Thursday, 6 October 2011
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, for attending. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, is detained in Geneva dealing with the UN periodic review.
Ireland has been criticised for our continued practice of detaining children in St. Patrick's Institution, a medium security prison dating back to 1850 on the Mountjoy complex. It has long been officially designated as unfit for the accommodation of children. The Government's commitment is to close the prison to 16-17 year olds and end the practice of detaining children there with immediate effect. However, events in Geneva today show that Ireland continues to be criticised for detaining children in the institution.
I am grateful to the Irish Penal Reform Trust, IPRT, for forwarding me figures. On 10 December 2010, 38 boys aged 16 and 17 years were in the institution. In 2009, a total of 227 boys aged 16 and 17 years were committed to the institution. It is an institution where male offenders between the ages of 16 and 21 years are detained. Boys and girls under 16 years of age are detained in the children detention schools, but boys over the age of 16 years continue to be detained in St. Patrick's Institution. The Ombudsman for Children, the Children's Rights Alliance and the IPRT have consistently called for an immediate end to the detention of children in the institution. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and, recently, Thomas Hammerberg, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights have all called for an end to this practice.
In answer to previous questions and in light of the commitment in the programme for Government, the Minister has stated that he intends to move boys aged 16 to 17 years to a new building at the Oberstown detention school in Lusk. My concern and that of Deputies who raised this matter in the Dáil is that the Minister has given no timeframe for the closure of St. Patrick's Institution to children and for the removal of the children to Lusk.
In light of the commitment to move children to Lusk and the lack of a timeframe, Commissioner Hammerberg recommends in his report that the authorities should start phasing out St. Patrick's Institution immediately for children by moving a pilot group to Lusk and by integrating that experience into the planning process for the enhancement of the detention schools.
Will the Minister of State cite a specific date by which the unacceptable detention of children in St. Patrick's Institution will end? If there is to be a further delay, will he outline a timeframe? In the short term, will the children who continue to be detained in the institution be given access to the complaints mechanism of the Ombudsman for Children? Paragraph 9 of the Commissioner's report was highly critical of the fact that children detained in St. Patrick's Institution, unlike the children in detention schools, do not have access to the Ombudsman for Children, which means they cannot raise complaints about specific aspects of their detention.
St. Patrick's Institution is regarded as being wholly inappropriate for children because of its regime and the facts that children spend much of the day locked up and have family visits screened. There are uniformed officers and Victorian prison architecture. A large proportion of these children are held in protection due to fears for their safety. The widespread availability of drugs within the establishment and the high levels of bullying and inter-prisoner violence have been cited as reasons for not detaining children in the institution.
In the course of my criminal justice work, I have met children who were detained in the institution. They recounted appalling stories about the treatment they endured there.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter on the Adjournment. I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, who is unable to be present due to other business.
Responsibility for the development and provision of safe and secure accommodation for all children ordered to be detained by the courts rests with the Irish Youth Justice Service, IYJS. This service will shortly transfer from the Minister for Justice and Equality to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The Children Act 2001, as amended, requires that children being detained in respect of criminal matters be detained in a children detention school as described in Part 10 of the Act. The commencement of the detention provisions of the Act in March 2007 brought a transition provision, section 156A, into effect allowing for the temporary use of St. Patrick's Institution to accommodate 16 and 17 year old males. It is the Government's intention that this practice will end when accommodation is available in the children detention schools in Oberstown, County Dublin.
Design work for the project to develop the additional capacity required to transfer the 16 and 17 year old age group currently housed in St. Patrick's Institution from the Prison Service to Oberstown is well under way and planning approval is in place. It is intended that the project be delivered in phases to ensure the continued operation of the existing detention schools until such time as the new facilities are available. The steering committee has signed off on concept and sketch designs and the OPW design team is finalising the preparation of detailed specifications and tender documentation for the project. However, Government approval is required before tendering for the construction stage of the project. This decision will be made in the context of the review of capital projects under way across all Departments.
The Minister is of the view that all children in detention have right of access to an independent complaints mechanism. The Ombudsman for Children may receive individual complaints from children in each of the three children detention schools in Oberstown. St. Patrick's Institution accommodates young persons up to 21 years of age. The Ombudsman for Children does not have a statutory function relating to the inspection or investigation of complaints in St. Patrick's Institution. The statutory powers of inspecting prison institutions and hearing prisoners' complaints are vested in the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention and the prison visiting committees. The inspector makes announced and unannounced visits to all prisons, including St. Patrick's Institution, throughout the year. He has shown a particular interest in juvenile prison systems and has published inspection standards for juvenile offenders in St. Patrick's Institution as a supplement to his general inspection standards.
A commitment in the programme for Government "to end the practice of sending children to St. Patrick's Institution" will be achieved by carrying out the necessary redevelopment of the Oberstown detention school campus, subject to the necessary financial approval from the Government. By its nature, this project will take a number of years to complete. When this has been achieved, all children in detention will be in custody in Oberstown and will come under the remit of the Ombudsman for Children.
The Minister points out that there are ongoing contacts between the Prison Service and the IYJS on the exchange of best practices for addressing the needs of the 16 and 17 year olds currently detained in St. Patrick's Institution. Senior managers of the institution have visited the Oberstown campus several times, most recently in September, and further information exchange visits are planned between the two institutions. As far as is practicable, the 16 and 17 year olds are kept in a separate wing of the institution with single-room accommodation.
I assure the Senator that the Minister is fully aware of the importance of this issue. He notes that it is not possible to make any announcement on the Oberstown project at this time, as to do so would prejudge the outcome of the current Government review of capital expenditure. The commitment in the programme for Government will be met at the earliest possible opportunity.
I am disappointed but not surprised by the response. The Minister of State does not have responsibility for this matter, but will he confirm whether the projected completion date for the new facility is mid-2013, as stated by the then Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in December 2009?
The only commitment that I can give on behalf of the Minister is that the one contained in the programme for Government will be honoured in the context of the financial projections being worked on by the Government. To make any commitment on a timeline would prejudge the outcome of the capital expenditure review. I undertake to pass the Senator's serious concerns directly on to the Minister.