Thursday, 11 November 2010
Overcrowding in Prisons: Statements (Resumed).
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.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this debate even though it is difficult because it is disjointed from the debate last week. Regarding the point made by Senator Cummins, the Minister made clear that 0.2% of the prison population is in prison as a result of fines. We must keep a sense of perspective on this matter. It is a very small number of people. I agree with Senator Cummins that there should be no one in prison for the non-payment of fines. However, we need deterrents.
The success of a prison system depends on two groups, in particular, those who provide the service, namely, the prison officers, and the prisoners themselves. One presumes prisoners do not want to be incarcerated. The question, therefore, is whether there is an opportunity for rehabilitation. When discussing prison policy, it is important to ask that question. One must decide whether the purpose is to lock people up or to rehabilitate them. In a more civilised society it must be about rehabilitation also as much as a sanction in terms of a loss of liberty. What we should focus on is how the experience of prison can affect prisoners in a positive way and improve them in terms of availing of training and education opportunities. That is the most important aspect of a prison service.
Being a prison officer must be one of the toughest jobs because one is dealing with people who often have committed violent crimes and the circumstances are difficult. Prison officers do not receive sufficient recognition for the tough job they do. It must be a difficult task.
Senator Cummins paid tribute to the previous Governor of Mountjoy Prison. I wish to comment briefly on the current Governor who is doing an excellent job. He has only been in place for a short while, but he has made a determined effort to rid the prison of drugs. Senator Cummins referred to this point also. It is an appalling indictment of our system that someone who is not a drug addict might come out of prison a drug addict. I like the way Governor Whelan has made a determined effort not to allow drugs into the prison. He has taken significant action in that regard. I was astounded when I heard the cost of a net was €250,000, but one must bear in mind how fine and durable it must be. It is a good investment. He is a man who is clearly interested in the welfare of the people for whom he is responsible.
It is interesting that the issue has not been taken in hand quite so decisively up to now, but Governor Whelan has acted on it. There was a belief that a certain level of drug use in a prison made it easier to maintain, but that has not proved to be the case. However, I accept there was disruption in Mountjoy Prison subsequently. The reports I read indicated that the new regime had meant fights did not break out over ownership of drugs thrown over the wall. That activity caused a level of violence in itself. It takes time to adjust to a situation where it is not possible to bring in drugs. In a way, there was a facility that is no longer available. This is an enormous step on the road to having drug-free prisons. I commend the Governor on taking that action. It shows a fair level of determination on his part to clean up the prison system.
The Minister spoke about how many prison places were being established. Previous Ministers also decided it was time to shut down our Dickensian prison system. The previous Minister did not receive a great deal of support, particularly from a Member of the House who identified himself as someone who had become involved in public life because he was concerned about prisoner welfare. That individual stood in the way of progress in terms of the closure of Mountjoy Prison prior to the commencement of work to allow the Thornton Hall project to proceed. It is ironic that someone would want to keep a prison such as Mountjoy open.
I have never been in any of the country's prisons. That is a terrible admission which I intend to rectify. We have a duty to show that we care about standards in prisons. I accept there are prison visiting committees, of which public representatives are members. We have a duty to see the actual conditions in which people who are incarcerated live. The Minister referred to a changed system, of which Wheatfield Prison is an example. I intend to go there first. It is nicer to look at the future of the Irish Prison Service rather than, necessarily, the present. It is important to see the conditions in a prison such as Mountjoy. As it is a service that is being provided currently, it is relevant. I appreciate the amount of work involved and the transfer of interest in the rehabilitation of offenders rather than the focus being purely on incarceration.
The issue of overcrowding in prisons has been to the forefront of the media spotlight in recent weeks following the publication and release of 18 separate reports on conditions in Irish prisons, of which 14 had been commissioned by the Department and a further four were carried out by Judge Michael Reilly, Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention. The findings of the vast majority of the reports were highly critical of conditions in the prison system. I wonder why all of the reports were released simultaneously, in spite of the fact that they had been presented to the Minister on a staggered basis throughout the year, the earliest of which was in April.
