Seanad debates

Monday, 7 December 2015

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

1:00 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am pleased to present the Prisons Bill 2015 to this House. Its main purpose is to facilitate the complete closure of St. Patrick's Institution. It will repeal statutory provisions that enable the courts to order the detention of offenders under the age of 21 years in St. Patrick's Institution and also delete references to St. Patrick's Institution from the Statute Book.

St. Patrick's Institution was originally established in Clonmel early in the last century as a borstal institution for young male offenders. It was transferred to its current site adjacent to Mountjoy Prison in 1956. The Criminal Justice Act 1960 which gave it its statutory title made provision for the sentencing of offenders aged 16 to 20 years to detention in the institution.

As Senators, many of whom have campaigned on this issue, are aware, the detention of children in St. Patrick's Institution has been the subject of consistent criticism for many years. The report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System under the chairmanship of Dr. T. K. Whitaker in 1985 noted that "the dominant features of St. Patrick's for the majority of those contained there are boredom and demoralisation". The report recommended the closing of St. Patrick's Institution as soon as possible, stating:

Rehabilitation is not possible where the physical and environmental conditions are such as to nullify any personal developmental programmes. The facilities and services which a human and morally acceptable detention centre should provide for juveniles could not be provided even in a renovated St. Patrick's.

In his annual report for 2004 and 2005 the former Inspector of Prisons, Mr. Justice Dermot Kinlen, described St. Patrick's Institution as a "finishing school for bullying and developing criminal skills". The detention of children in St. Patrick's Institution has been criticised by the Ombudsman for Children, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the European Committee on

Social Rights and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. In addition, organisations such as the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Children's Rights Alliance have called for the detention of children in St. Patrick's Institution to be ended.

The programme for Government 2011 to 2016 included a commitment to end the practice of sending children to St. Patrick's Institution. Very significant progress has been made by the Government in fulfilling this commitment. Responsibility for 16-year-old males remanded in custody or sentenced to detention was transferred from the Irish Prison Service to the children detention schools at Oberstown in May 2012. The €56 million development of national children detention facilities at Oberstown which I was honoured to bring to the Government as the then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is almost complete. This development will increase the number of children detention places available on the campus to enable the transfer of responsibility for all children remanded in custody or sentenced to detention from the Irish Prison Service to the children detention schools.

In 2012 the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, presented an inspection report on St. Patrick's Institution which raised serious issues and major concerns. The inspector reported that a combination of, among other things, weak management, the culture in the prison, inattention to human rights norms, prisoners on protection and the prevalence of drugs meant that St. Patrick's Institution had not lived up to the mission statement of the Irish Prison Service.The inspector concluded that there was a culture in St. Patrick's Institution that resulted in the human rights of some prisoners, children and young adults, being either ignored or violated. In his 2012 report, the inspector acknowledged the efforts made by prison management to deal with the issues previously identified regarding St. Patrick's and the improvements made. However, in a follow-up report in March 2013, he found disturbing incidents of non-compliance with best practice and breaches of the fundamental rights of prisoners. The inspector reported that, despite the best efforts of management, the culture in St Patrick’s had not changed and that the safe and secure custody of young offenders detained there could no longer be guaranteed. He recommended that the facility be closed, that prisoners be dispersed to other institutions, that existing staff be likewise dispersed and that the name "St. Patrick’s" be consigned to history.

In line with the recommendations of the Inspector of Prisons and to effect the changes necessary in regime and culture and ensure safe and secure custody, in July 2013 the Government decided to close St. Patrick’s Institution. As an interim step, which was required pending the opening of the Oberstown facility, arrangements were made for sentenced 17 year old males to be transferred shortly after committal to St. Patrick’s Institution to a dedicated unit in Wheatfield place of detention. This is an interim measure until they can be accommodated in the new children detention facilities at Oberstown. Males aged 18 to 20 years sentenced to detention are detained in a separate unit in Wheatfield.

