain non-trial court hearings; the placing of the Office of the Inspector of Prisons on a statutory footing; planning provisions for major prison developments and the closure of Mountjoy Prison; issues which may be included in prison rules, including mandatory drug testing; a basis in primary legislation for revised disciplinary procedures applicable to prisoners, including appeals; the possibility of outsourcing prisoner escort services; a statutory basis for charging prisoners for certain optional services; and the exclusion of non-commercial work from the National Minimum Wage Act 2000.
This Bill replaces and supplements the Prisons Bill 2005, which was withdrawn from the Order Paper following the publication of this Bill. The much more limited aims of the 2005 Bill included outsourcing prisoner escort services, providing for the video conferencing of certain pre-trial court hearings and providing for the closure of Mountjoy Prison. As time progressed, it became increasingly clear that the other prison-related issues to which I referred needed to be addressed and that a prisons Bill would be the best place to do so. As the inclusion of such measures would have necessitated significant amendments to the 2005 Bill, I considered it easier and more straightforward for all parties to the process to republish the Bill. I thus withdrew the Prisons Bill 2005 and republished it with the additional necessary provisions, resulting in more comprehensive legislation.
As I stated on many occasions since becoming Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in June 2002, I am committed to introducing measures to reform and modernise the prison system. Numerous significant changes to the system have been introduced or are in the process of being introduced. A comprehensive proposal for organisational change in the Prison Service was accepted in a second ballot of members of the Prison Officers Association in August 2005. The arrangements agreed in the revised proposal represent one of the most significant change programmes undertaken in the public service in recent years, opening the way for greater flexibility, efficiency and cost effectiveness in every operational area of the State's prisons. The new additional hours system replaced the existing overtime system and effectively caps the level of extra attendance costs in the Prison Service. Successful implementation of these measures is delivering savings to the Exchequer of up to €25 million per annum.
I also published a drugs policy and strategy for the Irish Prisons Service in May 2006. This strategy provides, for the first time, a co-ordinated, consistent national approach to eliminating the supply of drugs into prison as well as ensuring appropriate treatment is available to prisoners to help them conquer their addiction.
A major prisons building and refurbishment programme to improve facilities for prisoners, including the elimination of the practice of slopping out, the reduction of overcrowding and the use of the notorious padded cells and to facilitate a more cost-effective operation of the service, has been ongoing. The extensive site at Thornton, County Dublin, has been purchased for the provision of a new prison complex to replace the existing prisons on the Mountjoy campus and planning is under way for development of a new prison to replace Cork Prison. These are major undertakings involving replacement of approximately 40% of the entire prison estate.
The replacement prisons for Mountjoy Prison and Cork Prison will provide decent, hygienic conditions for prisoners in line with modern-day standards. The new facilities will allow for the provision of a full range of work, training, educational, psychological and medical services for inmates as well as predominantly single-cell accommodation with proper in-cell sanitation facilities and general conditions conducive to rehabilitation.
New additional prison accommodation is also in the process of being provided at Loughan House, Shelton Abbey, Castlerea, Wheatfield and Portlaoise. In addition, the programme of work to install safety observation cells and closed supervision cells was undertaken in 2005 and completed in 2006 following my commitment to abolish the use of the notorious old-style padded cells in our prisons. These measures all represent further steps along the road to improving and modernising our prison system but there is a lot more to be done.
Turning to the Bill, Part 1, encompassing sections 1 to 3, contains standard provisions, including the Short Title, commencement and expenses provisions and the definitions of key terms used in the Bill. Part 2, which covers sections 4 to 10, deals with prisoner escort services. When the 2005 Bill was published it appeared that proposals for organisational change within our prisons would be rejected by prison officers. In those circumstances, I would have had no choice but to contract out the prisoner escort service in the interests of providing a cost-effective service, hence the inclusion of such provisions in that Bill. Since then an organisational change programme has been agreed with the Prison Officers Association. One of the main elements in that agreement was the establishment of a co-ordinated prisoner escort system operated by officers within the Prison Service. The prison service escort corps was set up towards the end of 2005. It has a staffing complement of 143 and we currently have a fleet of 35 specialised cellular vehicles. While the main business of the service is providing prisoner escorts to the courts, it also covers inter-prison and hospital escorts.
I am pleased to tell the House that the level of coverage provided by the escort corps for court escorts currently stands at 94% of transactions involving the movement of prisoners. That means 94% of prisoner movements are done in this way rather than by gardaí etc., which was much more prevalent in the past. In staffing terms, the escort corps operates on average more than 33% more efficiently on court escorts than the previous overtime-based operating system. The House will agree that tremendous progress has been made in a short period from introducing this service from scratch in one year. As long as the service continues to operate efficiently and in cost-effective terms, there is no need, nor do I have the desire, to contract out the service. However, to ensure I or any successor of mine is never left in a situation where there would be glitches in the provision of this service, it is important there is legislative provision for the contracting out of a prison escort service and I make such provision here. It is my intention not to commence this part and I hope such glitches and circumstances never exist requiring it to be brought into force. However, it should be in place as a reserve position.
To summarise Part 2 briefly, section 4 provides definitions of terms used in this part. Section 5 provides that the Minister, with Government approval and the consent of the Minister for Finance, may enter into an agreement for the provision of escort services. While it has been suggested that the Oireachtas should approve such an agreement, the legal advice I have received is that a decision of this nature is a function of the Government and decisions on the provision of services generally have traditionally been made by Government. The section further provides for the termination of such an agreement if the contractor fails to comply with any of the provisions of an agreement and outlines the role of a prisoner escort service.
Section 6 provides for the certification of prisoner custody officers who will provide the prisoner escort service. Any person may apply to the Minister for a certificate that he or she is, in the Minister's view, a suitable person to perform the functions of a prisoner custody officer. Any application must include the relevant fee and any requested documentation and further information required by the Minister in order to make a decision. The section goes on to outline the criteria to be met before the Minister may issue a certificate and the conditions under which the person holds such a certificate, including that he or she must comply with any prison rules relating to the treatment of prisoners in custody. Provision is also made for an applicant to appeal the refusal of a certificate to the Circuit Court and for penalties if an applicant, knowingly or recklessly, provides false or misleading information in an application, or if a person forges, or alters a certificate issued under this section or has a forged or altered certificate in his or her possession.
Section 7 deals with the revocation of a certificate. The Minister may revoke a certificate if the conditions previously referred to are not met by the certificate-holder. Such revocation must be notified to the relevant parties in writing. Provision is made for a prisoner custody officer to appeal the revocation to the Circuit Court. There is also provision for penalties should a person whose certificate is revoked continue to work as a prisoner custody officer and for persons who continue in this role when directed not to do so pending a final decision on the revocation. The section also provides for a complaint mechanism concerning the conduct of a prisoner custody officer.
Section 8 outlines the functions of a prisoner custody officer. Any powers conferred on a prison officer under such an enactment shall also apply to a prisoner custody officer while he or she is escorting a prisoner. In particular, the prisoner custody officer shall have the power to search a prisoner and remove any prohibited articles found during such a search. The section goes on to provide that only a prisoner's outer clothing may be removed unless the prisoner custody officer has reasonable grounds for believing that a prohibited article has been concealed beneath the prisoner's clothing. A search cannot take place in public view and a prisoner custody officer may only search prisoners of his or her gender. The section goes on to list the duties of a prisoner custody officer, namely, to prevent a prisoner's escape, to prevent a prisoner committing an offence, to ensure a prisoner behaves in an orderly fashion and to comply with any court order relating to a prisoner. The prisoner custody officer must also give to the governor of a prison any court document relating to the prisoner's committal to prison, including any medication, prescriptions, or information about the prisoner's health of which the prisoner custody officer is aware.
Section 9 prohibits unauthorised disclosure of information relating to a prisoner by a prisoner custody officer and provides for penalties for so doing. Section 10 provides for the Minister to appoint a person to monitor the performance of a contractor under this part. This person shall submit an annual report to the Minister on the performance of the contractor and has the power to enter the contractor's offices at any reasonable time and inspect and take copies of any documents found in the course of an inspection.
Part 3, covering sections 11 to 16, relates to prison discipline. The provisions in this part are new to the 2006 Bill and include the establishment of an appeals mechanism against disciplinary sanctions imposed within a prison. Prison discipline has until now been governed by the prison rules but the view now taken is that as disciplinary measures have significant implications for prisoners, it is more appropriate to have such measures set out in primary legislation.
Section 11 defines terms as used in this part. Section 12 provides for an inquiry to be held by a prison governor if a prisoner is alleged to have committed a breach of discipline and provides that the procedures for such an inquiry may be set out in prison rules. The prisoner must be informed of the date and time of the inquiry and the procedure to be followed at an inquiry may be laid down in prison rules. The section goes on to provide that, following such an inquiry, the governor may impose a sanction and record the finding and the sanction, or record a finding that the allegation was not substantiated.
Section 13 lists the sanctions that may be imposed. Section 13(1)(d)(ii) was amended in the Seanad to include members of visiting committees in the list of persons who may visit a prisoner despite the imposition of a prohibition on visitors in general. I also brought forward an amendment in the other House to widen the previous reference to visits from a doctor to include visits for the purpose of giving medical advice or treatment on a broader scale. In light of concerns expressed in the other House as to whether the current terminology includes persons who give psychological treatment, I propose to amend the wording further on Committee Stage to provide that visits from a doctor or other health care personnel are not prohibited.
Section 13(1)(g) was also amended in the Seanad, as I believed the meaning was somewhat unclear. The section now makes clear that gratuities may be denied for a specified period but not forfeited. Section 13 also provides that a sanction may be suspended subject to conditions, in whole or in part, for a period not exceeding three months and, following this period, the sanction may take effect or be abated, or, if the relevant condition has been complied with, the sanction may be lifted. The section goes on to provide that the governor may restore any remission for good conduct forfeited by a prisoner if such restoration is justified by the prisoner's good behaviour. Sanctions which may not be imposed are also listed. They include, among other things, corporal punishment, collective punishment, sensory deprivation or deprivation of food, drink or sleep or any sanction that would constitute cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. Subsection 13(8) has been added by means of an amendment in the Seanad, as it was rightly pointed out that the Bill had omitted to specify that the prisoner must be informed of his or her right to appeal a sanction.