In one of the most recent reports published in October Mountjoy Prison was branded as overcrowded, unsafe and unhygienic. It was acknowledged that inmates were being brought into prisons that were unsafe and grossly overcrowded. The prison review committee for 2009 found that there had been little change in 14 years in the regime employed there. Judge Reilly's report found that the prison was vermin infested and chronically overpopulated, with up to six prisoners sharing a cell at any one time and, in some cases, without beds. Judge Reilly was unequivocal in his findings that there was no clear policy on the use of special, time-out, padded and assessment cells. He pointed out that prisoners should not be denied their human rights.
In terms of international law, there are serious gaps in Ireland's commitment to human rights in this area. In October 2011 human rights commitments will be considered at the UN human rights council. The record of UN member states in this area, including Ireland, will be scrutinised and conditions in our prisons will be a key issue. Overcrowding and slopping out are leading to situations that are unsafe for prisoners and prison staff.
We are very quick to talk about the human rights of prisoners, which is appropriate. In listening to the Minister the other day I was struck by the contrast between the record of commitment to improvement recited by him and the criticisms made by a person such as Mr. John Lonergan, the former Governor of Mountjoy Prison. I was struck by the difference in the impact of what was being said by the Minister and Mr. Lonergan. I do not wish to be too pointed, but Mr. Lonergan was quite critical of the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, in that the Minister had not shown much interest, visited prisons or so on. Had the Minister attended today, I would have asked for his response. I do not take the criticism at face value, but it is odd that such an eminent and credible person in the Prison Service should make such pointed criticisms of Government and the Minister. In some ways, it is only right that we ask the Minister for his opinion on the criticism of his and the Government's record.
While it is proper that we discuss human rights, I wonder whether there is a serious commitment to the concept of human dignity. If there was such a commitment, we would not tolerate for a moment longer the reality of people slopping out and going to the toilet in the presence of others. The fundamental issue in this debate is what we view as being the purpose of the prison system. By all means let part of the agenda be to punish but, unless the agenda is also to reform and rehabilitate, we will lose our way as a society. We are certainly not thinking smarter if we view our prison system purely in terms of its punitive dimension.
What else is there other than the punitive dimension if we humiliate people to such an extent that we do not acknowledge their basic human dignity? We store up all sorts of problems for the future when we send the message to prisoners that we want to treat them like dirt. It is one matter to punish people properly for crimes. I would be in favour of linking early release with willingness to comply with various prison programmes aimed at reform. Mr. Lonergan was critical of the way the Prison Service handled the release of Mr. Larry Murphy a number of months ago. There may be no great sympathy for Mr. Murphy, but it is beyond dispute that the issue of release should involve incentivisation. A part of the problem in the Murphy case lay in the fact that he was released without having shown any commitment to engage in rehabilitative programmes. We need to incentivise prisoners by linking their early releases with their commitment to and participation in such programmes.
Reform of sentencing and penal correction is necessary. In the international context, Ireland is in the middle range, in that we incarcerate 90 prisoners per 100,000 people annually whereas Norway has approximately 60 prisoners per 100,000. In 2009, 90% of the nearly 11,000 persons sentenced to three months or less were convicted of non-violent crimes, such as the non-payment of fines. Of the more than 15,000 people committed in 2009, nearly 11,000 were sentenced, 12,000 had been committed more than once and more than 3,000 were committed while on remand and, thus, were only in the system for short periods.
The Minister made great play of the fact that only a small number of people were in prison for the non-payment of fines. He did this to rebut claims that prisons were overcrowded with non-violent offenders. People who are in prison for the non-payment of fines represent only a cohort of non-violent offenders. In this sense, the figure is not of much use. It has come to light that many of the people sentenced for the non-payment of fines were released upon arrival at prison. As such, they were not incarcerated. This further distorted our ability to consider properly what the Minister was saying. It was in this context that, a few days ago, I suggested ministerial speeches be circulated to Senators in advance so we might consider what we are about to hear and conduct research. There is no point in Government representatives attending the House to make speeches, the quality of which we cannot assess, or to make claims that are statistically truthful but have no real meaning when other facts are taken into consideration. The Seanad must examine this matter.