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs subsequently made the necessary orders under the Children Act 2001 to transfer responsibility for newly-remanded 17 year old males to Oberstown from 30 March 2015. However, for legal reasons, it has been necessary to retain St Patrick’s Institution on a contingency basis for remands awaiting places in Oberstown. The courts have on rare occasions remanded 16 and 17 year olds to St Patrick’s for short periods until places in Oberstown became available. This is a rare practice which will cease following enactment of the Bill and the closure of St. Patrick's Institution. These children cannot be transferred to Wheatfield because section 88 of the Children Act 2001, which provides for the remand of children in custody, does not permit the transfer of remanded children from St. Patrick’s Institution to a place of detention. The Children (Amendment) Act 2015, for which the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has responsibility, was enacted earlier this year and is currently awaiting signature by the Minister. When operational, this Act will enable the full transfer of responsibility for children in detention to the children detention schools. The Act provides for the repeal of all legislative provisions which permit the detention of children in adult prison facilities. The relevant provisions of the Children (Amendment) Act cannot be commenced until Oberstown is ready to receive sentenced persons under the age of 18 years. This will happen when recruitment of staff for Oberstown is finalised. A number of advertisements in this regard were placed in the public arena, including one last week. When adequate staff have been recruited the legislation can be commenced, which I hope will be soon. While the Irish Youth Justice Service has experienced difficulty with recruitment, the necessary staff are expected to be in place shortly.

Two partial closing orders under section 2 of the Prisons Act 1933 have been made in respect of St. Patrick’s Institution. However, it will be necessary for the Prisons Bill to be enacted before St. Patrick’s can be completely closed. The intention is that, when closed, the St. Patrick’s buildings will be designated as part of the male section of Mountjoy Prison, which seems appropriate given their location. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Reilly, and I will give particular attention to the need for careful co-ordination of the commencement of the relevant provisions of the Children (Amendment) Act 2015 and the Prisons Bill, when enacted.

I will now outline the main provisions of the Bill, in respect of which some detailed work was necessary to enable the closure of St. Patrick's Institution. For example, section 3 provides for the repeal of certain enactments relating to St. Patrick’s Institution. The provisions to be repealed relate in the main to court powers to commit offenders under the age of 21 to detention in St. Patrick’s and in the case of a custodial sentence imposed on such a person, he or she will be committed to his or her local committal prison and can subsequently be transferred onwards, where appropriate, to another prison or place of detention.We have had to put in place transitional provisions.

Part 2 will enable St. Patrick’s Institution to be completely closed which I am sure everybody in this House will welcome. The main provision in this Part is section 6 which provides for the complete closing of St. Patrick’s Institution by ministerial order. The section also contains transitional provisions to deal with warrants for the committal or remand of persons to St. Patrick’s Institution which remain unexecuted on the date it is closed. They are all very normal transitional provisions one would expect to see in such a Bill.

Part 3 provides for the removal of references to St. Patrick’s Institution from the Statute Book. These provisions are contained in sections 7 to 22, inclusive. I might mention that it is proposed to retain the references to St. Patrick’s Institution in a small number of legislative provisions in order to avoid unintended consequences for the operation of these provisions, but that is just a technical point.

Part 4 deals with issues that have emerged in the closing of prisons. The transfer of detainees aged 17 years and in the 18 to 20 age group out of St. Patrick’s Institution required Wheatfield Prison to be closed and reopened as a place of detention. Some dedicated units were established there to accommodate the detainees transferring from St. Patrick’s Institution. When I visited, I noted that the new units were very different from the rest of the prison. Every effort was made in the interim to ensure Wheatfield Prison would be more satisfactory and age appropriate than the previous facilities in place in it. A permanent legislative solution is required to regularise the position. I, therefore, propose to bring forward an amendment to section 2 of the Prisons Act 1933 which provides that the Minister for Justice and Equality may make a closing order directing the closing of a prison or part of a prison. Members will understand why I must do this, as Wheatfield Prison was being used as a temporary solution at one point when we took on board what the Inspector of Prisons had to say in 2013.

Section 23 amends section 2 of the Prisons Act 1933. The proposed amendments have two purposes. The first is to provide that, following the closure of a prison, any outstanding warrants that refer to that prison as the place of committal can be executed in another specified prison. The second purpose is to address the position of persons on temporary release from a prison which has been closed. All such situations must be addressed in the legislation.