Under section 14, a prisoner on whom a sanction is imposed may make a petition to the Minister on the finding or the sanction, and the Minister, following consultation with the governor, may affirm, alter, suspend or revoke the sanction imposed. Section 15 for the first time introduces an independent appeals mechanism of a quasi-judicial nature to review loss of remission for prisoners. It provides that a prisoner who has had remission of a portion of his or her sentence forfeited may appeal the finding or sanction, via the governor, to an appeal tribunal. The appeal tribunal may invite written submissions from the prisoner and governor and shall notify the prisoner of the date and time of the hearing. The prisoner may attend the hearing and may have legal advice or representation for the purposes of the hearing. The section further provides that the tribunal may uphold or quash the original finding and may affirm, vary or quash the original sanction applied. Decisions of an appeal tribunal shall be published in accordance with arrangements specified in the prison rules.
Section 16 goes on to lay down the powers of an appeal tribunal. An appeal tribunal shall consist of a member, who shall be a practising barrister or solicitor of at least seven years' standing, appointed by the Minister. The terms and conditions of the member's appointment, including remuneration, are determined by the Minister with the consent of the Minister for Finance. A member may resign at any time or be removed by the Minister for stated reasons. A tribunal may determine its own procedure subject to the terms of this Bill and directions given by the Minister in the interests of securing consistency of procedures in relation to appeals. A tribunal shall be independent in its functions.
Part 4 of the Bill, sections 17 to 29 inclusive, relates to planning procedures in connection with the construction of new prisons and the extension of existing prisons. These provisions are again new and did not feature in the 2005 Bill. Section 17 provides definitions and section 18 provides that this Part shall only apply if the Minister so directs. I am conscious that large prison developments can be a cause of great controversy. For that reason I do not wish, as a general rule where largescale prison developments are involved, to take advantage of the planning arrangements provided for in Part 9 of the Planning and Development Regulations of 2001, which permit the exemption of prisons and places of detention from the normal planning regime. On the other hand, the development of a major prison facility is a matter of national importance and not appropriate to a local or regional-orientated planning approval system in the conventional sense. There is a need for the issue to be addressed at national level and therefore in the interests of democracy I am providing the opportunity for both Houses of the Oireachtas to have an input into the process.
Section 19 deals with what is called an environmental impact assessment, or EIA. An EIA shall be prepared before a development is commenced and shall contain a description of the proposed development as well as any significant effects it might have on the environment, including natural resources, architectural, archaeological and cultural heritage and expected emissions. The assessment must also contain an outline of the main alternatives that were considered as well as the main reasons for choosing the development. It will estimate possible residues and emissions during and after construction and will also describe any measures used to reduce, avoid or offset significant adverse affects. The section also provides that a visual representation of the exterior of the completed development shall be prepared. The House will appreciate that detailed plans of every prison cell, giving the thickness of every wall, will not be published. That would be foolish.
It might be useful to people who should not have it.
Section 20 provides that on receipt of the environmental impact assessment and the visual representation of the development, the Minister shall give notice of the proposed development to the planning authorities in the relevant area. Members of the public shall be informed of the development by means of placing a notice on the site and in a national and local newspaper. Furthermore, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government shall be informed, as shall the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources if the development is adjacent to the foreshore, and the relevant authority in another country if the development is likely to have significant adverse effects on that country's environment. That is required by European law but is unlikely to affect an Irish prison.
Following an amendment tabled in the Seanad, I have now also provided in this section for a copy of the notice to be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Section 21 lays out what must be contained in the notices I have just referred to and section 22 provides that the environmental impact assessment and the visual representation must be made available to any interested party in written form or electronically. Under section 23 the Minister shall appoint a rapporteur to receive submissions relating to the proposed development and the rapporteur shall prepare a report which shall summarise the submissions received and identify the main issues raised. It is not intended that the rapporteur would evaluate the submissions or make recommendations to the Minister. The report of the rapporteur shall also be published.
Section 24 deals with a situation where the Minister, on foot of the rapporteur's report, decides to alter the proposed development. In this case the Minister shall cause an amended description of the development to be prepared, as well as a supplementary environmental impact assessment and an amended visual representation of the exterior, if material alterations are made to the exterior. The persons and bodies specified in section 20 shall be notified of any proposed alteration. Again, submissions may be made in relation to the revised proposal and submitted to the rapporteur, who shall prepare a supplementary report on the basis of the submissions received and this report shall also be published.
Section 25 provides that the Minister, having considered the EIA, the rapporteur's report and any supplementary EIA and report, may make further alterations to the development and may proceed or decide not to do so. Under section 26, if the Minister decides to proceed with the development, he shall move a draft resolution approving the development in both Houses of the Oireachtas. This resolution must contain a description of the development, a statement that an EIA, and supplementary EIA, where applicable, has been prepared, the measures taken to invite observations from the public, the main measures taken to avoid, reduce or offset any significant adverse effects and a drawing or visual representation of the exterior. The resolution must also specify any conditions with which the developer must comply. Before moving the resolution, documents must be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas, including a statement of the location, purpose and size of the proposed development, its land-use requirements during construction and operation and any estimated residues or emissions. The EIA, and any supplementary EIA, a visual representation of the exterior and the rapporteur's report and supplementary report, if applicable, must also be laid before the Houses. If the draft resolution is approved and confirmed by an Act of the Oireachtas the Minister may proceed with the development. The Act intended here is a very brief confirmatory Act, perhaps of only one or two sections. A good example of such an Act is the restrictive practices regime which existed in the past. Restrictive practices Acts prescribed reports by examiners and the like. The examiner's report was frequently published, the Minister published a draft order to implement the examiner's report and it did not have effect until a short two section Bill confirming it was passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas to give it the effect of law.
Section 27 provides that any questioning of an act done under this Part must be by way of an application to the High Court. Section 28 deals with exemptions relating to the development in terms of planning permission and requirements set out in other legislation. This section also provides that if a national monument is found on the site, no further work may be undertaken, except to preserve the monument, without direction from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in consultation with the Director of the National Museum. Section 29 prohibits the disclosure of any information concerning design or construction which is likely to prejudice the security of a new or extended prison.
Part 5, encompassing sections 30, 31 and 32, provides for the establishment of an office of inspector of prisons on a statutory basis. This is also new. Section 30 provides that the Minister may appoint an inspector of prisons, who shall hold office on terms determined by the Minister in consultation with the Minister for Finance. The inspector may at any time resign from office or be removed by the Minister for stated reasons. An appointment shall be for a term of not longer than five years and the inspector is independent in the performance of his or her functions. Section 31 lays out the duties of the inspector of prisons. He or she shall carry out regular inspections of prisons, may enter any part of a prison at any time, obtain copies of any records kept there and report to the Director General of the Prison Service or the Minister as appropriate with regard to any issues of concern. The inspector may, and shall if requested by the Minister, investigate any matter relating to the management or operation of a prison and shall submit a report to the Minister on such an investigation, which shall be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas as soon as practicable. The section further provides that the Minister may omit matters from the report if disclosure would be prejudicial to the security of the prison or the State and may also omit matters from the report, after consultation with the Secretary General to the Government, if disclosure of such matters would be contrary to the public interest or would infringe the constitutional rights of any person. The section goes on to clarify that it is not the inspector's role to investigate complaints from individual prisoners although, following my acceptance of an amendment in the Seanad, he or she shall now have the power to investigate the circumstances surrounding a complaint by a prisoner. Any request from the inspector for information must be complied with by prison staff in so far as is reasonably practicable. Section 32 provides for the inspector of prisons to submit an annual report to the Minister on any prison inspected in the year in question. The report shall deal with the general management of the prison, the general health and welfare of the prisoners, the general conduct of staff, compliance with set standards, facilities available, security and discipline. Each report shall be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas as soon as practicable and shall be published.
Part 6 of the Bill contains a range of miscellaneous provisions. Section 33 deals with the hearing of applications to court by means of videolink. This featured in section 11 of the 2005 Bill. However, following receipt of the final report of the committee on video conferencing, chaired by Mrs. Justice Susan Denham, the range of circumstances in which video conferencing might best be used without the accused being physically present in the court has been expanded from the limit of pretrial hearings provided for in the 2005 Bill to the range of non-trial hearings specified in subsection (11).
Section 33 applies to the applications to court where the accused or person convicted is in prison, where the application is being made by either the DPP or a prisoner and where the prisoner is legally represented or has obtained or been given the opportunity to obtain legal advice. In these circumstances, the application may be heard without the prisoner being present — that is, by video link — if the court is satisfied that the use of video link would not be unfair to the prisoner, if the interests of justice do not require the prisoner's presence at the hearing and if the video link facilities allow the prisoner to participate in the hearing, allow the court to see and hear the prisoner and allow the prisoner to consult privately with his or her legal representative during the hearing. When the court is making the decision as to whether the application to court may be heard by way of video link, it must have regard to the nature of the application, how complex the hearing is likely to be, and the prisoner's age and mental and physical capacity. An application for the hearing to be heard by means of video link may be made either by or on behalf of the prisoner or the DPP, and if the application is refused, the court must state its reasons for that decision. A direction under this section may be revoked at any time, whether on application or not.
Section 34 applies the provisions of section 33 to children in remand centres or detention schools and following the tabling of amendments in the Seanad, I have now also provided for this section to apply to a designated centre within the meaning of the Criminal Law (Insanity) Act 2006 when the Minister for Health and Children, following consultation with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, so directs.
Section 35 deals with the making of prison rules by the Minister. It builds on the power to make such rules provided for in section 19 of the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1997. In addition to the range of issues provided for in the 1997 Act, provision is also made here for testing prisoners for intoxicants, including alcohol and drugs, and for the publication of decisions of an appeal tribunal in respect of forfeiture of remission of portion of sentence.
The existing prison rules date back to 1947. I published comprehensive new draft prison rules in June 2005, which are on my Department's website. The intention in publishing draft prison rules was to give people an opportunity to submit observations on them. One issue that has been raised is that the rules relating to prison discipline in particular should have a strong grounding in primary legislation. As Members can see, I have taken that view on board. As soon as this Bill is enacted, it is my intention to sign the draft rules, with some amendments, into law.
