Dáil debates

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Priority Questions

Prison Accommodation.

2:30 pm

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Question 7: To ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the number of prisoner places available in each prison here; the number of prisoners currently in each prison; and his plans to address overcrowding in prisons in the short, medium and long term. [31685/09]

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to inform the Deputy that as of 17 September 2009 there were 3,947 permanent beds available in the prison system. On the same day there were 3,904 prisoners in custody. This represented an occupancy level of 99%. The table circulated with this reply provides a breakdown of the population of each prison and place of detention. There has been a consistent increase in the total prisoner population in recent years. This situation has been particularly apparent in the past 12 months during which the total number in custody has increased by 306. This represents an 8.5% rise in the number in custody.

There are a number of reasons for this increase. With the extra resources provided by this Government, the Garda Síochána has been increasingly successful in prosecuting criminals and extra court sittings have resulted in higher committal rates. The Irish Prison Service has been engaged in an extensive programme of investment in prisons infrastructure. This has involved both the modernisation of the existing estate and the provision of extra prison spaces. Since 1997, in excess of 1,400 additional spaces have been introduced in the prison system including a new accommodation block for 100 prisoners recently opened at Castlerea Prison. Furthermore, current projects will also provide the potential for an additional 450 prison spaces during 2009 by means of a new block in Portlaoise Prison which will have the potential to accommodate approximately 200 prisoners; a new block in Wheatfield Prison which will also have the potential to accommodate approximately 200 prisoners; and opening the separation unit in Mountjoy Prison which will have the potential to accommodate 50 prisoners.

In the longer term, the Government recently reaffirmed its commitment to developing a new prison campus at Thornton Hall, and approved the launching of a new tendering process for the construction of a more affordable and better value prison campus at Thornton. The revised plans for the new prison complex aim to provide good quality, regime focussed accommodation with appropriate support and rehabilitation facilities to prepare prisoners for reintegration back into society. The new facility will provide accommodation for 1,400 prisoners with operational flexibility to accommodate up to 2,200 prisoners in a range of security settings. There are also long-term plans to replace Cork prison with a new prison at Kilworth.

The design, tendering for and construction of a large prison complex is a lengthy process. It will be two to three years after signing a contract before Thornton Hall would be available. Consideration is being given to expanding capacity at the Midlands prison if further spaces are required before Thornton Hall enters into operation.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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The figures given to the House by the Minister have been well massaged and cooked either by himself or somebody close to him. He is complicit in massaging the figures, which do not show the true picture. There are 3,947 prison spaces in the country currently and he has conveniently said that 3,904 are occupied.

The Minister also conveniently neglected to inform the House that over 600 people sentenced to prison by the courts independently of the Minister's office are on temporary release. The number of prisoners on temporary release runs at three times the average for the past number of years at this time. People are being released from prison without having served their sentence because the Minister has failed in his duty to provide appropriate prison spaces for those persons convicted of serious charges and sent to prison by order of the court.

The Minister has repeatedly made promises to the Houses regarding sufficient prison spaces. I welcome what has been done in Castlerea, which formed part of a four-pronged commitment given to the House earlier this year, three parts of which remain unfulfilled.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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There is no massaging of figures and I get a daily update of numbers, which I ask for, from officials. As of 22 September, the occupancy rate is 99% and the figure for those on temporary release is 545. That is in the region of 12% or 13%. There is a difficulty in our prisons and that is one of the reasons I have moved very rapidly to ensure we get as many prison spaces as possible.

I welcome the Law Reform Commission report today on debtors and currently there are no debtors in our prisons. All of us would welcome that and I want to ensure the position continues. I look forward to bringing forward legislative proposals in that regard. Equally, the fines Bill is near fruition and I will propose to the Oireachtas in that Bill that we have a number of options before the issue of imprisonment as a result of fines occurs. I want to reach a position where nobody will be imprisoned because of debt or fines. We must consider new and imaginative ways of collecting fines.

The Deputy has correctly raised the issue of bench warrants from time to time. Many of these relate to a case where a conviction and fine have been levelled at somebody and the judge would make an order regarding three months in default of payment of the fine, for example. I am looking at new ways and we are looking to bring out a debt collection agency; a procurement for the collection of fines. We are also considering giving the Judiciary a better option for community service, as there is quite significant capacity in the probation service. We are looking to insist that before somebody is sent to prison for non-payment of a fine, in particular, all options would be used.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I want to allow a brief supplementary question.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I want our prison spaces to be used purely and simply for those who deserve to be imprisoned.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I will allow a brief supplementary from Deputy Flanagan.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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Temporary release has always been part of sentence management in the Prison Service.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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The time allowed for the answer has elapsed. I will allow a brief supplementary.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I cannot hear what the Chair is saying because the Minister is continuing to speak.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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The Minister should allow the Deputy to ask a brief supplementary. We are well over time on this question.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister's comment that there are no persons in prison today for the non-payment of debts. How many deportees are currently in prison?

Has the Minister given any consideration to the report of the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention, Judge Michael Reilly, which paints a most grim and bleak picture of our prisons? In the course of his report, Judge Reilly refers to the fact that the extent of overcrowding in our prisons is far worse than the indication provided by the prison authorities. Has the Minister considered providing a response to Judge Reilly's quite damning report? Would it be possible to make time available so that the House might give consideration to the comments of Judge Reilly, who has, in an unprecedented way, painted a rather shocking picture of Irish prisons in 2009? The report to which I refer will surely spur the Minister into taking the long-promised action of replacing Mountjoy Prison and other Dickensian institutions.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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It is ironic that in the past I was berated for trying to promote the building of a prison at Thornton Hall. I am glad, however, that the Deputy now appears to accept the need to replace Mountjoy with a prison at that location. I had been under the impression that he and Fine Gael were opposed to the building of a prison at Thornton Hall.

I deserve at least some credit for the fact that between now and the end of the year 450 additional prison spaces will be made available. I have always stated that the project at Thornton Hall is long term in nature. As indicated in my initial reply, I have already asked my officials to see if some additional capacity can be put in place at the Midlands Prison.

I met Judge Reilly on two occasions last week. We met at Castlerea and then at my Department, for a lengthy discussion on various issues including that to which the Deputy refers. I make no attempt to hide the fact that a difficulty exists in our prisons. As I have often stated on Question Time, we are the victims of our own success. In view of the additional gardaí, judges-----

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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And the fact that there is more crime.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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-----and court hearings, there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of prisoners.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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In the number of criminals.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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This is due to the success of our law enforcement agencies. Ultimately, we must respond to this development. I accept that the practice of imprisoning people for the non-payment of fines should end. In effect, many of those individuals are brought to Mountjoy or elsewhere, a great deal of paperwork is done and they are released within 24 hours.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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We must proceed to the next question.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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This is not acceptable and I have informed my officials of that fact. I want us to reach a situation where-----

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Those people are not among the 600 individuals who are currently at large.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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They are and a number of them would be included in the overall figures. It is important that the House should send out a strong signal that it does not want people to be imprisoned for the non-payment of fines. We must consider other ways of collecting fines.