Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

10:05 am

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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6. To ask the Minister for Justice and Equality the number of incidents of violence in Mountjoy Prison; the manner in which the violence is addressed by the prison authorities; and if there is adequate levels of staff to deal with said incidents of violence. [35381/14]

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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This question concerns the number of incidents of violence in Mountjoy Prison, how these are dealt with by prison authorities and whether there are adequate levels of staff to deal with these incidents.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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No level of prison violence or assault is acceptable and every effort is made by prison staff and management to limit the scope for acts of violence. There were 141 incidents of violence in Mountjoy Prison in 2013. In 2012, the number was 111 and in 2011 the number was 177. Of the 141 incidents in 2013, some 107 constituted prisoner assaults on prisoners and 34 were prisoner assaults on staff.

No level of inter prisoner violence is acceptable. However, no regime can completely eliminate the possibility of violent incidents happening in a prison setting where a large number of dangerous and violent offenders are being held. The figure of 141 in 2013 included a lot of minor incidents and gives an average of 2.7 incidents per week.

On foot of the report of the Inspector of Prisons, the Prison Service has closed the separation unit, where some of the acts of violence took place. This process has been a demanding one for the prison authorities, because they have had to find places to hold difficult prisoners who present with complex issues. Independent inspections of our prisons have been very helpful and insightful and chart a way forward. Inspector Reilly has commented favourably on the improvements in Mountjoy Prison, the refurbishment of the main building, the structured activity and adequate out of cell time. The refurbishment is due to be finished shortly. We have seen improvements in the basic standards and this impacts on and helps to reduce levels of violence.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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I visited Mountjoy Prison when under the management of the previous governor. The number of incidents of violence is alarming, particularly recent assaults of prison staff, including a prison nurse. The number of prisoner assaults on other prisoners is particularly alarming and we are aware of a significant number of deaths of prisoners in custody.

I ask the Minister to look at the reasons behind this and the situations where this happens. I believe one cause can be overcrowding. I acknowledge that the Minister moved quickly in regard to closure of the separation unit. We have 4,003 prisoners in this country, but fewer than 50% of them are in single cells and over 300 prisoners still have to slop out daily. I suggest this is a difficult situation for prisoners. We also have prisoners with a known history of violence. Is adequate attention being given to where these prisoners are being placed? Other prisoners are particularly vulnerable to violent attack, for example, those with mental health issues and addicts.

While we can have procedures and policies in place, staff training must be adequate. Is there adequate and continuous training for staff to help deal with incidents of violence?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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Huge efforts are being made to ensure our prisons conform to the highest national and international standards in terms of physical accommodation and the regimes offered to prisoners in care. Many prisons have needed refurbishment and a capital programme is under way.

In regard to the work done with prisoners and efforts to deal with violence in prisons, this is a challenging task. I was in Wheatfield Prison on Saturday at the penal reform conference and was very impressed by the work being done there by the Irish Red Cross with prisoners on eliminating violence in prisons.

That is just one example of the initiatives that are under way in the prisons. Clearly, the role of prison officers is crucial. There have been a number of agreements, under the Haddington Road agreement, for example, in which the Irish Prison Service undertook to engage in a joint examination of all the tasks within the prison system in conjunction with the Prison Officers Association. It examines all the issues, including the organisational, structural and operational arrangements, so prisons such as Mountjoy can operate in the most effective and efficient manner.

The point the Deputy made on slopping out will be dealt with within a very short period because of the refurbishment and changes that have been made in Mountjoy. The changes are very significant.

10:15 am

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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There is a bigger picture concerning prisons. I attended the launch of a book containing a series of essays produced in conjunction with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. It raised some interesting and burning issues in regard to prisons generally and the use of prison sentences. My constituency provides so many of the inmates in Mountjoy Prison. It seems 60% of sentences are for six months or less, and those who receive such sentences are poor and often homeless. Prisoners in Ireland are 25 times more likely to come from and return to seriously deprived areas. Over 70% of prisoners are unemployed on acquittal. Homelessness is a major issue for prisoners on release. I accept that the prison authorities and NGOs are working with prisoners but I believe there is a need for a serious debate on the use of prison and the facts that there is a revolving door and prison is a right of passage or way of life for certain prisoners, as opposed to serving as any kind of deterrent.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I agree that there is a need for a debate. Perhaps we could start it here by discussing the recently published report on the penal policy review, which took over two years to produce and which I put into the public arena last week. There are 43 recommendations in the review document and I would like further discussion on them. My position is that serious and serial offenders should be in prison. We do not row back for one moment from that but we do need to debate re-offending. International evidence suggests that if we focus on reducing re-offending, we will keep the country safer and there will be fewer people in prison. This has to be a serious focus if we are not to have people simply coming out of prison through a revolving door, which was the case in the past. There should be a structured approach to prisoners, including prisoners on temporary release, for example. Certainly, prison is to deal with serious and serial offenders.

Many of the people the Deputy speaks about from her constituency are in prison because of fines. The recent legislation will ensure that this will now be dealt with in a different way.