Section 36 amends the National Minimum Wage Act 2000 to ensure that payment of the minimum wage is not applicable to prisoners undertaking non-commercial work within a prison, including cleaning, training or work experience and charity work. There is a practice within prison regimes to give what amounts to pocket money to prisoners who carry out certain tasks within the prison system, rather than to leave them completely without remuneration. Surprisingly, the issue arose that this might in some way constitute an infringement of the National Minimum Wage Act. It is not meant to be regular employment and prisoners who engage in work for pocket money within prisons are not being exploited. Therefore, in these circumstances, it is appropriate that the Act should not apply.
Section 37 deals with payment by prisoners for requested services and provides that provision may be made for payment for special goods and services including telephone calls, private medical treatment and escorts outside the prisons for matters that are not generally available without charge to prisoners. I envisaged instances whereby a prisoner who decides to undergo extensive cosmetic dental work or something similar can be accommodated through the system although ordinarily it would not be the entitlement of the prisoner to have this done as part of the prison's dental service. There are other, similar instances. A prisoner who wants to telephone Hong Kong for a particular reason can pay for the privilege. The taxpayer is not obliged to state either that it will be done for free or that it cannot be done at all. However, any charges levied may not exceed the cost of the provision of the goods or services.
Section 38 provides for absences from prison on certain grounds. Under this section, the Minister may order that a prisoner be taken to a specified person or place for a specified purpose and time and be returned to the prison thereafter. Such leave may be granted on compassionate grounds, to assess or facilitate a prisoner's re-integration into society or for the purpose of assistance in the investigation of an offence. If, during that period, the prisoner is not of good behaviour or causes a breach of the peace or attempts to escape, he or she shall be returned to prison immediately. Section 39 provides that a prisoner in the custody of a garda, a prison officer or a prisoner custody officer is thereby in lawful custody.
Section 40 contains technical provisions and amends references to Prisons Acts in various enactments to also include this Act. The definition of prison officer is also amended in certain legislation to ensure the definition encompasses prisoner custody officers. Section 41 of the Bill will repeal certain provisions in other legislation, including a provision relating to visiting committees, as some functions of visiting committees will now be encompassed by the appeal tribunals.
The repeal of section 1(2) of the Prisons Act 1933, previously provided for in section 8 of the 2005 Act, has the effect of providing a statutory power on the Minister to enable Mountjoy Prison to be closed. The previous legislation enacted in 1933 stated that the Minister could, by regulation, close any prison with the exception of Mountjoy. This must be amended to facilitate Mountjoy's replacement. Section 19 of the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 1997 is also being repealed. This section dealt with the making of prison rules, which is now being restated, with additions, in the current Bill. Section 42 is a standard regulation-making provision.
This Bill continues the programme of prison reform that I commenced. The Government is changing how prisons are run, work practices within them, their locations, and, very importantly, what is achieved by sending people to prison. While I have stated previously that imprisonment should be seen as a last option, it remains a necessary one. This is true in all societies which provide for the rule of law. However, there is no reason for prisons and prison practices not to be of the highest standard. Since my appointment as Minister, it has been most depressing to see some of the institutions. While the staff work hard and the prisoners themselves do their best to make their own circumstances humane, we have done little to live up to our obligation to the entire principle of education and rehabilitation within the prison system.
While prisons must be secure, they should also be modern places that do not dehumanise prisoners. The building of a new prison at the Thornton Hall site and, hopefully, in north Cork will be a major step in this regard. I look forward to hearing Members' comments on the Bill and to a more detailed debate on Committee Stage and I commend the Bill to the House.
Unfortunately, it is quite rare for Members to have an opportunity to have a proper debate on prison conditions and on the Prison Service. That said, Members must confront the stark reality of the current situation, namely, that Ireland's prison system is failing. This system produces a recidivism rate of more than 75%. A recent study by the Institute of Criminology, University College Dublin, showed the shocking reality. One out of four prisoners released from prison in Ireland today will be back behind bars by the end of January next year. Three out of four will be back within four years. In many ways, it is a massive understatement to observe that the prison system is failing.
However, this is not the biggest problem. The main problem is that significant numbers of people are being sent to prison. In 2005, nearly 9,000 people were committed to prison in Ireland. A significant number of such committals involved people who should not be there. Many involved people who committed minor offences that could be dealt with using a wide variety of other sanctions.
I will state my basic position in respect of prisons. There are hardened, serious criminals in our society who must be sent to prison and who must be shown that their activities will not be tolerated. I have no compunction, whether in Government or in Opposition, in authorising or supporting their incarceration, from the perspective of the protection of the public. There are also significant numbers of people being sent to jail for non payment of fines, or debt in some instances, for being drunk and disorderly or misbehaving at an incidental level. Wherever possible, these people should be diverted from the prison system into alternative systems. There is a bounden duty on those of us who are analysing and considering the prison system to make that clear divide. Let us put into prison those who should be there and keep them there are long as is necessary. However, the corollary of that is that we should keep out of prison those who should not be there.
Members will be aware that I recently published the Enforcement of Court Orders Bill 2007 on this subject. This would treat one aspect of this problem by allowing the courts to make attachment of earning or welfare orders to ensure that court-ordered fines were paid, thereby keeping people who might otherwise end up in jail out of the prison system. With modern technology, I believe this approach is now possible. There may have been difficulties with such a system in the past, but by utilising modern technology this system could readily and easily be made work. It would give the benefit of fines being paid by order while simultaneously saving the taxpayer the cost of imprisoning defaulters. It would have the additional benefit of not exposing people, who in most instances are not criminals, to contact with hardened criminals.
Our prisons have been described by many as universities of crime and we must take that seriously. I am advised that in many instances those sent to prison either learn new ways to break the law or pass on old tricks to new inmates. Surely this is another reason we should focus on keeping people who should not be there out of prison. This is particularly true of young offenders. Our young offenders' institutions leave a lot to be desired. In many instances the same methods are applied to juvenile prisoners as are applied to adults. I am not satisfied that adequate efforts are made to rehabilitate young offenders, even though they are at a formative stage in their lives. I do not think there is sufficient political direction, and sufficient resources are not being provided to achieve that outcome. In some cases no incentive is being given to young offenders — children — to mend their ways or change their habits once released.
I am aware of some of the practices that are being handed down in St. Patrick's Institution. I have in my possession a letter from an inmate in St. Patrick's sent to a friend on the outside in 2005; it is stamped and approved by the censor's office. It contains detailed descriptions of how he picks up drugs inside the prison grounds, how he takes Valium within the prison and how he is smoking other illegal substances in his cell. Based on this letter, the greatest sanction he faces for this behaviour is to have the television temporarily removed from his cell. This individual is at the coalface and it is worth quoting parts of this letter. He wrote: "The governor said to me that if I don't pick up hash out in the yard he would let me out in two weeks, but stupid me goes out in the yard and starts picking up. And I went in the next morning to the governor over picking up and he took my telly off me for two weeks." This seems to be common practice. He continues — I will omit some of the more colourful language: "So I'm in my cell for two weeks without a telly ... I am sitting here listening to Bob Marley, flaking out with a nice spliff in me mouth."
He then goes on to describe what he is going to do when released. This is what I mean when I discuss rehabilitation. "I'm in 12 months now and I tell you I won't be robbing cars that's for sure. When I get out I'm going to get a bit of coke and go down to [placename] and sell it. [Two friends] went down one night and made €1,300 on E30 bags." The "E" is presumably a reference to Ecstasy.
That is what intrigued me. It is stamped as having gone through the censor's office. It is interesting as it is a hands-on account of what is happening in St. Patrick's Institution, and even worse is the already clear intent of what he will do when he is released. How can we possibly expect the prison system to work if that is how things are operated?
The example from my letter can probably be multiplied a thousand times for all the inmates that have passed through St. Patrick's. However, it shows what can happen when the most impressionable and vulnerable section of the prison population are being treated — or not treated — like this. How can the Minister expect crime to decrease when this is happening right under the noses of the prison authorities?
What will happen here? I predict that the young man who wrote this letter will be back in prison, but not before he ruins many more young lives with drugs, as he already plans to do, encourages more drug-related crime and contributes further to the criminal and gangland elements that are running amok in this country.
This reinforces the case for looking for new ways to deal with crime. Locking them up and throwing away the key is not the answer in all instances. Of course, there will be some who are beyond rehabilitation and will not respond to schemes or intervention programmes. However, there will be some who will benefit and break the cycle of crime and become functioning members of society.
I have in my possession an e-mail from an ex-prisoner who undertook an education course in prison. He was imprisoned in July 2002 and spent four years in prison. During that time he undertook educational courses and was accepted to Trinity College Dublin. While I know that Members must be careful in dealing with prisoners and ex-prisoners nowadays, he wrote to me because the Department of Education and Science had refused him the grant for going to Trinity owing to his failure to comply with the conditions. That was not unconnected with the fact that he was out of circulation for the previous four years. I am glad to say this problem was overcome.
The second example shows that progress can be made. However, I am concerned that there is not sufficient emphasis on the possible benefits of rehabilitation. Sufficient resources are not put into it and sufficient political will does not exist. Taking the approach of locking people up forever is too simplistic. We should have a more nuanced approach, keeping those out who should not be there and, in so far as we can, putting a huge emphasis on the possibilities of rehabilitation or education for those who would benefit and who would come out of prison better members of society than when they went in, rather than worse as applies at this stage. That is why I put great emphasis on alternatives to prison and on restorative justice and why I recently went to the trouble of producing a major report for the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights on the issue. It represents a new approach which, if rolled out nationally, has the possibility, particularly in the cases of young and first time offenders, of ensuring they are answerable for their crimes but do not clog up the prison system or, even worse, go to prison unnecessarily and come out far worse than when they went in.
I will deal with some of the issues arising in the Bill. The Minister will not be surprised that I want to refer to Thornton Hall. The first problem was that the Minister had grand plans for Thornton Hall and for Cork. Despite pressure on prison space he took a number of prisons out of commission, long before these new prisons were much more than a gleam in his eye. That was a foolish approach. It was even worse for the fact that facilities existed at Wheatfield, but there is insufficient emphasis on rehabilitative and other measures to enable them to be used fully and properly. In addition, the Dóchas prison is exceptionally well equipped for those who must be incarcerated but it may be a victim of the overall plan.
However, it will be gone once the gleam becomes a reality, if it ever does.
