Dáil debates

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

2:10 pm

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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6. To ask the Minister for Justice and Equality the steps he is taking to address concerns voiced by the Irish Penal Reform Trust regarding the over-use of solitary confinement in the prison system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39584/13]

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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There is no provision for solitary confinement in the Irish Prison Service. However, the Deputy will appreciate that, on occasion, it is necessary for vulnerable prisoners and others to be separated from the general prison population. The restriction of a prisoner's regime can occur due to a number of factors including, the protection of vulnerable prisoners. This is provided for under rule 63 of the Prison Rules 2007. A prisoner may, either at his or her own request or when the Governor considers it necessary, in so far as is practicable and subject to the maintenance and good order and safe and secure custody, be kept separate from other prisoners who are reasonably likely to cause significant harm to him or her.

In addition, the Governor may decide, for the maintenance of good order in the prison, to remove a prisoner from general association or structured activity to reduce the negative effect that a prisoner or prisoners may have on the general population. This is provided for under rule 62 of the Prison Rules 2007. There may also be a smaller number of prisoners who would be restricted for medical, rule 64 or discipline reasons, rule 67. The fact that prisoners seeking protection are immediately separated from the general population or from specific prisoners identified as presenting a threat, clearly demonstrates the commitment of the Irish Prison Service to ensure their safety and security.

The status of each prisoner on restricted regime within the prison system is regularly reviewed and, if possible, prisoners can be transferred to other institutions where a restricted regime would not be necessary. The Director General of the Irish Prison Service has established a high level group to consider measures which could be introduced to reduce the number of prisoners currently held on restricted regimes, with a view to ensuring that all prisoners receive, as a minimum standard, out-of-cell time of three hours per day to engage in exercise or activity.

2:20 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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I am very interested in the Minister's response. The Director General of the Irish Prison Service, Mr. Michael Donellan, has expressed concern about the number of prisoners who are serving their term or part thereof in isolation. On 1 July 2013, we were informed that 114 prisoners at risk were being held in isolation for 23 hours per day and a further 61 inmates were being held behind bars for 22 hours per day. The position is inhumane by any stretch of the imagination. The Minister referred to prisoners at risk. Do any other categories of prisoners find themselves in the circumstances described? What would be an effective alternative to the current position?

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I congratulate the Deputy on his party's newfound concern for prisoners. For 14 years, during which hardly a person moved in this country without the Deputy's party throwing money at them-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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Is the Minister incapable of answering a question without making party political points?

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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-----the Government essentially ignored our prison system, left prisoners living in conditions that were indefensible and failed to build the additional prison places required or implement the reforms necessary in the prison system.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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That is patently untrue.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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Despite the current financial difficulties, in the past two and a half years a new wing has been built on Midlands Prison, construction is starting in Cork to provide a new prison, a new wing is being added to Limerick Prison and there has been a complete refurbishment of Mountjoy Prison. During the Deputy's party's time in government, we were told it was not possible, in any circumstances, to provide in-cell sanitation in Mountjoy Prison. We have provided in-cell sanitation in the majority of cells in Mountjoy Prison and it will be provided in cells in the prison by the middle of next year. An extraordinary prison reform agenda is being implemented and enormous changes, including the provision of an incentivised regime to encourage prisoners to behave well, have taken place over the past two and a half years. What the Government cannot do, however, is remedy instantly all the problems left behind by the failure of the Deputy's party during 14 years in government to ensure we had a modern and humane prison system.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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My understanding of the parliamentary questions process is that Deputies ask questions of a Minister who responds and gives an account of how he or she manages his or her brief. I note the Minister cannot refrain from making blatantly political charges in responding to even the simplest of questions. The simple question I put was whether we are holding prisoners in isolation, to which the answer given was "Yes." I also asked if the Minister planned to address the issue of isolation but I am unsure from his response as to what his plan is.

Photo of Clare DalyClare Daly (Dublin North, Socialist Party)
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The Minister will agree that solitary confinement is incredibly damaging and difficult for prisoners and should be avoided at all costs. In that context, I propose to ask him about the case of Aidan Hulme, a prisoner in Portlaoise prison who has been placed in what is effectively solitary confinement as a result of issues related to his serious physical and mental ill health. As a result of the amount of medication he takes, Mr. Hulme accidentally caused a fire to be started in his cell. If he had finished his sentence in Britain, he would have been on early release at this stage. I ask the Minister to examine the case of Mr. Hulme and release him from solitary confinement in which he has been placed as a result of ill health.

Photo of Mick WallaceMick Wallace (Wexford, Independent)
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The Minister will be aware that the Irish Penal Reform Trust is strongly opposed to solitary confinement. The trust points out that there may be a level of restriction which, rather than solving administrative problems, becomes a mental health issue and creates a further problem for prison administration. Surely solitary confinement is an inadequate response both in terms of the administration of prisons and the well-being of prisoners.

Deputy Clare Daly and I visited Portlaoise prison during the summer where we met the governor, Mr. Martin Mullen, with whom both of us were very impressed. Does the Minister intend to proceed with plans to install in-cell sanitation at the prison? I understand this badly needed work may have been shelved owing to a lack of funds.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I will look into the matter Deputy Clare Daly has raised.

On in-cell sanitation, we should provide in-cell sanitation in all prisons where it is currently absent. We are rolling out and completing an in-cell sanitation programme in Mountjoy Prison and, subject to the resources available to me, it is my objective to ensure we address this matter in all of our prisons. One of the reasons for building a new prison in Cork and providing a better facility is the impossibility of providing in-cell sanitation in Cork Prison. During a visit to Cork Prison shortly after my appointment I observed the very difficult conditions in the prison. While the prison is very well run by its governor and many programmes are available to prisoners, its structure is not adequate for the 21st century. We are addressing that issue.

We have different categories of prisoners, namely, prisoners who pose a threat to other prisoners and those who need to be protected from other individuals. Both types of circumstances give rise to individuals effectively being on their own in prison cells for extended periods. The Director General of the Irish Prison Service has established a high level group to look at measures to eliminate solitary confinement in the prison system. The group is giving priority to reducing the number of prisoners on rule 63. This is a voluntary procedure where a prisoner at risk asks to be moved into a cell on his or her own or where there is a requirement to do so, while ensuring that all such prisoners receive, as a minimum standard, exercise activity of three hours daily. The group will also seek to formulate a policy to reduce the number of prisoners on rule 63 where isolation is imposed, in other words, where the prisoner is placed in a cell on his or her own for the safety of others, and rule 62, with a view to improving the regime they face. I look forward to the completion of this work and doing what is possible within the current structure of our prisons. This issue is being factored into any construction that is taking place to improve the prison system or in the context of the construction of new prisons.