We are all aware that the path from St. Patrick’s Institution to Mountjoy Prison has been too well worn during the years. We must interrupt the predictable path of violence and crime and repeat offending progressing to further serious offending and committals in adult prisons. The unprecedented programme of reform in closing St. Patrick’s Institution and developing the national children detention facilities at Oberstown will allow us to place these young people in a secure environment that will offer them a second chance to be productive people who contribute to society. We will continue to develop other options for young people who get into trouble with the law because while a secure environment suits some young people, others can be helped in an alternative way. The Bill will allow us to place the young people who need it in a secure environment which I hope will offer them a second chance. The young people who were referred to St. Patrick's Institution in the past but who are now referred to Oberstown have a wide variety of needs and need a lot of intervention in order to help them to get that second chance and be productive people who can contribute to society.

I hope the Bill will be passed by the Dáil and the Seanad in order that St. Patrick’s Institution will finally be consigned to history at the earliest possible date. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. I know she and her officials are anxiously awaiting Christmas in order to get a break. When the Minister is not in this country, she is elsewhere in Europe or other parts of the world representing us. I wish her well.

I am taking the Bill on behalf of my colleague, Senator Denis O'Donovan. It allows for the closure of St. Patrick's Institution in Dublin, something that has been advocated for for quite some time and which we very much welcome. While the institution was supposed to assist in the housing and reformation of young adult offenders and children in certain circumstances, the model applied has largely failed and been widely criticised, a point to which the Minister alluded.It is incredible to think the calls made to close St. Patrick's Institution date back to the recommendations made in 1985 in the report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System which was chaired by Dr. T. K. Whitaker.

We all agree that it is a great shame that approximately 800 people under the age of 26 years are incarcerated in prisons. We all further agree that prison is no place for a young person. A new approach needs to be taken to address young offenders to ensure their rehabilitation rather than incarceration. This is the central aim of Fianna Fáil’s penal policy. In that regard, the closure of St. Patrick's Institution is a small step forward.

The issue of penal reform, in general, is one the Seanad has debated considerably, particularly during this term. Much of the debate has stemmed from the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality on penal reform which was published in March 2013. I pay tribute, in particular, to the Members of this House who were on the committee which called for five key actions to address the challenges in the criminal justice and penal systems. The first action sought was a reduction in prison numbers. The committee was concerned about the significant increase in recent years in the numbers of prisoners. It strongly recommended the adoption of a decarceration strategy through a declared intention by the Government to reduce the prison population by one third over ten years. It is obvious from the justice system that, oftentimes, prison, instead of reforming the individual in custody, makes him or her more likely to reoffend. A 2013 report from the Irish Prison Service and the Central Statistics Office showed that criminals had a reoffending rate of 62.3% within three years, while over 80% of those who reoffended did so within 12 months of release. This is a most depressing figure. However, I commend the Minister for recognising this problem. While I hope more work can be done in this regard, I welcome the latest initiative announced by her to tackle the problem of repeat offenders. If the programme is successful, it will be a great feather in her cap. I still remain sceptical, however, that State agencies have the ability and the vision to truly address the problem of repeat offenders once and for all. There is no question that all State institutions must work to rehabilitate the people concerned and offer them another way of life, rather than a life of crime. Not only is the justice system not effective in reforming offenders' actions, it is also costly. The average cost of imprisonment per prisoner comes to €75,000. This is one reason the Oireachtas joint committee recommended that all sentences of imprisonment under six months imposed for non-violent offences be commuted and replaced by community service orders.

The joint committee also endorsed the Irish Penal Reform Trust’s recommendation of a simple Bill which would set out the basis for a structured release system to include proposed changes to remission, temporary release and parole. The committee recommended that this legislation could also provide a statutory framework for an expanded community return programme, as well underpinning the strategies used by groups working with offenders after release and potential offenders. In that regard, it is obvious a community return programme would be most worthwhile and address many of the matters about which I have spoken. It is foolish to believe an individual engaged in criminal activity will simply stop reoffending if he or she has to serve a sentence.