The Minister probably sees a gleam in my eye when I mention the €30 million which has gone down the drain on a place worth between €5 million and €6 million, and that is not the only example of the Minister's profligate approach. I warned at the time that access to Thornton Hall was dreadful and that it would not qualify as suitable by any criteria. I gather the Minister has taken his cheque book out again. I am advised, and he might clarify the matter, that further enormous amounts of money have been waved about for adjacent vegetable gardens so that access can be provided to the prison. I would like to know the full picture on that and on the adjoining ground, owned by a well known major company, and whether the figures mentioned to me, which run into millions of euro, are correct. What further taxpayers' money has the Minister quietly spent on securing access to a place that was inaccessible in the context of such a major project?
I am very glad the Minister saw the error of his ways on Cork prison before it went too far. The project on Spike Island was ill-conceived. I can, however, offer comfort to the Minister in regard to Kilworth Camp. Having served with the FCA at the barracks, I believe it has a lot to offer as a prison location. I know the area very well and, subject to more information being made available, I would support the idea of a prison at that location. I have one reservation, however, namely, its distance from Cork city, from where the majority of the prison population will come.
It is even further from west Cork but, thankfully, we are very civilised in west Cork. It is certainly a much better option than Spike Island and proper transport facilities for relatives should solve the problem. I am broadly supportive of the proposal and am very glad the Minister saw the error of his ways in contemplating spending huge sums of money on Spike Island. My continuing reservation about the proposals for Spike Island is that it is currently closed, when it could have filled a short-term gap until the new accommodation came on stream.
I support many aspects of the Bill and will, therefore, support it on Second Stage. I take it the Minister wants to rush the Bill through the Oireachtas so we should be thankful we will not be faced with an onslaught of revisions such as were produced on Committee Stage of the Criminal Justice Bill 2006.
A couple of issues arise in respect of the privatisation of certain prison services. The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has made much of his confrontation with the Prison Officers Association and clapped himself on the back for achieving great savings. I wonder would his claims stand up to further scrutiny. I understand the average cost of keeping somebody in prison is approximately €90,000 per year, or €250 per night. Somebody said we could put prisoners up in Ashford Castle for that amount of money and they would not want to leave it to return to a life of crime. International comparisons of costs are quite frightening. The average cost per prisoner per year in the United States of America is approximately €33,000.
In Britain, where I have seen some of the prison accommodation, the figure is €36,000. The Government has not made value for money a great priority and if international comparisons are used in judging the Minister's performance he does not rate highly. The Minister proposes giving future Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the power of privatisation, to exercise if appropriate. The question arises as to whether it will ever be appropriate from the point of view of value for money. In 2002 a report from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform stated that privatisation of prison services would never save money.
There is so much to say about prisons but so little time in which to say it. We have never had a chance to talk about prisons in the context of penal reform and penal policy in general, but I will touch on a few other items. A number of sections in the Bill deal with prison discipline and the withdrawal of various rights such as remission. We should stand back and examine this issue in the round. The automatic remission of 25% of sentences should be reviewed. It is not that I am against remission, but it should be earned. Our system should be based on a remission of sentence being earned rather than putting prisoners at risk of losing some of their remissions from time to time. If we turn the equation upside down, the onus is on the prisoner to not only be on good behaviour, but to participate in rehabilitative programmes.
In the days before the Curragh Prison closed, there were rehabilitative programmes, particularly in respect of sexual matters, but many people did not go on them because nothing would be earned by way of remission. A two-pronged approach would have greater emphasis on the issue of rehabilitation and make it clear to prisoners that if they want remission, they must engage actively with available rehabilitative services. This may be the way forward.
Regarding issues arising in the Bill, the Minister spoke about the powers of the prison governor and the appeals tribunal. There is a tendency to view the legal profession as the only one that can have something to do with such tribunals. What would a barrister in the Four Courts or a solicitor in the Kerry South constituency of the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, know about prison discipline? If we follow this process, is there a case for using people such as former prison governors, chaplains, doctors or those who have been involved in rehabilitation measures?
There has been so much abuse in this regard that it is time to raise the flag and call a halt. I had occasion to examine carefully one of the Minister's pet projects, the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, and the pets appointed to it. Frankly, the outcome was horrifying. We have had enough of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats' friends being appointed to positions without qualifications for such appointments other than their close association with the Government parties. I recommend a new approach, that is, reaching beyond the legal profession and friends of the Government parties.
On prison construction and extensions, the Minister has not given an adequate explanation for the powers he has gathered. He is keen to drive the Thornton Hall matter over the line, but the House passed the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006, which deals with projects of importance to the Government by fast-tracking them through special procedures. Why were prisons not included? Would it not have been a better, independent, accountable and transparent way to deal with the matter were the normal process to prove difficult? I ask that the Minister reconsider the issue.
I will take the opportunity to praise someone who has done the country a great service, namely, the current Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention, the honourable Mr. Justice Dermot Kinlen, a brave and courageous man. I do not always agree with what he says and the Minister does not agree with anything he says. We owe him a debt of gratitude for his bravery and courage in saying and doing what he did during his years of retirement.
He is a man of whom the country can be proud. I am not sure that the Minister can be proud of how he treated the inspector or how many of the inspector's reports were, if not buried completely, allowed to gather dust before it suited the Minister to slip them out, not coincidentally at the end of a Dáil session so that any debate on them could be stifled and no awkward questions could be asked, the type sometimes asked in real democracies.
I welcome that we are to put the position on a statutory basis. On Committee Stage, perhaps we could deal with the issue of the reports not getting a chance to be published at a time when they can be debated properly and fully.
On drug testing, the Minister stated that he would end drug-taking in prisons, but we need a separate debate on the issue. I am delighted by the notion in theory. I would love to see no drugs in prison. I do not want to see drugs in the country.
The ordinary people of the country cannot understand how prisoners can get drugs after being locked up in prison. I revert to the letter from the coal face, the inmate in one of our places of detention.
He picked up the hash on the exercise ground of the prison, which shows exactly why we cannot have a prison exercise ground within catapult distance of busy streets.
The inmate refers to taking a few "yellows", whatever they are, and smoking a few "J"s while listening to Bob Marley. It is a normal activity in that prison, but the Minister is telling us that he will end drug-taking in prisons. There seems to be a significant gap between theory——
The debate has been a useful opener, but there should be further opportunities for serious and lengthy debate on this matter. Many issues need to be covered. It is in everyone's interest — those put into prisons, those who stay out and society as a whole — to have a considered and working prisons policy, unlike the current policy which is failing society.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The Bill is a welcome departure for the Minister in that he has produced a consolidated Bill instead of taking a Bill that has been hanging around for years, putting it through Second Stage and grafting on chunks on Committee Stage, which has been the normal process followed by the current Minister and his predecessor. It seems to be a departmental modus operandi. I say this in the hope that there will be no further grafts on Committee Stage.
As Deputy Jim O'Keeffe stated, the Bill gives us a rare opportunity to discuss prisons and prison policy. It is seldom that we have that opportunity, although the prison system is a critically important and very expensive part of the entire criminal justice system. It is an area many people do not wish to discuss. When I have raised this topic on national radio, the preponderance of telephone calls have shown an attitude that basically does not care what happens behind prison walls, people should be locked up and what happens after that is no one's business. That is fundamentally wrong and we must have this debate. The half hour I have to contribute to this discussion will not fulfil that need but I hope it will generate a broader discussion on prison policy.
The Bill, as the Minister has indicated, provides for a number of routine things, such as video conferencing of certain non-trial court hearings. That keeps up with technology as outlined in the report of the oversight group chaired by Mrs. Justice Susan Denham which would allow for video conferencing in cases where it is not currently provided for by statute.
It places the office of the Inspector of Prisons on a statutory basis. God knows that is long overdue and it is a pity the personal animosity between the current Minister and——
I am amazed to hear that considering the war of words that has surrounded his professional, competent role as Inspector of Prisons and the current Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. His long-sought requirement to have the office placed on a statutory basis will finally be fulfilled in this legislation.
The Bill sets out a new regime for the planning provisions for new prisons, something that will require a degree of teasing out and careful examination. I am sorry the Minister is leaving because I have some things to say to him. Perhaps he will have an opportunity to read my contribution subsequently. I share Deputy Jim O'Keeffe's view on the planning process that it should be separate from the line Minister. The notion that a structure to deal with the planning issues would be devised by the line Minister on a case-specific basis should set alarm bells ringing. Planning is a professional, national and integrated job — I say that as a former Minister for the Environment and Local Government. If there is a requirement for specific, strategic, national projects to be dealt with in a separate way from run of the mill planning, so be it, but they should not be devised on a case by case basis by the line Minister to suit his or her personal requirements or the pressures of his or her agenda. That is fundamentally wrong.
This Bill will expand the statutory range of prison rules. It does such momentous things as outlawing the bread and water diet, which one would have assumed was done away with some time ago. It applies an appeals mechanism and I share again Deputy Jim O'Keeffe's view of the knee-jerk reaction of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform that if a panel of people is to deal with anything in the criminal justice area, it must be composed of lawyers. There is no need for that. It should not be the norm that the only people competent to deal with issues such as the appeals board that will be established under this legislation would have to be practising solicitors or barristers. There are other people in the social science area who have the expertise to suit that job, often much more suitable than people who happen to practise law but who may never have practised criminal law and who are entirely unsuitable.
The Bill also allows for the outsourcing of prisoner escort services, a fulfilment of the big stick policy the Minister had. He indicated that 94% of prisoner escorts are carried out by the new State-run scheme he has put in place and I welcome that. I will not resist the enactment of a provision that it could be outsourced but I welcome the notion that an in-house mechanism is working effectively. The experience of outsourcing in Britain has not been good. Some of the security services provided on a commercial basis to the prison service in Britain leave a lot to be desired and in some cases have put the general public at risk, something we must recognise, particularly when moving dangerous or violent prisoners between prisons and courts or any other places. I hope it is simply an enabling provision and that it will not be used by the current Minister or any of his successors.
There are some issues I wish to address in detail. The placing of the Inspector of Prisons on a statutory basis is long overdue. I have no doubt the delay in doing this, which has been requested for years on end, was the result of the ongoing friction between the current inspector, the former distinguished Mr. Justice Kinlen, and the Minister. The public friction and disrespect the Minister showed the inspector is to be regretted. The failure of the Minister to heed the repeated findings and recommendations of Mr. Kinlen caused huge frustration for the inspector and would have driven lesser people out of the job. Not only were the reports he produced buried but when they did come into the public domain, they were not acted upon.
