Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Other Questions

Prisoner Rehabilitation Programmes

10:15 am

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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7. To ask the Minister for Justice and Equality the extent to which prisoners continue to have access to ongoing education and rehabilitative training; the percentage of first-time offenders who are referred for such training in the first year of their sentence; the average number who do not have such access on an annual basis; the extent to which adequate procedures are in place to ensure that procedures within the prison service are geared to discourage repeat offending; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35375/14]

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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As a former inmate, I suppose, of Mountjoy, I could elaborate somewhat further on the conditions inside, but this question relates to the ongoing need to ensure the availability of rehabilitative training for first-time prisoners, in particular. I do not include those convicted for murder. It is important that there be a continuing programme that gives access to training to first-time offenders, in the first instance, rather than putting them on a long-term waiting-list.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I know the Deputy has an interest in this area and he has been tracking it in a variety of ways through parliamentary questions in recent times. He is familiar with the fact that there is a wide range of rehabilitative programmes, including educational and vocational training programmes, available in prisons.

The records I have currently do not allow us to differentiate between first-time offenders and repeat offenders. The figures in the latest records available, which are right up to date, show that an overall total of 1,490 offenders participated in education activities at the time the figures were compiled. This represented 37% of the prisoner population at the time. An average of 1,052 prisoners engaged in vocational training activities each day in June, and this represents 27% of the average prison population in that month. A prisoner may participate in more than one activity.

The development of prisoner programmes forms a central part of the Irish Prison Service’s three-year strategic plan for the period 2012 to 2015. There is a clear commitment in the strategy to enhance sentence planning. It is important that we have much more sentence planning than heretofore. This includes the delivery of the services. When I launched the report of the Parole Board of Ireland the week before last, one of the points the chair and members of the board made to me was that if one wants to engage prisoners in rehabilitation within the prison setting and involve them in training and vocational courses, one needs to have discussions with them. They need to be aware of the courses and encouraged to participate in them. This would help reduce the level of violence. It would also mean that, with the approach we are taking to remission, involvement in the programmes would be helpful.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The guiding principles that underpin the prisons' work and training service are to make available work, work-training and other purposeful activities to all those in custody. Training activities are chosen to give as much variety as possible and to give opportunities for those in prison to acquire practical skills which will help them secure employment on release.

One hundred and ten work training officers have recently been appointed and assigned to areas such as catering, laundry, industrial cleaning, industrial skills and gym. This brings the total number of work training officers in place to 308.5. In addition, there are also six full-time industrial managers with four acting industrial managers in the prison estate. This will allow the Prison Service to build on the opportunities available to prisoners in the work and training area for the years ahead.

The Deputy will be aware of the Government's commitment to capital investment in the prison estate, and that despite the current economic difficulties, building work on a new prison in Cork is well under way, as well as the refurbishment and renovation of the D wing, Mountjoy Prison. In addition, a business case for the Limerick Prison project is currently being considered by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. When these projects are finalised, they will allow the Prison Service to provide further enhanced education opportunities for prisoners.

In addition to seeking to draw on best practice in adult and further education in the community, there has been a lot of curriculum development over the years that is specific to prison circumstances, such as courses on addiction, health issues and offending behaviour. Other areas where there has been significant progress in prison education are in physical education, the provision for higher education, the arts and preparing prisoners for release and supporting their transition to life, and often to education, on the outside. A top priority for the Prison Service is ensuring help for those with reading and writing problems, and peer mentoring programmes are currently active in all of our prisons.

The Prison Service has also been expanding the number of accredited courses and opportunities available to prisoners in work training in recent years. Enhanced partnership arrangements with accrediting bodies such as City & Guilds, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, SQA, and the Guild of Cleaners and Launderers and the centralising of co-ordination and quality assurance arrangements have enabled us to extend the number of available courses and activities with certification.

On committal, all prisoners are interviewed by the governor and are informed of the services available in the prison. At this point, prisoners may be referred to services or they can self-refer at a later date. Where governors consider, on the information available, that a prisoner needs a particular intervention, they will initiate a referral.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for her very comprehensive reply. I very much appreciate it. It would be helpful if it were possible to provide a breakdown of the number of times first-time offenders have applied for rehabilitative training and have not been successful. In my previous pursuit of this particular subject, I came to the conclusion that access was monopolised to some extent by repeat offenders, for want of a better description. Could a special effort be made to make it possible for first-time offenders who have never run afoul of the law before to be diverted into a programme of rehabilitation as a matter of urgency, rather than giving them a PhD in criminal activity?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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When one speaks about first-time offenders, one should note that many of them, particularly those in prison for not paying fines, go to prison for a very short period. This factor must be built into the question asked. Many prisoners go to prison for a very short period, perhaps 24 or 48 hours, for not paying a fine, and this is why we have stopped using imprisonment as a means of dealing with the issue of fines. However, I will try to get the statistics on first-time prisoners with longer custodial sentences. The point made by the Deputy is very relevant, namely, that if one can interrupt the cycle of offending, one will keep people safe in the longer term and reduce the risk of re-offending.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The Minister has referred to a sensitive area. Consider the cases of those who are now called drug mules, or individuals who were involved as carriers, who may have a ten- or 12-year sentence for committing a serious offence for the first time. It is crucial that they be diverted from becoming professional criminals because they will not re-offend. Almost in all cases, they have given an indication to that effect. Is it possible to examine their cases with a view to ensuring they get the required training?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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The point is well made by the Deputy that we need to differentiate between first-time offenders with long sentences - the Deputy mentioned drugs offenders, in particular – and the others. With regard to the former, we should be trying to engage them early in their sentences rather than later. I will endeavour to obtain the requested information for the Deputy.