Seanad debates

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Overcrowding in Prisons: Statements (Resumed).


1:00 pm

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)

I welcome the Minister of State. Last week I referred to the current prison population in terms of the rate per 100,000 people on a historic basis and the debt of gratitude we owe to Judge Reilly for his various reports this year on the prison system. The Government has shown no willingness to reform the prison system. Overcrowding and the slopping out procedures are totally unacceptable in this day and age. The only response of the Government to overcrowding is the flawed operation of the temporary release system. Yesterday's newspapers highlighted that over 200 people sent to jail for non-payment of fines were released at the gates of prisons. What message does this send about the administration of justice and respect for our laws? No one should go to jail for non-payment of fines but people should not be able to walk free without being held accountable. Community service orders can be used but ultimately the moneys due in fines should be paid on an instalment basis from salaries, social welfare or whatever source of income a person has. If such a system was in operation, we would have a significant decrease in the number of people refusing to pay fines. They would realise they have to pay the money in the end.

The revolving door system, which allows prisoners on temporary release and results in over 400 prisoners on the run, shows how dysfunctional is our prison system. People convicted of attempted murder, assault, harassment, organised crime offences, and weapons and explosives offences are on the run and at large in our community because of the decisions of the Minister. We are a long way from the zero tolerance policies Deputy John O'Donoghue advocated but failed to implement. What progress has there been on Michael McDowell's bold assertion that we would have drug-free prisons by now? What is the situation regarding use of mobile phones in our prisons?

Some years ago my colleague in the Lower House, Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, produced an excellent paper on restorative justice to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights. One pilot project in Nenagh was very successful. We were assured restorative justice projects would be extended to other areas of the country. Has this happened and what is the current position of the Minister on restorative justice?

The Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention also refers to the many courses undertaken by prisoners that are not accredited. Why is this happening, who provides the courses and are these people qualified? Is this just another FÁS debacle? These questions must be addressed and answered.

The Minister for Justice and Law Reform is presiding over a dysfunctional prison system. He has little interest in solving the situation. Words rather than action and perception rather than substance is the order of the day. Perhaps the Minister of State can tell us how many prisons the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has visited since taking office. He did not visit Mountjoy Prison during the term of the excellent former governor, Mr. John Lonergan, who was a beacon of light for the Prison Service even though I do not agree with everything he said. There is much to analyse in the report by Judge Reilly. I hope many if not all of the recommendations will be acted upon rather than paid lip service, as is usual with these reports. I hope the questions posed in my contribution will be answered comprehensively by the Minister in his response to this debate.


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