In August, The Irish Times used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to the reports of various prison visiting committees. They painted a very disturbing picture of conditions in Irish prisons. People remember the litany of horror stories about the prison system that dominated the media for some weeks. Concern was expressed by these visiting committees. These were the considered views not of some radical, revolutionary left wing groups but by individuals appointed by the current Fianna Fáil-PD Government or its immediate predecessor and they painted a realistic but disturbing picture of conditions in many of our prisons. Most depressing of all were the conclusions that in some instances conditions were getting worse. They were not part of an historic underspend or aged facilities which were getting worse. It is a shameful situation that these reports lay in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for 18 months before a freedom of information request from a national newspaper prised them loose and made them public.
In a single week last summer, there were four serious violent attacks in the prisons. Violence occurs regularly in prisons but these were of such moment that they grabbed national headlines. The most shameful of them was the sad murder of Gary Douch. It took place, as we all read at the time, in circumstances that were almost beyond belief. The details read like something that would happen in a backward 19th century country rather than in what purports to be a modern 21st century European republic. The circumstances that surrounded that tragic death brought shame on all those who have responsibility to overview State institutions and a substantial response was required. The Minister indicated he had no antipathy at all to the Inspector of Prisons, Mr. Justice Dermot Kinlen. However, the inspector's reported comments highlight his deep frustration. He stated, "The present attitude [of the Minister] is frightening and fascist". I have never heard words such as these used about a Minister previously. They indicated the frustration of a former distinguished judge following the repeated ignoring of his reports and recommendations on the prison system. It needs to be ensured that humanity reigns in our prisons. The punishment meted out in the name of the State is loss of liberty, as prescribed by law, not degrading conditions that deny basic human rights. The squalor that surrounded the death of Gary Douch was a denial of basic human rights. The squalor in which his last hours were spent beggars belief and it is a cause of shame.
A fundamental review, therefore, is needed of the role of prisons and imprisonment. The Minister published the Fines Bill yesterday and all the national newspapers reported that it would reduce the prison population and provide for the attachment of earnings so that those who are incarcerated for the non-payment of fines would be removed from the system. However, that is the not case. Two fines Bills are promised. The minimalist Bill, which provides for fines to be paid by instalment, was published yesterday but the Bill dealing with the attachment of earnings and fundamental changes that will reduce the prison population has not been published and we do not know when that will happen.
The governor of Mountjoy Prison, John Lonergan, has often repeated the view that most of his clients come from a handful of postal districts in Dublin. Is that not a sad testament to the reality that from the time they enter primary school, we can identity who is likely to end up in prison? Similar to the breaking the cycle scheme introduced by the Department of Education and Science, a plan is needed to break the cycle of imprisonment which young people consider to be the norm because they expect to end up in prison and do not fear it, considering it to be a natural progression in their lives.
The facts relating to imprisonment in the State are hugely disquieting. A report published late last year by the UCD institute for criminology, the first of its kind in Ireland, found that more than one quarter of the State's prisoners return to jail within a year of their release. The report found that the vast majority of prisoners are young, unemployed, petty criminals rather than violent or gangster figures. People who pose a threat to the community or who are a menace to their neighbours and are violent or who push drugs on our streets deserve to be locked up but they do not comprise the majority of the prison population. The report highlighted that 56% of prisoners were jailed for minor offences such as fine defaulting and motor offences and the majority serve less than three months. Offences such as fine defaulting clog up more than half of prison places because of the failure to attach earnings and to ensure people who owe a few hundred or thousand euro in fines do not end up in jail.
The report studied 19,955 inmates who had been released from prison. A total of 85% of those imprisoned for defaulting on fines were back in jail within four years. This is frustrating because it is not a cheap option. My colleague, Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, instanced the average cost of keeping a prisoner in jail for a year at €90,000. However, the most recent figures are staggering. The average cost per year per prisoner ranges from €87,700 in Cork Prison, €84,800 in Cloverhill Prison, €75,800 in Limerick Prison and €85,300 in the Midlands Prisons to €100,400 in Mountjoy Prison while 56% of inmates are jailed for non-payment of fines. In addition, the high security prisons are even more expensive. It costs €240,700 per year to keep a prisoner in Portlaoise Prison, which is higher than the salary of a Minister. This is funded by the taxpayer but no cost benefit analysis of this expenditure has been carried out. Is value for money achieved by locking people up for non-payment of fines, particularly when they have lost their liberty? How can the State justify imprisoning a person in Mountjoy Prison at a cost in excess of €100,000 for the non-payment of a few hundred euro in fines?
My Fine Gael colleague referred to his own fines Bill, which would provide for the attachment of earnings or social welfare benefits and the imprisonment only of those who deserve to be there because they are a threat and danger to the community. The UCD survey demonstrated that 7,540 people — 21 people a day — were committed to prison for failure to pay fines in each of the past four years.
With regard to the need to build a new prison, the Minister has designed a unique planning regime and lobbed it into this Bill. A good case has been made for moving Mountjoy Prison, which is a Dickensian institution. The circumstances surrounding the death of Gary Douch last year made harrowing reading. The fact that anybody could be confined in such awful conditions in the prison's basement should ring alarm bells on the need for reform.
Parts of the prison are of good quality, such as the Dóchas Centre, on which a lot of money was spent. The centre is a fine environment to house prisoners but I remind Members that the incarceration of women is a recent development in this country. Until 20 years ago, only a handful of women were ever locked up. Have matters changed so fundamentally that, as the Minister claimed this morning, Dóchas is not big enough? Why are the women being incarcerated? Their cases should be carefully investigated.
While Dóchas may work, nobody would cry salty tears if much of Mountjoy was closed. However, the Minister's approach to the issue was shocking and wrong. According to the accepted popular view, the price paid for Thornton Hall was staggeringly excessive. My Green Party colleague, Deputy Boyle, cited figures for land sales in similar areas of north County Dublin ranging from €19,000 to €34,000 per acre. The price paid for Thornton Hall was €29.9 million, or €200,000 per acre. Deputy Boyle quoted an assessment by an accountant with 40 years of experience in the estate agency business which claimed the price paid for the site, at an estimated eight times the going rate, was grossly above the market price. Whether one accepts the assessment of that accountant or of others who have estimated the price paid as being at least twice the going rate, the State is popularly accepted to have gotten a very poor deal. The Minister, who is a member of a party which prides itself on value for money, low taxation and ensuring the public purse is well-maintained, revealed an extraordinarily lax approach to purchasing land for a major facility. I do not doubt I will have a further opportunity to develop my thoughts on that matter on Committee Stage but I am concerned that the Minister has handcrafted his own process for planning this issue and I would like him to give a few clear answers in his conclusion to this Second Stage debate. He should outline the process and timeframe he envisages for the completion of the Thornton Hall project. When will irrevocable decisions be made which could preclude an incoming Government from reviewing the matter from a value for money perspective?
The Bill provides for an expansion to the statutory basis for prison rules. The issue of drugs in prisons was raised by a previous speaker. Last year, the Minister made much play about making our prisons drug free, although the letter read into the record by my Fine Gael colleague reveals that to be almost farcical because drugs are readily available in our prisons. I have no illusion that it will be easy to achieve the objective of keeping prisons drug free or that difficult decisions could be avoided. Other than those thrown over the wall in St. Patrick's or Mountjoy, most drugs are physically passed through intimate contact by wives, girlfriends, partners and other family members. Clearly, the only way to be absolutely certain drugs are not passed in that manner is to restrict intimate contact but I would have the gravest of problems with such an approach because, if people are to be incarcerated for years on end, the notion that they could never touch their children or have intimate contact with their partners is inhumane. However, a regime is needed which allows people to live in a drug free prison environment. I have been contacted by parents who explained that it was impossible for their offspring to avoid contact with drugs in the prison system. Most people are scandalised by that fact. It cannot be acceptable that people who are not drug dependent before entering prison become dependent while incarcerated. The objective will be difficult and challenging to achieve but we must lay out a strategy for doing so.
What is the status of the addiction counselling service? Last year, it was promised that such a service would go to tender. Have those tenders been fulfilled, how many of the 14 prisons and places of detention offer addiction counselling services and to what level are they operating?
I am informed that methadone is only prescribed to people who were taking it before they entered prison. Is it possible for people who want to come off heroin to have access to methadone while in prison?
Is it true that people are incarcerated who have been clinically diagnosed with severe psychiatric illnesses? How many people are awaiting transfer to the Central Mental Hospital or other clinical setting and are in prison because places are not available for them?
What is the current position with regard to young offenders? Last October, the Committee of Public Accounts examined and reported on the detention centre in Lusk. God knows, the cost of detention centres is horrendous, yet the Tánaiste is now flying another kite with regard to incarcerating asylum seekers in detention centres. I hope he puts them in cheaper places than the ones we currently have. In its report, the Committee of Public Accounts found that a unit designed to hold young offenders which cost €4.7 million was unoccupied because of a turf war between the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Education and Science. This unit was closed at a time when the courts could not find appropriate places of detention for young offenders. The same report found that maintaining a child in the Finglas Child and Adolescent Centre for one year cost a mind boggling €507,407. Is early intervention to prevent children from following that path not justified on the most basic grounds of cost effectiveness, never mind the humanitarian and societal reasons?
This is a modest Bill which has spent a long time in gestation. I hope the low priority afforded in this Chamber and this country to prison reform will be addressed and that the debate on Committee Stage will improve the appalling conditions identified by the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention and the prison visiting committees over many years.
Ministers and political leaders have a certain attraction to grands projects. From Charles Haughey here to Mitterrand in France the large projects seem to concentrate minds. Ceaucescu, the late president of Romania, spent his later years erecting a large palace for himself in the centre of Bucharest. Closer to home the Tánaiste, Deputy McDowell, some five years ago accused the Taoiseach of pursuing Ceaucescu-like projects in the vicinity of the M50. However, I suspect the Tánaiste's political legacy may well be a rather large white elephant on a site ten miles from Dublin at Thornton Hall in Fingal. The people of Romania eventually revolted and threw out Ceaucescu. I suspect within the next few months the Irish people may well be revolted enough to remove the Tánaiste, Deputy McDowell, from office. It is much easier to contemplate the grands projects than deal with the very radical reform required in the heart of the Prison Service. While the Bill contains some commendable sections, it does not go far enough to address the reforms required.