We must consider the heavy burden posed on public resources by the cost of imprisonment. Prison expenditure reached more than €300 million in 2003. In contrast, the total level of resource provision for the probation and welfare service was €40.7 million. The current cost of keeping an individual in custody is nearly €80,000 per annum. We should be thinking smarter, not harder, about what we can do to fund and develop alternatives to prison, particularly for non-violent offenders. The Minister mentioned a great deal in this respect last week, but he did not mention the concept of restorative justice, the idea that offenders would be confronted with the victims of their wrongdoing. There have been reports in this regard, so I was surprised it was not mentioned. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, will rectify this oversight if he has not already done so. Restorative justice is just one of the issues that should be at the top of our agenda.
It is fortunate that we have had an opportunity to extend the debate, as the first discussion was followed by the Minister's statement and an indication of substantial change in Government policy. It has also been followed by a significant statement in the UK, where the justice Minister recently announced the closure of six prisons. While the reasons behind such decisions in many countries might be economic, in that the cost of running a prison-based justice system is no longer sustainable as a draw on public resources, they present an opportunity to liberalise and to create a more humane and effective justice system.
Senator Mullen highlighted the fact that, for reasons to do with non-payment of fines and debt, an unacceptably large number of people form part of our prison population. Changes in this regard have been painfully slow in coming. I hope the Fines Bill will, upon enactment, address many of these changes. In terms of television licensing, a significant category of people have been dealt with through the recent Broadcasting Act 2009. That this has happened at all and not just to this extent indicates it is not something in which we can take a great deal of pride at this stage of our country's history.
I am glad the Minister of State is taking this debate. With several of his hats, he will know more than most the need to reform the prison sentencing system. Not only are an unacceptable number of people in prison for non-violent crimes and economic circumstances as much as anything else, but too many people with mental health difficulties are also being held in the prison system. Strategies to ensure alternative means of dealing with people with such conditions should move them away from the justice system and into the health system, particularly a community health system.
The recent publication of the memoirs of the former governor of Mountjoy Prison was accompanied by a great deal of media fanfare. I listened to a radio interview with him and there is no doubt that he has achieved a significant public profile. He is identified by most of the public as someone with important comments to make on this area. When he was introducing his memoirs during the interview in question, I was struck by something he pointed out. When he joined the Prison Service, the prison population was 600 people. It is now 4,500. This increase is not just down to more effective policing and prosecution of crime. Rather, it has become something of a political feather in one's cap to say that the more people one imprisons, the more successful one can claim to be politically. This scene can be found in many countries and many political parties.
I hope the current economic circumstances will help us realise that the opposite is the case. The more people we imprison, the less successful we are as a society.
We need to move away from custodial sentences as a way of dealing with the many problems in our society. Of course, there will always be a need for custodial sentences. There will be crimes that are unacceptable to many in our society and there is a need to remove people from society who are a source of danger to themselves and to society at large. I and my party believe that the use of custodial sentences has been exaggerated and over-used in our system. We need to move away from that approach as quickly as possible.
The debate on the Irish system and its philosophy is important. I express a personal fear in this regard. In the shaping of Irish prison policy we should not go down the road that had an effect on the Department of Finance and our approach to financial regulation. This was the idea there was a route whereby senior civil servants went through the Department of Finance, became Secretary General of that Department and then became the Governor of the Central Bank. We can see where that approach to the Civil Service has led us. I believe a parallel system is developing in the Department of Justice and Law Reform. There seems to be a link between running the Irish Prison Service and becoming involved in the Department, and vice versa, which has led to an intensification of the status quo. It does not allow for innovation or radical approaches and permits an ongoing defence mechanism for things staying as they are. It results in an unwillingness to change.