In July 2014 the strategic review of penal policy was published by the Department of Justice and Equality. It contained 43 recommendations.I would interested to know how many of those recommendations were subsequently implemented. Far too often, Governments of all hues commission reports, which contain recommendations based in evidential policy-making, only for those reports to be left on a shelf to gather dust. This Minister is very proactive and I hope she will not leave that committee's report on a shelf but that she will implement most, if not all, of its recommendations. Fianna Fáil fully supports this Bill and looks forward to its speedy passage through the House.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I extend what appears to be an almost daily welcome to the Minister to this House. She is probably one of the hardest working members of Government, if not the hardest working. I go home on a Friday evening but the Minister will pop up in Brussels, which shows her commitment to public service.

This Bill is very welcome. I was part of a delegation from the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, which included my colleague, Senator Bacik, and others, that visited the Mountjoy campus and St. Patrick's Institution. We saw what the staff there were trying to achieve but it was not fit for purpose. The correct strategy, which was part of the commitment in the programme for Government in 2011, is to close St. Patrick's Institution. This legislation is appropriate but, in essence, it is technical in nature. The decision has been made to close the institution, which is happening, but for legal and technical reasons, this Bill is necessary as a tidying up exercise and to proceed with the completion of the project.

No young person should end up in prison, if at all possible. This House unanimously passed motions on restorative justice and the need for a community court and I am pleased the Department of Justice and Equality and Minister are committed to developing pilot projects, in particular in the area of restorative justice. The pilot projects in north Tipperary and south county Dublin have been very successful and I would like them to be extended nationwide. We have seen the success of restorative justice practices in Northern Ireland in recent years and their success in places such as Canada, Australia and elsewhere. There are also the unofficial restorative practices that have been engaged in by community groups, which perhaps many of us do not know about and which are achieving significant results, particularly some of those taking place in schools.

Young people who commit crime usually do so because of a set of circumstances in which they find themselves, such as social deprivation or not having the opportunities others have. They are the issues with which we need to deal. We need to equip those young people with opportunities to ensure they can play a meaningful role in society. Many people turn to crime because they do not feel they have any hope in society. The Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality published a groundbreaking report on penal reform and I pay tribute to Senator Bacik for her work in this area.

Prior to taking up her role as Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald was Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, at which time she started a necessary conversation followed by actions, which have resulted in children in this country being recognised properly as a result of the referendum and as a result of our having a senior Minister with responsibility for children. It is probably an appropriate progression that this Minister would take over as Minister for Justice and Equality to further develop the commitment this Government has to children.

I acknowledge that Senator Wilson and the Fianna Fáil Party are supporting this Bill. I hope it gets unanimous support in the House because it is necessary, important and technical in nature. We are all committed to the one goal here. This House regularly comes together and unanimously supports something that is right and proper, and this is right and proper. It will be another significant achievement for the Houses of the Oireachtas if we can get this Bill over the line and ensure St. Patrick's Institution is consigned to its place in history.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister to the House. The practice of detaining children in the adult prison system, namely, St. Patrick's Institution, was contrary to a number of Ireland's international human rights obligations. It was counterproductive as a means of steering children away from future criminality and it represented a poor reflection of the State's policy towards children. Concerns and criticisms about the practice were levied against Ireland domestically, regionally and internationally for more than 30 years in the report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System, the Whitaker report, of 1985, to which the Minister referred, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child concluding observations in 2006, the European committee for the prevention of torture as recently as February 2012, and the UN committee against torture concluding observations of July 2011.

Particular credit should be given to the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Children's Rights Alliance which had consistently campaigned for the closure of St. Patrick's Institution and had kept the associated children's rights violations to the fore. The introduction of the Bill is an historic day for children's rights, juvenile justice and the progressive reform of our penal policy. It realises the programme for Government commitment in 2011 to end the practice of sending children to this institution. I support and welcome entirely the closure of the institution. I commend the Government and, in particular, the Minister, who was the former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and her successor, Deputy Reilly, for their hard work, commitment and initiative in completing this task.