I am very concerned about the Bill's reference to the planning process required for the erection of and works to prisons. The Tánaiste makes provision to circumvent completely the normal planning procedure for major infrastructural projects. While this part of the Bill proposes to establish a public consultation process for the construction of new prisons and places of detention with the idea of a rapporteur to take submissions, the rapporteur reports back to the Minister who may or may not amend the plans for the project on the basis of the report. How dare the Tánaiste completely circumvent the planning process in order to build these places of detention? Whether it is dealing with the protected structures on the Mountjoy site or the archaeology in Fingal at Thornton Hall, I am deeply alarmed that the Tánaiste is simply avoiding the normal planning process in order to deliver projects. That is not good enough and is a negation of the public's right to have an input. It is a retrograde step that was first taken with legislation in the early 1990s and is perpetuated in this Bill. It is not the right way to do it.
There is no role for An Bord Pleanála as is the norm in the planning process for large infrastructure projects. Does the Tánaiste feel his work is somehow above that of his Cabinet colleagues? Why does he feel it is appropriate to single himself out for different treatment from his colleagues in Cabinet? I ask that in a rhetorical sense.
In addition to that, the Tánaiste sees himself as a man quite apart from his Cabinet colleagues and in some respects he is. There is no guarantee the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform would amend the plans for a prison development on foot of the submissions made to the rapporteur. What surety does the public have that their concerns will be taken on board? This is an example of the Tánaiste paying lip service to democracy and public consultation. I hope the Tánaiste will limit himself with this tendency.
An independent body such as An Bord Pleanála needs to have a central role in such a process. It is not acceptable for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to be judge and jury on such important and potentially controversial matters. It is also worth noting that this part of the Bill neatly complements the Tánaiste's self-professed desire to building holding pens where certain asylum seekers are to be placed while they await the processing of their applications. The Tánaiste should concentrate his efforts on improving the lot of asylum seekers rather than imprisoning them. There is a resonance with internment that was used on this island within living memory. I am concerned the Tánaiste may be applying the same principle to asylum seekers. Perhaps, as Deputy Howlin pointed out, he was just flying a kite. I suspect there is a lot of that around. However, it is a dangerous kite to fly.
Part 5 of the Bill provides for the establishment of an Office of Inspector of Prisons on a statutory basis, on which matter the Green Party has been pressing the Tánaiste to act for some time and we welcome it. However, I have a number of concerns. For instance, Part 5 refers only to the Inspector of Prisons and makes no reference to an Office of the Inspector of Prisons. Will the inspector have the right to establish an office and hire staff to carry out his or her duties in an efficient and professional manner? The existing inspector has been dealt with in a very demeaning way. It is clear from his reports that there have been difficulties in establishing secretarial support and in simply getting the kind of support an inspector of drains would have had 20 years ago. We need to move further in this regard.
It is disappointing the Bill does not allow the inspector of prisons to publish his or her reports independently. In the recent past the Tánaiste has delayed the publication of the reports of the inspector for months if not years. He seems to have a penchant for publishing the reports on the day or the day after the Dáil goes into long periods of recess, which is unacceptable. The information in these reports is of great importance and should be made available to the general public without delays. It should not be at the discretion of the Minister to publish these reports. The Tánaiste has a terrible tendency to concentrate power on his desk and have the last say. If he does not like the contents of a report he simply suppresses or delays its publication. This is not good and we need to address the matter.
It is disappointing that the scope of this part of the Bill falls short of international norms. In most developed nations prison inspection takes a two-pronged approach. Firstly an inspector of prisons is responsible for the inspection of the prison system and the condition within individual prisons and places of detention. Secondly, an ombudsman for prisons is responsible for dealing with individual complaints from prisoners, which is crucial. We get a drip feed of the Inspector of Prisons' report. It is heartbreaking to read in the annual report by the inspector and in the individual prison reports the anecdotes of individual prisoners and how they were treated. It is through a Victorian type reporting that we get to ascertain what is going on in our prisons.
The legislation makes no provision for an ombudsman for prisons and the Inspector of Prisons is prohibited from dealing with such cases. Prisoners should be facilitated in making complaints of ill treatment to an impartial independent body. This is how the world is going and I hope the Tánaiste will take a deep breath and follow. It is not adequate that the official dealing with complaints from prisoners is himself or herself a colleague of the person against whom the complaint is being made. It is a basic principle of human rights and one that I hope the Minister will uphold.
I wish to mention prisoner escorts. I am the first to acknowledge that substantial reforms are required within the staffing and method of operation of our prisons. In many cases the Tánaiste must face up to prison officers and get them to bring their work practices into the 21st century. There is no comparison between the costing and staffing level of the Irish Prison Service and those of the United Kingdom. This raises a large question over how prison officers go about their job. If the Minister wanted to be radical, he would deal with the demarcation within the Prison Service and its sometimes dinosaur-like work practices and reform the way prison officers do their business. Instead, he is stepping aside and talking about privatisation. That is not the right way to go.
Unions and workers have a duty to face up to reform of work practices within the prison system. If they do not, the Minister will sweep them aside and more and more of their work will be privatised. We need to send out a clear signal that reform is necessary if the State is to carry out its work. If we want to prevent the Minister pursuing his own ideology, staff must reform their work practices and work better and more efficiently.
Fáiltím roimh an deis labhairt faoin tslí a bhfuil an córas príosúnachta á reachtáil sa tír seo. Tá roinnt rudaí sa Bhille seo a gcuirimid fáilte éigin rompu, ach den chuid is mó, ní hé seo an treo ar chóir dúinn a bheith ag dul sa tír seo faoi láthair. Is é a mhalairt de threo ar chóir dúinn a bheith ag dul.
The prison system is an absolute failure. If it was successful, the rate of recidivism would be lower. There would not be the over-incarceration to which every report and comparison to other jurisdictions has pointed. The system would focus on rehabilitation, training and preparation for the reintegration of those who must serve a prison sentence. Many who might end up re-offending are not open to rehabilitation or training but there are others for whom this is the only opportunity to receive training from the State which has a duty to invest properly in ensuring that people who have been disadvantaged and have ended up on the wrong side of the law do not end up there again. The prison system, however, has failed miserably. Instead of increasing the number of prison places, we should be holding them at the current level. If we were successfully addressing recidivism and over-incarceration, we would be happy to see empty cells. That is not the case and we should examine why.
I have problems with major parts of this Bill, especially in respect of the privatisation of the prison escort services. If the Government introduces a profit element to the Prison Service, it will end up spending more money as has happened in other jurisdictions. This is not a cost-effective measure and it is dangerous. Independent contractors exist to make profits and will drop standards to do so. That is the experience in other jurisdictions where prison escort services have been privatised. The Minister seems to be hell bent on this and is not heeding the evidence.
In Canada, a five-year pilot study commenced in 2001 to determine whether there was any benefit in privatising the operation of prisons. Two identical prisons, one run by the private sector and the other by the public sector, were examined. The study concluded that the public sector prison performed better in key areas, such as health care because the state has a duty of care to those held in prisons. The public sector prison also performed better in reducing re-offending because its purpose was to ensure that people were rehabilitated and played a proper role in society. Crucially, it did better too in security. The Canadian authorities made an evidence-based decision to take the private prison back into public hands.
I appeal to the Minister not to go down the route of privatising any of the services associated with prison, such as prison escort services. He has stated that "it is not intended" to outsource prison escort services in the foreseeable future. He used exactly the same wording when I discussed the Garda reserve with him at a committee in 2005. A year later we have a Garda reserve. Whatever he includes he intends to use.
Other issues are inadequately addressed, such as prison discipline and the inspector of prisons. There is a high level of suicide and attempted suicide in prisons. Deputy Howlin mentioned the gruesome killing of Gary Douch in a holding cell in Mountjoy last year. The establishment of an independent ombudsman for prisoners is long overdue. We should ensure that this House does not pass this legislation unless that is in place.
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has proposed several amendments which would tighten up this area. I appeal to the Minister to consider them on Committee Stage and to ensure that its points and others are taken on board. I agree with much in these amendments. Prison officers are in a different category from prisoners. They have more power over prisoners than perhaps should be the case. Prisoners are reluctant to take cases or make complaints against individual prison officers because the officer may be dealing with the prisoner the next day which can lead to victimisation. We need to ensure that if prisoners make complaints, they are protected. I will argue some of these points on Committee Stage and I hope the Minister is open to taking reasonable amendments on board.
Expenditure on Thornton Hall has not been fully thought out. The Minister is wasting money in north county Dublin. My information is that the other landholders in the area from whom the State will have to buy land are demanding the inflated land figures the State paid, €200,000 per acre. New roads and other services will have to go into the prison and the State will have to purchase land to facilitate the Minister's foolish big dream for Thornton Hall. The questions about the purchase of that site have not been answered. The deal stinks to high heaven. In future, I and others who have raised questions about the deal and the land sale will be proved correct. If new prisons are to be built, we must ensure we obtain the best possible value for money. The Minister is viewing lands in Cork but he should not go down the same road he took in respect of Thornton Hall. There is a great deal of land in State ownership that would be suitable for such purposes. I cannot understand why the Minister has not given proper consideration to upgrading Spike Island and building a new facility there.
There are other matters about which I am concerned, particularly areas in respect of which the Minister has not learned from international research and best practice in other jurisdictions. The first of these relates to mandatory drug testing. When such testing was introduced in other jurisdictions, particularly Scotland, it was discovered that a confrontational relationship developed between staff and prisoners. The latter were actually discouraged from taking part in drug treatment programmes. Mandatory testing has encouraged those who smoked heroin in the past to inject it instead because they can thereby avoid the detection of their drug use via urine screening. This means that the risk of hepatitis C and HIV being transmitted throughout the prison population increases.
There is a great deal more I could say but, unfortunately, I do not have the time to do so. However, I will raise on Committee Stage the points of interest to me. I object to the Bill. It is a pity it is not more enlightened and that it does not engage in proper consideration of how the justice system should operate.