I would like to see the Irish Prison Service and senior positions within the Department of Justice and Law Reform opening up a little to outside influences. Too often we have seen a knee-jerk reaction to organisations such as Amnesty International and Irish Penal Reform Trust which, although they might be over-zealous in seeking better standards and an improvement in legislation, have a role to play. They should be engaged with in a sense of partnership rather than in confrontation. Too often we have seen that attitude displayed, not only towards non-governmental organisations but towards people appointed on an independent basis to assess the quality and effectiveness of our prisons. Successive Ministers for Justice and Law Reform should take no great pride in the way in which successive reports by the independent Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention have been treated. These are important documents that indicate what is wrong and the changes that need to made on an ongoing basis. The real scandal of the ongoing reports of the independent Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention is that many of the same flaws and faults are reported in one report after another. I do not know anyone who can stand over that in a social or political sense.
I welcome the ongoing debate. It is important, especially in the prevailing economic circumstances, with the difficult decisions we must make in many areas of expenditure on social protection, that another look be taken at expenditure in the areas of justice and the prison service to see how it can be made more effective by using the resources we have. Ultimately, that would be more just and humane.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Moloney. The report of Judge Reilly has been critical of the conditions in 14 prisons. Eleven of 15 prisons have situations of over-capacity. The role of our prison officers and the work they have done should be acknowledged, as Senator O'Malley noted, and they should be supported. They do extraordinary work but are undervalued, underappreciated and in need of our acknowledgment today.
Reading the report of Judge Reilly one is struck by the fact that our prison system is in need of overhaul, in both its infrastructure - its buildings - and its staff morale, but also by some way of making the prison regime more rehabilitative as opposed to merely locking up people. We need to strike that balance. Many would argue we should have a turn the key mentality and should forget about the people we incarcerate. It is much more important to have a holistic approach, namely, to understand the cause of the crime and to try to rehabilitate the prisoner who has committed the offence. Much reference was made to Mr. John Lonergan and to comments he has made since retiring. He spoke very well about the link between crime and social and economic deprivation. He is right. There is a clear connection between them.
The report contains a very interesting statistic. In 2008, 50 prisoners were in prison for less than three months, 124 were there for between three and six months, and 283 for between six and twelve months. I am concerned that we have failed to tackle the overcrowding issue. Limerick Prison has 75% more prisoners than it can cater for and on 23 July Cork Prison had 316 prisoners, exceeding its 272-bed capacity by 10%. I talked to staff in Cork Prison when I was preparing for this debate and recently, when canvassing, I met other staff. They are very concerned about their own safety and morale and, equally, about the way in which the prison is able to deal with prisoners in classes and workshops, which was mentioned by Senator Cummins. They are concerned about the quality of the education system within the prison.
It is extraordinary that all but eight cells in Cork Prison are doubled up and sometimes there are three prisoners in the one cell. This lends itself to rioting and insurrection in prisons. The Prisoner Officers Association, POA, made a very good comment on the Mountjoy Prison riots, describing the prisoners as being like flies on top of each other. In Mountjoy Prison on the night of the recent riots there were 677 inmates, well in excess of the stated capacity of 450. It is important to look at staff health and safety as well as at the prisoner. This is joined-up thinking.
As Senator Boyle noted, we need to consider what we want our prison system to do and what we want prisoners to do in prison. During the summer I was in Rhode Island. On Route 1, the main interstate route between Boston and Rhode Island, one frequently saw prisoners doing manual labour, picking up rubbish, cutting grass and trimming hedges on the main highway, under supervision. These were low level prisoners. It is important to engage in such a programme in this country. I will probably have some human rights activists after me now but it is important we broaden our thinking about what we can get inmates to do.
I believe, equally, that prison must be rehabilitative. We must have an education system in prisons that would allow inmates, who in some cases would have little or no education, to come out of prison with some kind of learning and education, perhaps even a trade or a degree. With my background in education, I believe we must give people an opportunity to redeem themselves and turn the corner. If our system is only concerned with locking people up, incarcerating them for nine or ten hours a day, it fails. It may give people their pound of flesh and a moral victory but overall there is a knock-on effect which we are missing.