I do not wish to be a killjoy or to detract from what is clearly a great success. However, given the time I have left in the House, I must take this opportunity to raise a number of concerns about child detention currently. I am concerned that with the closure of this institution, there will be a perception that the detention of children in adult institutions has ended which, of course, is not the case. While since 30 March 2015, all newly-remanded 17 year old males are committed to Oberstown, those sentenced to detention are committed to Wheatfield Prison, which is unsuitable for their needs. As of today, 13 boys of 17 years of age are serving sentences in this prison - I checked the figure earlier.

I also have concerns about Oberstown, some of which were reflected in a letter to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, following a visit there by members of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, including me, in June 2015. There is a need for the institution to publish its data. An accountable, transparent method of recording and making available data on violent and intimidatory incidents between residents is needed. It is essential that the safety of young people in Oberstown be prioritised. I have heard examples of six boys in a unit turning on one boy with only two staff on hand to contain the six boys if things got out of hand. It is not unfeasible that a young person could come to serious harm and I would like the Government to put mechanisms in place now rather than reacting later to a tragic incident involving death or serious injury to a child in detention.

Published information is needed on Oberstown's daily occupancy and capacity figures which separate out children on remand and children under sentence. All prisons, including Wheatfield, which expressly specifies the number of 17 year olds it holds, do this. It is vital that interested parties can monitor the use of remand on an ongoing basis.

The Minister will be aware from a number of my previous interventions that I have ongoing concerns around the overuse of remand for children. There is no rationale for keeping these figures out of the public domain, especially when the Irish Youth Justice System has not published an annual report since 2011. We need to track the nature and type of charges for which children are remanded and committed. According to Oberstown staff, the profile of charges has become more serious over the years and this has an impact for risk assessment both of staff and the children involved.

I would like to highlight the need for specific and ongoing training to deal with the increased age cohort. I have raised this issue with the Minister of Children and Youth Affairs on a number of occasions. These young people are physically bigger, display more challenging behaviour and have more serious charges against them, which changes the dynamic between the staff and younger boys who do not want to be seen to comply or buy in when the older boys are around. This concern was raised in the visiting committee report for St. Patrick’s Institution in 2014.While Oberstown is within the remit of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, we have an opportunity to consider a new system of sanctions and what we do with poor behaviour or escalating violence. Perhaps we need to look again at the issue and draw from best practice. We have a real opportunity to do things afresh with Oberstown.

The European committee for the prevention of torture visited Oberstown in 2014 and published a report in November 2015. Important concerns that the committee raised throughout the report include excessive use of force and handcuffs, use of lock-up due to insufficient staffing levels, insufficient access to natural light and austerity of the rooms, staff numbers and ratios and the need to photograph, record and report. I note a particularly worrying comment in the Government's response to the report that the operational capacity of 90, comprising 84 boys and six girls, "will be reviewed"; there are currently 54 places, comprising 48 boys and six girls. We are aware that staffing shortages have been raised by Members and the ability to replace staff out due to illness and injury must be examined before we look to expand. We need to consider children being placed on remand in Oberstown inappropriately. Perhaps we should not be looking at any increase but rather at dealing with this issue effectively.

The Minister raised the HIQA report of June 2015. It was a follow-up inspection report that identified widespread and unacceptable use of single separation and this must be addressed. The Irish Penal Reform Trust did a report on monitoring and accountability in Oberstown at the end of 2014 that identified a number of concerns with monitoring mechanisms, including around adequate resourcing of monitoring bodies, the lack of enforcement of the recommendations of monitoring bodies and the outdated nature of the standards used for inspection of the children detention schools.

The last point I raise relates to the assessment, consultation and therapy service, ACTS, which are supposed to assess all children remanded or committed to detention but this is not happening. According to staff, this is due to limited availability and logistics. Some children are regarded as too violent or difficult for ACTS, which begs the question of what are the criteria for ACTS? What message are we sending to a young person by saying he or she is too violent or difficult to reach. It is unacceptable that this service can disengage from working with a young person and surely this is what they are about.

