Wednesday, 2 May 2012
Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I welcome the publication of the strategic plan from the Irish Prison Service last Monday and congratulate the Director General of the Irish Prison Service, Michael Donnellan, and his team for putting it together in such a short period of time since his appointment. His appointment as director is significant. He comes with a progressive background from the Probation Service and the experience of his work there will fit into the job in the Prison Service. The provision of in-cell sanitation in every cell within three and a half years is to be welcomed. Anyone who has seen the reality of a prison cell has a different understanding of this issue.
I strongly welcome the drug-free units and it would be remiss not to draw attention to the work in Mountjoy Prison, where great progress was made in recent years for relatively low capital investments by using people's ideas and making it virtually impossible to transport drugs into Mountjoy. I particularly welcome the moving of 16 and 17 year olds out of St. Patrick's Institution. The Minister and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and all involved in that decision, if they do nothing else for the rest of their term, should be rightly proud if they achieve that by the end of their term in office. In terms of using prison as a place for rehabilitation and learning, the policy of having 16 and 17 year olds in St. Patrick's Institution cannot work. The Minister enjoys the full support of this side of the House in pursuing that policy as soon as possible.
I am concerned, however, given resource constraints at the moment, about the plan for temporary release of prisoners into community service and projects which, unlike some of the reports in the media, is not a huge leap from what is happening at present. The formalisation of the scheme, however, will require resources for the Probation Service in particular and the Irish Prison Service.
Those who are going to be released will be deemed not to be a safety risk. I am happy to accept that language but the Minister has commissioned a report on the manner in which the prisoner was transferred to Loughan House. Balls get dropped. I know there is a new report but what procedures exist to deem what is a safety risk? The Minister said non-violent prisoners will be released. Are we talking about prisoners who are non-violent while serving their sentences or a person who has committed a non-violent offence? Will a prisoner who committed a violent offence be released?
A pilot programme involving 85 prisoners is in place. Could the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality get a presentation in private session on the report on that programme to see how it is working?
My final point relates to the role of victims in this process. Every crime, regardless of its scale, has a victim. Will victims' families be involved in the consultation process relating to the pre-release programme? The last thing we need is for the victim of a crime to come across the individual who perpetrated it while he or she is involved in some element of a community service programme, perhaps working in the victim's neighbourhood or outside his or her home. Would it be possible to formalise the role of victims in the pre-release process in order that they might be fully involved? One of the major shocks for me in respect of Loughan House was that once the prisoner had been jailed, the victim's family was completely out of the equation. I know there is much better awareness of the needs of victims' families in the aftermath of that incident. Perhaps that awareness needs to permeate the entire system, particularly as we move towards the formalisation of the pre-release process.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and his very constructive comments. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue which has been a topic of some discussion for a number of days.
As the Deputy is aware, on Monday last I launched the new three year strategic plan for the Irish Prison Service. The plan contains a new mission statement and vision for the service. That mission is to "provide safe and secure custody, dignity of care and rehabilitation to prisoners for safer communities". The plan also contains a vision for the service of "a safer community through excellence in a prison service built on respect for human dignity". The plan has the potential to deliver a safer and more secure environment for prisoners and staff and enhance prisoner rehabilitation through greater involvement in sentence planning and structured activities. It can also be a catalyst for bringing about cultural change in prisons.
The plan's key objectives are: increasing public safety by maintaining safe and secure custody for all those committed by the courts and reducing reoffending and improving prisoner rehabilitation through the development of a multi-agency approach to offending; ensuring Ireland's compliance with domestic and international human rights obligations and best practice; delivering reform and implementing change in accordance with the public service agreement and the integrated reform plan for the justice and equality sector. The plan includes several concrete and practical, if ambitious, targets for the next three years. Many of these objectives give effect to commitments given in the programme for Government and include the elimination of slopping out across the prison estate; the replacement of outdated accommodation and facilities in Mountjoy, Cork and Limerick prisons; ending the detention of juveniles at St. Patrick's Institution; the creation of drug-free units; and the enhancement of current programmes, including accredited education and vocational training for prisoners.
The Irish Prison Service is setting out to re-engineer the prison system to give further effect to the principles of normalisation, progression and reintegration. This is done through work training and education but also through the work of the medical, dental and other health care services, the psychology service and the chaplaincy, not forgetting the inputs from the Probation Service and voluntary and community organisations.
On many occasions in this House I have been asked about prison overcrowding. Chronic overcrowding and all the problems that come with it are the result of the failure of previous Governments to provide an appropriate number of places across the prison estate. This is an issue the current Administration is determined to address. Already, after only 14 months in government, arrangements have been put in place for the provision of a 300 space wing at the Midlands Prison which is likely to open in September or early October. Plans are under way for the provision of a new prison in Cork. The capital plan funding allocation for the Irish Prison Service building programme for 2012 also provides for the continuation of the refurbishment and in-cell sanitation project at Mountjoy Prison.
A pilot community return project commenced in October last in line with the recommendations of the Thornton Hall project review group. The project which is run by the Probation Service and the Irish Prison Service provides for earned early temporary release to be offered to offenders who pose no threat to society in return for supervised community service. The project has engaged 85 prisoners and proved to be very successful. It is now planned to roll it out nationally. In reply to the specific query raised by the Deputy, I am in a position to state a review will be carried out when the project is complete. I will be happy to share the information from that review with the Deputy in the format he suggested, namely, via a briefing to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. To date, four of the 85 prisoners involved in the project have been returned to prison for not complying with the conditions laid down. The perception is that the project is working successfully. However, a full review must be carried out of its workings upon completion. Under the new proposal, at any one time a maximum of 150 prisoners will be engaged with the scheme. In the three year lifetime of the plan, up to 1,200 prisoners will participate. It will not be the case, as has been suggested in some of the more interesting media reports, that during this period there will be 1,200 prisoners on such structured release.