During his term as Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Michael McDowell boasted about making prisons drug free. We are very far away from that. I shall strike a politically discordant note by observing that the Fianna Fáil mantra of zero tolerance has not worked either. Our prisons are overcrowded. We now see that our prisons are overcrowded, it is acknowledged that the methodology we are using is not working and we have refused to overhaul the prison system.
Will the Minister of State say what the situation is as regards the proposed new prison for Kilworth in County Cork? The site has been earmarked, but we have heard little or nothing from Government as regards that. Senator Cummins spoke strongly as regards people with fines, and progress in that regard is to be welcomed. However, we have seen a lack of joined-up thinking between local authorities and the Departments of Justice and Law Reform and Education and Skills as regards community service orders, anti-social behaviour orders and the behaviour of people in society. There is a need to use community service orders rather than incarceration as a sanction for minor offences.
It is also important that there should be ring-fencing of moneys for drug treatment in prison. It is not good enough that people go into prison drug free and come out addicted to some type of drug. I pay tribute to Judge Michael Reilly for his report. I also compliment Mr. John Lonergan, who has been a very strong voice in this regard. I might not always agree with what he has to say, but he has not been afraid to articulate his viewpoint, and he has put a humane and compassionate face on the prison system. I thank the Minister of State for being here.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a ghabháil don Aire Stáit mar gheall ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo do phlé. Táimid ag feitheamh ar na smaointe atá ag an Aire Stáit ar an ábhar seo toisc go bhfuil sé ar a réimse freagrachta aige.
Compared with other countries Ireland's prison population is relatively low, at around 85 per 100,000, as compared with an EU average of 109, while the figure for Britain is 153. On the face of it that is a relatively low prison population. There has been much talk about overcrowding in prisons, but again I believe that the number of places relative to the number of prisoners is more or less in synch at the moment, while obviously there are times when this position is exceeded.
In Belgium the prison figure is 125 per 100,000 of the population. In France it is 130 and in Spain it is 141. Those are the international comparators as regards where we are. More than 80% of Irish prisoners are serving sentences in excess of 12 months, so obviously they are in prison for more serious crimes. That puts in focus the background to the current prison situation in Ireland. There is much emphasis as regards Mountjoy and I realise the former governor has been making comments in that regard. He took a particular approach with which one might agree or disagree. My view is that an over benign approach to the prison population does not necessarily achieve the interests of society generally. It should be a place of rehabilitation, as many Members have said. Also, it should be a place of penance, as it were, for prisoners, many of whom have committed the vilest of crimes.
The conditions in Mountjoy, I know, are not what a civilised society requires. It is a Victorian institution, containing all the elements and indications of that period. However, even in the stringent times we are in, efforts have been made to improve the situation. The acquisition of Thornton Hall, whatever about the costs involved, will afford accommodation for approximately 50% of the current prison population. Value for money comes into this if we are to maximise the facilities based on the very skilled resources that will be available, in all probability, over the next decade or so. In that regard, our tendering systems can sometimes be quite costly. We put contractors who are tendering to a great deal of expense, and obviously only one will be successful. This does not just relate to prisons, as it applies right across the public service. It probably covers the position of the personnel involved, who may not have any expertise in the area, but it does not really serve well the notion of value for money. Many would contend that the system in this regard is overly bureaucratic.
I welcome other developments too. Apart from Thornton Hall there is Kilworth, Dóchas, which will have 70 places in the foreseeable future, Portlaoise, Shelton Abbey and Castlerea, all of which are the focus of capital investment to improve and extend prison facilities. Much discussion has rightly concentrated on the integrated sentence management systems we have. I concur with many who support alternatives to custodial sentences. At the moment there is a reasonable acceptance of that principle through the temporary release mechanism. I believe some 563 prisoners were on temporary release in October, which is similar to parole. The roll-out of electronic monitoring will facilitate this trend further. Obviously, great care must be taken as regards who is on temporary release and who is not. The risk to society and its protection are a fundamental part of that.