I fully support this Bill but I had to take this opportunity to raise some of my concerns. What is being done today is historic and significant but I ask the Minister to consider the issues I raise relating to children in detention. We need to ensure that we can look at the other options available, particularly for children on remand and the children in Oberstown, so we do not use outdated practices in their detention.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, to the House and echo the words of others about her incredible working record. I also welcome her hard-working officials, as we are conscious of the volume of legislation coming through from the Department of Justice and Equality. This is historic legislation, as others have said, which I very much welcome. I was moved when reading the language of the Bill, particularly the first line, which is "an Act to provide for the closing of Saint Patrick's Institution". Like many others, I have campaigned for its closure for many years with the Irish Penal Reform Trust. Senator van Turnhout has mentioned the Children's Rights Alliance and the Minister mentioned the long history of constant criticism to which Ireland has been subjected from international bodies and internally, from our own Inspector of Prisons and the Whittaker report of 30 years. There was an appalling culture and abuses perpetrated on children and young adults, including violation of human rights, within St. Patrick's Institution. It is very welcome to see this final stage in the legislative process moving towards its closure.

As Senator Conway has said, this is almost technical legislation, despite the rather moving language in it as the decision to close was taken some years ago. I will speak in a moment about the process that has led to it and will return later to the criticism issue. I remember representing young offenders before the children's courts, with many of them being desperately sad cases.Those of us who practised criminal law or worked on the front line remember the whispered stories of sexual and physical abuse and the drugs culture in St. Patrick's Institution, all of which was documented by successive inspectors of prisons. One former inspector, Mr. Justice Dermot Kinlen, described St. Patrick's Institution as a finishing school for bullying and developing criminal skills and uttered stronger language about it in private. The groundbreaking 2012 report of inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, on the culture of violations there played an important and pivotal role in the decision to close it. In the 1990s, the work of the recently deceased Dr. Paul O'Mahoney, a leading criminologist, on recidivism in the Irish criminal justice system exposed St. Patrick's Institution, as Mr. Justice Kinlen said, as a breeding ground for future criminality. The average prisoner in Mountjoy would have spent time in St. Patrick's and would have been reconvicted nine or ten times on average. Senator Wilson quoted more figures on recidivism which expose the legacy of St Patrick's Institution. It has been a black spot on the Irish record in terms of penal policy and children's rights.

In his report on penal reform published 30 years ago, T.K. Whitaker recommended that St. Patrick's be closed. Some 20 years on, in 2005, a follow-up to the Whitaker report again recommended its closure. It is great to see that it is finally being closed, 30 years after the Whitaker report. This is hugely progressive in terms of penal reform policy and children's rights. The policy decision to end the practice of detaining children in St Patrick's Institution was hugely welcome when it was made in 2011 and there has also been a number of progressive steps which the Irish Penal Reform Trust has welcomed. The trust has been to the forefront of ensuring closure. Following the inspector of prisons' report, there were commitments made by the Minister in 2012, when she was Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The current Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly, signed ministerial orders in March of this year to end the practice of remanding children to St. Patrick's Institution. In addition, the Children (Amendment) Act 2015 has been enacted. There have been progressive stages involved, not only of a legislative nature. As the Minister said, it also required the expansion of Oberstown. I note the building work is almost complete on the expansion of the Oberstown campus. The Minister also mentioned the recruitment of staff. Senator van Turnhout has said it is a key issue and one about which there is some concern regarding whether the necessary staff can be recruited in time.

I have three points to raise on the practical impact of the legislation. In terms of timing, when will the Bill take effect? We intend to pass it as swiftly as possible. I am delighted that it has been commenced in the Seanad. I hope it will be passed by the Dáil next week and that the ministerial order commencing its provisions will be signed. Under section 6, a closure order will be required. Before the latter can be signed, it will need to be co-ordinated with the commencement of the relevant provisions of the Children (Amendment) Act 2015. We would also need to see the relevant staff in place and the campus at Oberstown finally completed. Can the Minister say exactly when the Act and this historic provision will take effect?