I am fortunate in that I did not have an idea what the inside of a prison looked like until the Rossport Five were jailed for 94 days. I visited the men in question on many occasions and, therefore, had an opportunity to witness prison conditions at first hand. The Rossport Five are older men and while in prison their younger counterparts inquired if they would teach them how to read. Apparently, many of their fellow prisoners could not read or write. As Deputy Ó Snodaigh stated, we must focus on keeping people out of prison or, if they are sent there, ensuring that they do not return.
One of the issues that arises in the context of the Bill is overcrowding. Anything that would alleviate the inhuman overcrowding in our prisons would be welcome. Another issue is that prisoners attending court often cannot hear or understand what judges are saying. It appears that the amplification equipment provided is not being used by judges. A third issue relates to the fact that the number of people in prison who suffer with psychiatric illnesses is extremely high. We must ensure that proper detection mechanisms are put in place in this regard and that people receive the treatment they require.
We must consider the effect of alcohol and drugs in this area. Alcohol is, of course, the most common drug of abuse. I welcome the publication of a drug policy and strategy for the Irish Prison Service. However, Ireland, as a nation, has a major problem regarding the abuse of alcohol. For example, Guinness sponsors the All-Ireland hurling final, Heineken and Amstel sponsor the European Rugby Cup and the UEFA Champions League, respectively, and the biggest cheer when the Ryder Cup was held at the K Club occurred when Darren Clarke drank a pint of Guinness. If one visits the District Court, one will come across cases involving drink driving, assault and many other crimes performed under the influence of alcohol. Sadly, the events of such cases are detailed and catalogued to serve as light entertainment in many local newspapers but for many of those involved they represent personal tragedies.
Many sexual assaults, including those perpetrated against children, occur under the influence of alcohol. Many incidents of domestic violence also involve alcohol. If Members doubt this to be the case and if they can find one, they should visit an emergency refuge centre for women. Alcohol is an influence in many murders, manslaughter and rape cases that come before the courts. Of the male prisoners convicted of homicide in British prisons, 38% were described as being drunk at the time of the crime. This compares to 14% who indicated that they were using illegal drugs when they committed murder.
Families throughout the country have been blighted by alcohol for generations. Such families are often dysfunctional and the children in them grow up to suffer what is sometimes referred to as adult children of alcoholics syndrome. Several characteristics are common in adults who have been brought up in families such as those to which I refer. These individuals experience feelings of isolation, are uneasy with authority figures etc. Many become alcoholics and history repeats itself. They often marry alcoholics and develop compulsive personalities. The Barnardos slogan "Every childhood lasts a lifetime" is well coined.
In recent years drugs have compounded and accelerated our problems. Heroin has devastated disadvantaged communities in Dublin. It is estimated that 15,000 people in Dublin are addicted to heroin but the State provides only 20 residential detox beds throughout the entire country. It can take up to 12 months for a chaotic addict to get on a methadone programme that will stabilise them. During this period, he or she will be obliged to commit two or three crimes per day to feed his or her habit. Drugs such as heroin and cocaine are available to people in every walk of life and section of society throughout the country.
The addicts to whom I refer are ordinary people — sons and daughters and mothers and fathers. Many of them are no more than children but have children themselves. In addition, many of them grew up in alcoholic homes. Society has often written them off because they do not, in the main, come from middle class backgrounds and do not, therefore, seem to count. To fund their addictions, many engage in crime, particularly shoplifting. What do we do with the people to whom I refer? We place them in the dustbin that has become our prison system at a cost of over €1,600 per week. They are then released to re-enter the crime-drug addiction cycle.
The criminal justice system is full of alcoholics and drug addicts. The only winners within it are criminal justice professionals, namely, lawyers who make lotto-like salaries from a process that does not make society any safer.
When alcohol was prohibited in the US in the early part of the last century, there was violence, extortion, protection, murder and turf wars. However, people across the classes continued to drink. When alcohol was legalised again, many of the associated unsavoury aspects disappeared but it continued to inflict misery and grief on those who could not handle it. The US Government of the day had the sense to realise that prohibition was a failure.
In 2003, the director of the Merchant's Quay project pointed out that there were only 20 residential drug addiction treatment beds in the country. When one considers that 6,000 people were on methadone maintenance in 2001, compared to 400 in 1995, one has all the proof one needs regarding the growth and spread of heroin abuse.
The prohibitionist mentality has left us hamstrung. The figure of 20 beds for addicts is embarrassing when one considers the emphasis that is placed on creating more prison spaces. With prison, all we do is encourage judges to lock up more people and thus create even further overcrowding in the system. When that happens, there are too many people in spaces that are too small. These individuals have no meaningful work or education and this creates further sites for drug abuse.
In the past, wars were fought over drugs. For example, Britain and China fought two wars in this regard known as the "Opium Wars". In essence, the British wished to trade opium from India to China. The Chinese resisted and war was declared. The trade only ceased when the Chinese were able to make enough opium internally and thereby make it uneconomical for Britain to continue its trade. Up to 1868, one could buy morphine and opium in general stores in Britain. The Pharmacy Act 1868 put a stop to this and gave dispensing powers to pharmacists.
Matters were not, therefore, always as they are today. Everyone knows the dangers of drugs but the problem persists because those who matter and who can do something about it are caught in a straitjacket, culturally and politically. It is a safe assumption to state that the availability of drugs is at an all-time high or close to it. We can also safely say that there is an acceptance of drug-taking among the younger generation and that none of the social stigma members of the older generation might attach to such activity obtains.
Owing to the fact that many of those who can take action are one-dimensional in their approach, the drug problem is merely that, a problem. It is politically expedient for some to sit tight on the fence and wring their hands or call for more severe action to be taken. No one loses votes for stating that drug pushers should be locked up or that drugs are evil. However, the people who live cheek by jowl with this problem and its fallout on a daily basis expect a little more lateral thinking from their political masters.
The provision of more treatment beds, employment opportunities, green spaces, proper recreational areas and open educational opportunities would help to alleviate some of the difficulties in this area. It is the responsibility of the powers that be to try to introduce pilot schemes such as those involving needle exchanges and safe places for addicts to inject. Such schemes are, however, merely cosmetic in nature. What we need are people who will break the mould and take chances, even though they know that fallout will occur. However, anything would be better than the situation that currently obtains.
Many political parties are using or proposing failed policies from the UK and the USA in particular. While the experts know what works and does not, many politicians, like others before them in the UK, believe that policies, known to work, cannot be sold to the public. Instead, a tabloid approach is taken of populist soundbites such as "Prison Works", "Zero Tolerance" or "Just Say No". A new approach based on the five pillars is needed. We need to be brave in our approach, thinking outside the box.
I believe the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will say the Opposition is all over the place on this issue. Over the past 12 months much has been said about mandatory sentencing, boot camps and banning hoodies. There have been stark calls for law and order and the hang 'em and flog 'em, throw-away-the-key approach. In a matter such as the Prisons Bill, the key element is rehabilitation. Mandatory sentencing is antithetical to rehabilitation; they run contrary to each other. Recidivism is almost guaranteed if an offender is not offered the possibility of early or temporary release, rehabilitation or non-custodial sentences are removed or judges are not allowed the discretion to deal with cases.
I was interrupted by Deputy Ó Snodaigh so I had to react.
I agree with Deputies Howlin and Ó Snodaigh, drawing on the work of UCD's institute of criminology, that there is much recidivism and more work must be done on it. A statutory framework to deal with rehabilitation must be examined.
Ireland has one of the lowest rates of imprisonment in western Europe, a fact that is lost in many of the arguments. It also has one of the lowest rates of crime. By European standards, our prison capacity is at an average rate. That does not mean we should not be moving along towards issues on rehabilitation.
Finding a job is one of the hardest tasks for prisoners when they leave jail, as they must admit to a criminal record if asked by a prospective employer. Attempts have been made to deal with this in Ireland, to a small extent in the Children Act, and in the UK with the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. Passed in 1974, at the time it caused much controversy but it allowed ex-offenders to treat their convictions as spent after a set period. As a result, the theory goes, ex-offenders have a better chance of finding work. After the set period, former offenders, if asked by prospective employers if they had a criminal record, could answer "no", effectively permitting them in law to lie.
While I believe the UK legislation is overly-complicated and the rehabilitation period is somewhat short, its advantage is that it only applies to minor offences. A serious offence, under no circumstances, would attract the benefits of the Act. A former offender, who has served a period of detention greater than two and a half years, is not allowed to enjoy the benefit of the Act because the authorities have a serious interest in the employment of that former offender. It excludes certain areas of employment from the operation of the Act, for example, employment where an offender may come in contact with children or vulnerable adults.
In Dún Laoghaire, I have encountered cases of individuals applying for visas to the US. Although, they received a fine for shoplifting as far back as, say, 1972, they must admit they have a criminal record to the US authorities and are, therefore, denied a visa. Some appeal structure in the consular services should be examined.
The 2001 Children Act allows for spent convictions after three years. This runs from the time of the offence, unlike in the UK where the period of rehabilitation runs after the sentence is completed. For a 17 year old who receives a sentence of four years, the period of rehabilitation can be spent before he or she even leaves prison. This is not sensible.
The Law Reform Commission published a consultation paper on the court poor box system which included an analysis of the legislation. It made no recommendations on the rehabilitation of offenders. Nevertheless, there is some activity on this issue on the Government side. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform established the linkage scheme in 1999. Under this system, 273 offenders were placed in employment in 2003. It is wrong to suggest the Government is not addressing the issue of employment for ex-offenders. The linkage system is operating successfully but I believe we need to go further on it. More than half the people released from the prison system will be back in it within four years, a failure of our criminal justice system.
Some Members, particularly before a general election, will talk about vengeance and throwing away the key, talking tough before the electorate. They forget the system is about getting offenders to rehabilitate, deterring re-offending and public safety. If a person has made a sincere attempt to live down a sentence, then he or she should be allowed every opportunity to restore his or her good name and be rehabilitated.
Through a Private Member's Bill, I will propose that a former offender, with a sentence of less than six years, should have to serve a period of ten years rehabilitation before applying, on notice to the victim and Garda, to have the sentence expunged. Similarly, for a former offender who served a sentence of six months to two and a half years, the period of rehabilitation would be 15 years. It would be a way for those with indiscretions in their youth to restore themselves in society. It would be a goal for them to work towards during the course of their rehabilitation.