Community service orders are playing their part, where people do unpaid work for between one and six weeks. Perhaps there is no reason why that should not be extended, but I am somewhat concerned about the report that while there is a high utilisation of the community service reports by the courts, the scheme is not being used to the extent that it has been in the past. That is a matter of some concern and should be addressed. Community service supervisors are not at full capacity and could provide supervision for three times the number of offenders that have community service orders. There is real scope there and I would like to see this extended. There is no need for people who are not a threat to society to necessarily be incarcerated. However, if the crime is very serious, then obviously they should be, and I do not believe that going to prison should be on a par with entering the Shelbourne or some of our top hotels. They should be a place that one does not aspire to go to, and if one goes there once, one should not have a desire to return.
There are anecdotal stories concerning people who, in winter time, because of lack of accommodation believe that three months in prison might be a nice way to punch in the winter. People involved in the system will acknowledge this. I welcome the fact, too, that a legislative amendment is being made so that judges are obliged to consider community service in cases where custodial sentences are less than six months.
There are a few issues I would like to see tackled, such as the whole remission area of 25%. We should seek to enhance the notion of community work for prisoners along with education. Sex offenders should be obliged to participate in therapeutic courses. I genuinely believe that 25% remission should not apply unless prisoners conform to these norms and one of the criteria should be a sense of confidence in prisoners not reoffending. My understanding is that 50% of those in prison are recidivists within four years. One might argue that 50% are not, but that figure is very high, and while the statistics compare well internationally we should be always seeking to bring that down.
I welcome the opportunity to comment briefly on the inspector's report and the many reports of his predecessors which have provided much food for thought and debate in this and the Lower House. It must be acknowledged that every society has prisons and prisoners. Prison is an emotive word. Sadly, it remains a necessary part of the maintenance of social order in this country and in other societies.
It is disappointing to see reports repeatedly highlighting overcrowding, re-offending and the same people being in prison on a revolving door-type basis. There are major issues which must be addressed by society and by us from a legislative perspective, including prison sentencing, prison accommodation, training, education and so on. It appears that we have not made much progress in this regard during the past 15 to 20 years, in particular in regard to re-offending.
It is traditional in this country that the majority of prisoners come from a particular socioeconomic background, which is regrettable. This illustrates the need for progress in society from an educational perspective. We must try to ensure children remain in school and to enhance and increase opportunities for those people for whom a life of crime becomes the natural outlet.
The merits and demerits of the Celtic tiger are continually mentioned in this House. It must be acknowledged that during the Celtic tiger era respect and manners went out the door. Bad manners and a lack of respect became the norm as a result of the Celtic tiger. Such lack of respect not alone for authority but for neighbours, parents and the elderly leads, in many cases, first to minor crime and then to more serious crime. We must address this issue at school level. We must from the earliest possible age try to instil in children the need for respect for their peers and colleagues. A regeneration of respect among young people would help in stemming the tide of low and high level crime and vandalism.
The report before us deals with the prison system. We must all acknowledge the need for progress in regard to the provision of additional prison spaces, the construction of Thornton Hall and the construction of the new prison in Cork. Senator Buttimer in his contribution asked the Minister of State for an update in regard to the proposed prison at Kilworth. I, too, am interested in hearing the Minister of State's response in that regard. Progress must also be made on community service as an alternative to prison. Much work needs to be done. We have had many reports on prisons from prison visiting committees and so on, all of which indicates that the current system is not working as well as it should.
I doubt I have added anything of significance to this debate. I want to acknowledge the work done by the inspector and his predecessors, whom I believe are challenging us to provide not alone new accommodation for prisoners but new interventions and approaches to ensure fewer people are in prison and, more important, a reduction in the rate of crime in this country.
I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Ahern, who is unable to be here owing to circumstances beyond his control. I thank Senators who contributed to this debate last week and today.