The potential benefits of the programme are obvious. Instead of releasing large numbers of prisoners on temporary release, without any assessment, in an unstructured manner, we will have a structured programme involving carefully selected and motivated prisoners. The community return programme is restricted to suitably assessed prisoners who are serving sentences of more than one and less than eight years and who have served at least 50% of their sentences. The overriding consideration in the operation of the programme is that of public safety.
The following factors are taken into account in considering the suitability of a prisoner for temporary release to participate in the project: the nature and gravity of the offence to which the sentence being served relates; the sentence concerned and any recommendations made by the court in respect of the sentence imposed; the potential threat to the safety and security of the public should the person be released; the person's previous criminal record; the risk of the person failing to comply with any of the conditions of temporary release; the extent of the prisoner's engagement with therapeutic services while in custody; and conduct while in custody.
It has been the practice of previous Governments to release prisoners before their full term of imprisonment has been completed. The community return project provides a structure and an assessment process in respect of specific objectives to be achieved in connection with such releases. Prison must not be merely a warehouse to contain convicted offenders for a period of time before releasing them back into the community to reoffend. Our rates of recidivism are too high and we must take action to reduce them. We must innovate and do things differently in order to reduce the unacceptable level of recidivism and reoffending. By doing this we will provide greater protection from criminality for the community in general.
I again thank the Deputy giving me the opportunity to address this matter in the House. On the specific issue he raised in respect of the victims of crime, he will be aware of the commitment in the programme for Government regarding the introduction of a Bill to detail in law with the protections available to such victims. Developments within the European Union may result in a victims' of crime measure that will apply across all of the member states. If such a measure is directly applicable, we will not be obliged to publish our own legislation. It is likely that legislation to go hand in hand with this measure will be produced and that it will address issues relating to victims in the context of prescribing their rights and entitlements in respect of the information which should be made available to them.
Perhaps the Minister might expand on the European Union initiative to which he refers. Given that Ireland will hold the Presidency of the Union next year, will he seek to champion the role victims should play in sentence management? We need to re-imagine our approach to this matter. The Minister referred to re-engineering the process. There is a need to include victims in it.
Has the Minister determined whether additional resources will have to be made available to the Probation Service? In that context, he has indicated that only 150 prisoners will be involved in the scheme at any one time. This suggests the projects envisaged will be short-term in nature. Will the Minister provide some details of the kind of projects being undertaken as part of the pilot programme? I am somewhat concerned about the practicality of having 150 people at a time engaged in a scheme which will ultimately involve 1,200 people over three years.
On the very first occasion on which I, as Minister for Justice and Equality, attended a meeting of the Council of Ministers I raised the issue of the victims of crime. Commissioner Reding has produced a proposal which is under consideration by the technical committees and which was the subject of an initial discussion at a meeting of the Council of Ministers. In the context of the forthcoming Irish Presidency, I have made it clear that there will be two major priorities in the justice area, the first of which is to substantially advance across Europe the project relating to the victims of crime. If we do not manage to complete the putting in place of the proposed legal provision in this regard, at the very least we will progress it to a very advanced stage in order that it will come into play at some point during 2013.
The second issue is to prioritise the seizure of criminal assets. On the resources issue, I am perfectly satisfied the Probation Service will have the resources available to it for this particular project. There are several individuals under existing legislation currently engaged in community service. The Probation Service, under the leadership of Michael Donnellan who heads up the Prison Service, was able to make the arrangements to operate the pilot programme with 85 prisoners. I do not have major concerns that this will give rise to any issues. Provision of this programme is, in fact, a saving to taxpayers. Instead of appropriate prisoners who pose no risk to the community being kept in jail for an extended period, they will be released from prison and be under the supervision of the Probation Service while doing community work to the benefit of local communities.
There is a double plus in this. While it will impose some additional obligations on the Probation Service, it will reduce the costs to the Prison Service of keeping people in the prison system in circumstances where it no longer serves a purpose. This project will be very carefully rolled out. It will be as carefully rolled out as was the pilot project. Within the Prison Service, those engaged in the project and the director general of the Prison Service are aware of my views to ensure no individual who poses a risk to the community is released under this project. There will be some individuals who will not have any possibility of being engaged in this project. I believe we have to start doing things differently, and that involves not just this project.
The media attention of this project has been interesting. It has been misrepresented as suddenly releasing 1,200 people from our Prison Service. What everyone is losing sight of is that we release a substantial number of people every year from our Prison Service, having completed three quarters of their sentence because they automatically get 25% remission. We need to do things more intelligently, reduce expenditure where we can, benefit communities and re-equip individuals to work within their communities. The great benefit of the structured release system is that it is envisaged that it would not just deal with community service. Part of the condition of the release will be that, where necessary, the individual will co-operate with the psychiatric services where assistance is needed or engage with supports with regard to drug abuse or alcohol addiction. It is envisaged this will be a structured temporary release programme that is substantially better than what we have had previously.
I must apologise that I cannot take the next item. My good colleague, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, will deal with it because I am supposed to be in the Seanad at 4 o'clock for a Private Members' Bill.