I accept some serious exceptions arise in such a proposal. The process could not apply to serious offenders, such as sex offenders and those convicted of aggravated assault. In the UK, the respective rehabilitation periods are shorter, five and seven years respectively. However, I would prefer to see our system in operation before any shortening of the periods is considered. Another issue that arises, and Sinn Féin Members have raised it, is the question of former paramilitaries. Should paramilitaries sentenced for offences be entitled to restore their good names, so to speak, and enjoy the benefit of this proposed scheme? It is integral to the Belfast Agreement that we attempt to normalise society North and South. Such a scheme would be useful in this regard in so far as offences are of a minor nature. Conviction for membership of the IRA attracted long sentences in the 1970s and 1980s and such ex-prisoners would not be eligible to apply for the scheme. It is potentially useful in the context of the ongoing peace process.
There is significant support for an increased use of fines to keep people out of prison. Although fines are useful, the statistics indicate that 85% of fine defaulters are back in prison within four years. This is a far higher recidivist rate than that applying to other comparative groups of prisoners. The imposition of fines is a useful alternative to custodial sentences but it will not keep people out of prison. I support Opposition proposals for a scheme of attachment of earnings to replace the standard fine. It is important this is part of any fines legislation.
In the advent of a general election, there is generally much debate about crime. Such debate is generally focused on electioneering and the participants are usually concerned with looking tough on crime and punishment. Some parties have engaged in scaremongering in an attempt to court popular approval. Such activity feeds into people's fear of crime which may, in some cases, be irrational. Crime rates have decreased in the last ten years per head of population. This State is one of the safest places to live in western Europe.
It seems that everywhere we go, however, we are faced with posters and advertisements, including some I saw in Donnybrook today, that feed into this spiral of fear and increase people's anxieties about crime. It is not crime that is the greatest problem but the fear of crime. We must be responsible in our discussion of these issues because our words may cause some people to feel less safe in their homes. We do not want people to experience a level of fear that goes beyond natural caution. Once politicisation enters the debate on crime, the usefulness of that debate is reduced. The reality is that major improvements have been made and that we were operating from a low base of criminal activity.
I am not a supporter of mandatory sentences. Such sentences apply to drug related crime but are often not applied because, for example, the defendant pleads guilty, thus saving the State the cost of a lengthy trial and the victim the ordeal of giving evidence in court. The mandatory sentence may not be applied because the judge is of the view there is absolutely no chance the perpetrators will be able to rehabilitate themselves in prison. Each case is different and should be treated on its merits. It is completely wrong to prejudge; the facts and circumstances of each case are different. We must have confidence in the judicial system and the criminal justice system in general that these matters will be dealt with as fairly as possible.
There has been much debate recently on crime reporting. There is no doubt that some media commentary tends to stoke up fear. We must caution people in the media against being overreactive to instances of crime. The media have a responsibility not to be governed by anecdote but rather to take account of comprehensive evidence to indicate the broader patterns that apply.
We need policies that break the cycle of imprisonment. Our prisons must have adequate facilities and resources to help people move away from a life of crime. The replacement of Mountjoy Prison cannot happen soon enough. It is an inappropriate environment for the provision of the types of services that should be available in a civilised society. Prison is not all about society's vengeance; rehabilitation is equally important. I support this Bill.
There is no doubt that legislation on prisons is necessary if not long overdue. This debate affords us a chance to examine the antiquated physical structures of our prisons and, more importantly, it allows us to examine why our prison system is failing the inmate and, consequently, his or her community. Despite spending tens of millions of euro of taxpayers' money in incarcerating criminals, out system does little to prevent former inmates from re-offending. There is considerable evidence that prisoners add to the nation's lawlessness when released.
There is, moreover, great validity in the claim that our prisons are institutions where relatively petty criminals are educated in the art of more serious crime. A study undertaken by the institute of criminology at UCD showed that of 20,000 prisoners, more than a quarter find themselves back in prison within 12 months. Half of them return to prison within four years. This study outlines the stark reality that detention is producing rather than deterring future generations of criminals. It is an official indictment of the State's failure to run the Prison Service in a way that prevents the same people committing crimes in the future.
Prison must be a place of punishment for crimes committed but inmates must also be treated in a way that prevents them committing more serious crimes in the future. Taxpayers provide at least €90,000 per annum to detain each prisoner. This is a damn expensive punishment if all the system achieves is to train inmates to commit an even more serious offence when they are released. The strikingly high rate of re-offending exposes the devastating impact of poverty and social and economic disadvantage in contributing to a cycle of crime and violence. The vast majority of re-offenders are under 30 years of age, male, single and unemployed.
One would reasonably expect that these re-offending rates should have a major impact on anti-crime policies, particularly those relating to juvenile offenders. It is clear that young people exposed to prison life even for a short time can get locked into a cycle that destroys their own lives and increases the threat to communities on their release. This Bill will not solve this problem. Keeping young people out of prison in the first instance is the best long-term way of protecting the community while also providing a major cost benefit to the taxpayer. The Government's propaganda that extra prison places will help to reduce crime rates is nonsense. Twelve years ago, the then Fianna Fáil spokesman on justice promised zero tolerance of crime through penalties and more prison places. However, after ten years of this Government, crime rates are soaring despite what is being claimed. After 12 years talking about it and ten years in power, it has come to the conclusion that our prison system needs upgrading and new approaches, yet it has not learned the lesson that prison must always be the last resort, particularly for young offenders. Aside from humanitarian considerations and that most of the offenders come from a social and economic background which the Government, with its individualistic, selfish policies, has propagated, from a purely effective point of view, one lessens crime by limiting, in particular, the number of young people one sends to prison.
One lessens crime by putting in place training and education facilities in prisons for those who must be incarcerated and by spending on release at least a proportion of the €90,000 per annum it costs to keep a person in prison on the young person by providing the proper backup and assistance to help him or her reintegrate into society. We need high security, strict regime prisons for murderers, sex offenders and drug dealers but we do not need them to pass on their evil skills to young offenders who are jailed with them. As a consequence, these young people mirror their offences in the future.
The Government, when in Opposition 12 years ago, kept telling us about the serious crime problems. It is now ten years in office and crime rates continue to rise. We constantly listen to rhetoric from the Government but it still does not seem to have learned the lesson. It has failed to realise that more prison places is not the answer. Deputy Costello, the former Labour Party justice spokesman, produced an excellent paper on community policing. More recently, Deputy Jim O'Keeffe introduced a restorative justice paper. However, the Minister keeps on with the same old jargon while crime rates continue to rise.
Let us look at our prisons after ten years of this Government — ten years in which lack of funding could not be used as an excuse. The inspector of prisons, in his most recent report, said St. Patrick's Institution was a finishing school for bullies and rookie criminals, that Portlaoise — the top security prison — should be demolished and that Cork Prison is totally overcrowded. There are serious concerns that the State could be sued over conditions which exist in our prisons. This has been referred to already but despite the Minister's recent attempts to discredit the inspector of prisons, the fact is that visiting committees to all the prisons concur in almost all cases with the views of the inspector. Visiting committees have commented that overcrowding is a major problem at Castlerea and that Cloverhill Prison is lacking an education unit. If one goes through the list of prisons, one will see a list of criticisms both from the inspector and the visiting committees.
As stated by Senator Cummins in the Seanad, Fine Gael will not object to the provision of a modern and humane prison service. Fine Gael generally has no problem with the sections which deal with video-conferencing of certain court hearings; the placing of the office of the inspector of prisons on a statutory basis, which we welcome; matters to be included in the prison rules, including provision for mandatory drug testing; creating a basis in legislation for revised disciplinary procedures, including an appeals process; the exclusion of non-commercial work from the national minimum wage; or creating a statutory basis for charging prisoners for certain optional services.
Considering that free telephone calls cost the taxpayer more than €500,000 last year, it is time this Government, after ten years in office, stopped this waste of taxpayers' money. However, in the context of this Government, this sum of money seems small. One Minister referred to it as peanuts. I agree it is quite small compared to the tens of millions of euro the Government has wasted on other projects. However, that money could be better spent on prisoners after they have been released from prison to try to ensure they get the proper backup and are facilitated to get back into work to ensure the vicious cycle which has been created by neglect over many years is stopped and that they are helped in such a way that they will not be back in prison in a number of years.
We have serious reservations about the privatisation of the prisoner escort service. From reading the Bill, I am not sure I fully understand what the Minister intends. However, I genuinely believe it is the nature of private business to cut costs to improve profits. I understand the Minister will appoint a designated prison custody officer in a security company and it would be his or her responsibility to ensure standards are met within that organisation. I assume this officer or company will use its regular staff to do the actual work. There is no mention of what qualifications or experience these people will have. The use of private operators will necessarily compromise on quality and service. The shortfall in the quality of service and professionalism provided by a private firm compared to a State operator will result in decreasing security. Private staff may not have the required training and the State may leave itself open to accusations of human rights violations.
However, if the Minister insists that every person dealing with prisoners is a qualified designated prison custody officer and has proper mechanisms in place to oversee the process, then he is in danger of making the service more expensive for the taxpayer than the current system. As has been pointed out by others, because of the nature of some of the criminals, gardaí would also have to be involved, further increasing the cost to the taxpayer.
The Minister's assurance that he would not avail of powers under this section as long as the Prison Service provides a reasonable economic means of transporting prisoners can be taken with a grain of salt. He gave a similar assurance to Garda Síochána representative bodies during the course of the Garda Síochána Bill when he said he could not foresee any circumstance which would make it necessary to set up a Garda reserve force during his term as Minister. Fine Gael had no problem with him using that section to set up the force but we would have a problem if he used this section in the Prisons Bill to privatise the escort services.
We have some serious reservations about Part 4 which deals with the lack of planning arrangements for the construction and extension of prisons. The normal planning process will not apply and any questioning of a decision can only be done by seeking a judicial review. As such a review only examines a decision to see if procedures have been properly followed, there is no opportunity to go through what we regard as a real planning process. We appreciate the building and extension of prisons can be a difficult problem and see no reason the Minister should go beyond the recent planning Act for major infrastructural projects where the local authorities still have a consultative role and An Bord Pleanála continues to play a central role ensuring a proper planning process is conducted.