On the question Senator van Turnhout raised, we know from the Irish Penal Reform Trust that 13 boys are currently detained at Wheatfield Prison. I think they are all 17 year olds so it may be that they will age out, - in other words they will reach 18 shortly - but one does not know. How long is it proposed that boys under the age of 18 will be detained at Wheatfield? That is a matter of concern. Will it be possible, when this legislation is brought into force and the closure order is made, for those boys to be transferred to complete the remainder of their sentence until they turn 18?

Senator Conway mentioned the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality's report on penal reform a number of years ago and kindly referenced my contribution to it as rapporteur. In the same spirit as Whitaker's report 30 years ago, we recommended that imprisonment should be a sanction of last resort and that a commitment should be made to reducing the number of people imprisoned. Since the Government took office in 2011, there has been a reduction in the number of people being detained in prison, which is welcome. Others have mentioned the community return programme - a hugely progressive initiative - which has shown really positive results in tackling recidivism rates and reducing reoffending.

My concern is that if, on the closure of St. Patrick's, its buildings are designated as part of the male section of Mountjoy Prison, this would lead to an expansion of the adult places available in Mountjoy.An expansion of prison places tends to lead to an expansion of the use of imprisonment as a sanction, which would be unwelcome. It is clear that prison is needed, in particular for offences of violence and for offenders who are serious recidivists who commit serious crimes, but when we looked at the issue in detail in the Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, we were conscious that a large number of people were still being detained and imprisoned for very minor matters such as non-payment of fines. We must ensure we do not expand prisons for the sake of it and that we do not see any regression in terms of returning to a position where we are simply building up the numbers of people detained. I would be concerned about what the redesignation of the St. Patrick's buildings would mean in terms of the adult prison population.

The Bill is very welcome and I am sure it will be welcomed across the House. It marks a change in approach from retributive punishment and sanction to rehabilitation. The culture in Oberstown is clearly about rehabilitation and, as the Minister said, seeking to give people a second chance, which is hugely welcome. The Bill marks an historic day in terms of penal reform and the development of children's rights, so I very much welcome it.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Minister is very welcome. The Bill is also particularly welcome. I add to what others have said in terms of the great effort the Minister is putting in, but she is also achieving much success. I congratulate her in this regard. We are honoured to have her here so often introducing Bills such as the one before the House.

I sent a birthday card today to Dr. T. K. Whitaker, who will be 99 tomorrow. I will speak to him later on about today and the fact he has been mentioned so often. He is a former Member of this House, as was the Minister herself. It is a delight to see that something he recommended 30 years ago is taking place. He will be very pleased to know that.

I remember speaking on a prison Bill many years ago when I was first elected the House. I was trying to work out in my mind why we put people in prison. Senator Bacik referred to the issue in one way, namely, to protect society. In another way it is a punishment, to ensure a person is discouraged from doing something again. However, by far the most principled approach to take to criminals is rehabilitation and to consider what we must do to ensure we give people another chance.

I was only once in a prison, on a visit to Wheatfield Prison. I was involved with the leaving certificate applied course. I was very impressed with the work being done with younger people, not necessarily under 17 years, who were being taught the leaving certificate applied course, many of whom had never learned to read or write in school. They had fallen out of the system and that got them into a bad habit. One of the reasons I was impressed is that we got our meal in the prison that evening and it had been cooked by two young men who had learned how to cook there. I am confident they would have gone on to benefit from that because the education they got in prison was such that it would enable them to stay out of prison in future and stay away from crime. Senator Conway expressed the hope that we would have the unanimous support of the House. I think the Minister will have that. It is very difficult to see how anyone would disagree with what she is attempting to achieve.