Last week, the Minister set out the range of measures being taken in the prison system. I reiterate that there are no easy or quick-fix solutions that can be brought in overnight to deal with prisons issues. The Government is working to tackle the issue across a number of fronts, including more prison spaces, badly needed investment despite our current economic circumstances, the introduction of legislative solutions such as contained in the Fines Act, the Minister's proposals approved at Cabinet this week to draft a Bill to amend the community service order legislation to ensure judges consider imposing a CSO in circumstances where a custodial sentence of up to six months might be contemplated, and use of probation and welfare service resources to work with offenders in the community to reduce re-offending and promote community safety, working alongside the Garda Síochána in local communities. The Minister's concern is public protection and safety, which must be borne in mind at all times during our discussions. Our prisons are filled with offenders who, by and large, are there for committal of serious offences and in respect of which the Judiciary believed a custodial sentence was warranted.
In the time available, it is not possible to pick up on all of the points made but I will try to comment on some of the key remarks. Many Senators, including Senators Regan and Bacik commented on the issue of prisoner overcrowding. The Minister stated last week that he accepts that prisoner numbers have increased quite significantly in recent years but that this is not unique, in international terms, to Ireland. I reiterate that there is no easy solution to how we manage our prisoner population. Releasing serious offenders onto the streets is not an option. I reiterate the Minister's commitment to providing the various criminal justice agencies with the necessary resources.
The prisons building programme to provide additional spaces is but one example of the Government's determination to tackle these issues. It represents a major commitment in these difficult economic times for the people and we will continue to support prison management and staff in whatever way we can. It has to be borne in mind that we have provided 1,920 new prison spaces since 1997. That is a fact Senators opposite must acknowledge. The Government is also determined to do what it can to prioritise expenditure on the provision of prison places and ensure serious criminals are kept off the streets.
Senators raised concerns regarding the Thornton Hall project. I acknowledge the point and agree that we need to replace the Mountjoy Prison complex. The Government remains fully committed to building the Thornton Hall complex, albeit on a phased basis, to provide 1,400 cells, with a regime focused ethos for prisoners. The first phase will see the provision of 400 cells capable of accommodating up to 700 prisoners and funding is being made available from the Department's capital envelope to enable it to proceed.
A number of Senators also raised the issue of slopping out, on which the Minister accepts their strongly held views. Improvements have taken place, with 72% of the prisoner population now having access to in-cell sanitation facilities. That figure will rise to 80% in the medium term. While we will need the facilities at Thornton Hall and Kilworth in place before we can completely eliminate the practice of slopping out, in the meantime the Irish Prison Service will continue to do what it can to address the matter.
There has also been some comment on the most recent reports of the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention and criticisms made of the prison system. The Minister wishes to state we need independent oversight of the prison system and the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention, Judge Michael Reilly - a judge of many years experience - is doing an excellent job, as acknowledged by many Senators during the debate. The Minister has asked the director general of the Irish Prison Service to review each of the reports presented.
Among other issues, Senator Quinn inquired whether prisoners had a vote; I can assure him that is the case.
Senator Regan referred to the activities available to prisoners. Last week the Minister set out the range of activities available to prisoners, but we must remember that they must want to engage in education programmes, workshops and other work training programmes if we are to obtain best results. Many prisoners want to engage - there are 90 workshops and about 220 whole-time equivalent teachers to provide classes, as well as prison grade staff in workshops. Some prisoners are also completing leaving and junior certificate and Open University courses. Therefore, it is not all negative. We must commend those prisoners who use their time in prison well to improve their standard of education, etc. Integrated sentence management also plays a role in how prisoners can be helped.
The Minister listened carefully and with great interest to the range of views expressed on the non-custodial options open to the Judiciary. I again thank Senator McDonald for her contribution. It is agreed that community-based sanctions work well in appropriate circumstances.
Senator O'Donovan spoke, too, about putting people in prison for minor offences, a matter to which the Minister also referred from his experience as a solicitor. As I said, he has indicated that he believes community service offers a real alternative. In this regard, the Department of Justice and Law Reform is examining the entire range of sanctions available.
I am unable to answer the question raised by Senator Buttimer on the completion of the Kilworth project. I will have a response communicated to him.
I thank Senators for giving me the opportunity to debate these issues. The Government is committed to tackling the issues raised and supporting all aspects of the criminal justice system. I do not have time to deal with a number of other issues raised by Senators, but I will have responses communicated to them.