Dáil debates

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Adjournment Debate.

Prison Accommodation

5:00 pm

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue once again. There is a crisis in Mountjoy Prison. In recent weeks the governor of Mountjoy men's prison has announced his retirement while the governor of the women's prison has resigned. Both cited appalling conditions at the prison and the fact that they were being constantly undermined in their attempts to run effective prisons. In April Mr. John Lonergan announced his decision to retire as governor after 42 years in the Prison Service. He said his concerns about the prison had been totally ignored over the years and his autonomy as governor had been constantly reduced to the point where governors have almost no discretion regarding how prisons operate.

A week later Ms Kathleen McMahon pointed to significant overcrowding problems and the ridiculous and disgraceful practice of incarcerating women for failing to keep up with loan repayments. She noted that Dóchas prison was designed to hold 85 inmates but at the time of her statement had 130 women in the prison. In Mountjoy, a prison designed for 489 prisoners, the average number of prisoners behind bars this year is 630. Those concerns have been echoed by an outgoing member of the Mountjoy Prison visiting committee, Mr. Paul McKay, and others.

The periodic flare up of violence in Mountjoy is a reminder of the constant low level violence and threat of violence with which inmates and staff contend on a daily basis. Non-gangland prisoners are being mercilessly targeted by gang members. This is evident in published photos, circulated via mobile phones, of an "ordinary" prisoner stripped naked, beaten and tied up within the four walls of the prison. Images have also been circulated of gang members brandishing improvised weapons including "shanks" - knives made from box cutter blades. There is allegedly a constant stream of prisoners being taken to the accident and emergency unit in the Mater Hospital for treatment for injuries arising from beatings, stabbings and slashings.

The Prison Officers Association claims that staff members are barely able to cope with the levels of violence and intimidation, and are suffering from stress. A moratorium on recruitment and a reduction in overtime is making life for the prison staff in Mountjoy almost impossible. The Council of Europe Anti-Torture Committee has described conditions in Mountjoy as "inhumane and degrading". That label should be a source of shame and disgust to a government but this Government and the Minister for Justice and Law Reform are clearly without any moral compass.

A drug culture dominates and the prison chaplains have repeatedly warned that those who enter prison clean are likely to leave with a drug problem. Last month, it was reported that the Inspector of Prisons discovered that 26% of the prison population, 825 prisoners, being locked down because they or prison staff believed their lives were in danger. They are, effectively, in prisons within the prison system. This record number of inmates locked away for 23 hours a day, 365 days a year, has come about as a result of the entry into the prison system of the increasingly brutal feuding between large drug gangs on the outside.

Obviously, prison is where criminal gangsters belong, but is it the place where fine defaulters belong? Is it the place where petty criminals belong? Would minor offences not be better dealt with via the sanction of community service, thereby freeing up vital prison spaces? Kathleen McMahon claimed in her resignation statement that women were being locked up for inability to pay debts. In a reply to a parliamentary question on 13 May, I was informed that the number of committals to prison for failing to pay fines is 1,431 up to and including 31 March 2010. How can the Minister stand over this system?

The expensive fairytale of Thornton Hall solving all the problems clearly lies far into the future. I want the Minister to give me a date because the date I am hearing is not sooner than 2016. I believe it is in the constituency of the Acting Chairman, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and he has an interest. What is to happen in the meantime? Will we see ongoing violence, drug addiction, intimidation, overcrowding and inhumane and degrading treatment? Is this situation tenable because it may someday in the distant future be improved? It is not tenable. There are steps that can be taken immediately to improve matters, foremost among them being a change in practice to ensure that petty criminals are given community sanctions rather than being incarcerated in overcrowded jails. I have raised this matter before, raise it today and will continue to raise it until matters are improved.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern. At the outset I reject the accusation that the Minister is without moral compass.

Unfortunately prison overcrowding is not unique to this country. It is happening in many countries. The Minister is on record as saying before that there is no instant or quick fix solution. Rather the approach must be to focus on taking measures in the short to medium term as well as in the longer term. This is what he is doing.

The increase in committals to prison can be attributed to a range of positive developments in the provision of resources to the entire criminal justice system. For example, extra gardaí result in more successful prosecutions by the courts. There are 1,000 more criminals in our prisons now than there were there in 2006. It is accepted that the approach to tackling overcrowding must contain a range of strategies. Irish prison management has been supported by the Minister and the Government in managing the serious and consistent upward trend in the prisoner population.

Statistics for the number of new prison spaces provided since 1997 speak for themselves. In that period almost 1,800 spaces have been provided. This is a fact and is solid proof of putting resources into providing the highest standard of accommodation in prisons. The current capital building programme in the prisons will mean that almost 40% of the entire prison estate will have been replaced or refurbished.

The Minister makes no apology for this investment. He believes we needed to put in that investment when the economy allowed us to do so. In the changed economic environment we now find ourselves in, there will be continued investment in the prison system, Thornton being a firm commitment. A further 200 spaces are being provided in the short term. This will be by means of a new block that is ready to open in Wheatfield prison. The Deputy will also be aware that work is expected to start in the latter half of this year on a new 300-space block in the Midlands Prison complex in his own constituency, providing much welcomed job opportunities in the construction phase.

In the longer term, a new purpose-built campus style prison development at Thornton Hall will provide approximately 1,400 cells on a 130 acre site. This will allow for the replacement of the antiquated Mountjoy Prison campus with modern fit for purpose and regime orientated accommodation. The new facility will have operational flexibility to accommodate up to 2,200 prisoners in a range of security settings. The Thornton Hall project is progressing on a phased basis and will provide the kind of prisoner regime and staff accommodation that will stand the test of time.

On the non-custodial front, the Deputy will be aware of the provisions of the new Fines Act, which will further assist in keeping people out of prison. Other initiatives, such as community service orders and restorative justice, also have a place in the menu of disposal options available to the Judiciary. In the context of overcrowded conditions in prisons, the point is sometimes made that we are sending people to prison who should not be there. The reality is that the prison system must accept all prisoners committed into its care by the courts. The Deputy and his party must also accept that we have some very serious criminals in our prison system serving longer sentences for serious and heinous crimes and while non-custodial options do have their place, we need to maintain a balanced approach to public safety.

The mission of the Irish Prison Service is to provide safe, secure and humane custody for those placed in custody and in that regard no level of inter prisoner violence is acceptable, either to prison management or the Minister. On a daily basis every effort is made by prison staff and management to limit the scope of acts of violence. No doubt the Deputy will accept that while the prison regime is designed to limit the scope for acts of violence, it is not possible to completely eliminate the possibility of such acts in prisons holding a high proportion of violent offenders without introducing a regime that would be so restrictive as to be unacceptable. Prison management, for example, monitors the situation of prisoner interaction and where prisoners are identified as exerting undue influence or pressure over other prisoners, such offenders receive close and continued attention and targeted searching from the Irish Prison Service's operational support unit. The general experience is that attacks by prisoners on other prisoners are not usually random attacks of violence. Rather, they are related to matters on the "outside", such as drug debts or gang rivalries.

The Deputy is fully aware of the range of increased security measures introduced into the prison system in more recent times. On the Minister's behalf I do not propose to list them here. Suffice to say that the Irish Prison Service management have advised the Minister that they are satisfied that they are making a difference. The Minister and the director general of the Irish Prison Service are acutely aware of the necessity to do all in their power to maintain a safe and secure prison environment for staff and prisoners. The Minister will continue to work with the director general and his senior management team to meet this ongoing challenge.