We have all read of the issues that surround St. Patrick's Institution. In recent years a considerable number of people under the age of 21 were held on a 23-hour lock-up. That just seems horrific. The closure of St. Patrick's, which the Bill will bring about, is very welcome, and thus the Government will be able to end the practice of sending children to the institution. The transition process has taken some time. It is an ongoing process. It is worth mentioning that when the Council of Europe delegation visited St. Patrick's in September last year, it noted that five 17 year olds were still being remanded there. However, it could be said that the Council of Europe's newly published report carried a relatively positive assessment of child detention facilities in this country. That is a considerable improvement on the situation that pertained in the past. The report highlighted high levels of violence in prison, to which previous speakers referred, and the practice of slopping out as well as the detention of failed asylum seekers in prison.While we have seen considerable progress with regard to young offenders, we could learn more from the best European policies and practices in this area. It is worth noting that in Germany education and vocational training are central principles for young people in custody. Another principle worth noting is that in Germany and the Netherlands, young people aged 18 to 21 can be treated either as juveniles or adults. This is an interesting concept to consider. Whether a person is treated as a juvenile or an adult depends on the seriousness of the crime, the circumstances in which it was committed and the personality of the defendant. We must tailor the punishment by taking age into consideration. Just because someone has turned 18 does not necessarily mean that he or she can be regarded as a fully competent adult. The number of people who are unable to read or write at that age is a good example of that.

We should use community service much more than is currently the case, rather than sending people to prison. The highly respected policy think tank, Howard League for Penal Reform, conducted research demonstrating that community service can reduce re-offending by up to 22% compared with short custodial sentences of up to 12 months. Community service often means that work gets done that probably would not have been done. It also provides offenders with a work routine, builds their self esteem and can change their lives for the better, unlike locking them up at enormous cost to the taxpayer. In the UK community service is now officially referred to as compulsory unpaid work. Why not call a spade a spade here too? I ask the Minister to give her views on this.

One of the issues related to both juvenile and adult justice is that of restorative justice, where the offender pays back for his or her crime. In some European countries citizens can nominate a local project or vote for a project that they wish to see benefit from unpaid labour. In that way, citizens have a worthwhile input into the justice system. This is a concept that is worth considering in the Irish context.

Finally, it is worth asking if wider society could play any part in juvenile justice policy. There is a plan in the UK which involves academics and free schools, that is state-funded schools which are free of local council control, being invited to take over the education of young offenders. The aim is to create what have been termed "secure training colleges" in order to improve the rehabilitation of young offenders.

I am delighted that the Minister has grabbed hold of this issue and am confident that this Bill will pass through both Houses quickly. The next stage is to make sure that its provisions are implemented as quickly as possible, which I have no doubt the Minister will achieve.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister to the House. All legal practitioners, as well as those involved in law reform, human rights and children's rights will welcome this Bill which facilitates the complete closure of St. Patrick's Institution. I was justice spokesperson for my party back in 2004 when this House debated the report of the inspector of prisons, who was Mr. Justice Kinlen at the time. He referred to St. Patrick's Institution as a school for bullying and the development of criminal skills.I was struck by that statement and it has remained with me. It was also the reason I called for the closure of St. Patrick's Institution in 2004. I am very glad the day of its closure is near at hand. The Minister is to be commended on progressing this issue, which is close to the hearts of many of those involved in law reform and the legal system.

Senators spoke about tackling recidivism. It is very important to address this issue, along with the need for greater rehabilitation. The former Deputy Jim O'Keeffe produced a paper on restorative justice, an issue raised by Senator Quinn. This is a laudable approach that must be taken on board by members of the public, who must want restorative justice if it is to work. I am aware that a pilot project in this area had good results.

Senator Bacik referred to the imprisonment of people for failure to pay small fines imposed for not having a television licence and so forth. This practice never ceases to amaze me. People who cannot or will not pay fines should have the amounts deducted from their social welfare payments or salaries. The courts should not be involved in the process once a fine has been imposed. It should be deducted from people who fail or refuse to pay it. Many judges have indicated they would be willing to work out a system for achieving this. It should be done automatically. The Government has spoken about this option for some time and while some action has been taken on the issue, the Government should go the whole way and have fines automatically deducted from social welfare payments and salaries.

As I stated, this is a good day in respect of St. Patrick's Institution. I welcome the significant expenditure on the Oberstown centre, which I hope will provide a secure environment for young persons in future and offer them with a second chance to play a productive role in society. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire agus ba mhaith liom a rá nach bhfuil Sinn Féin ag cur i gcoinne an Bhille seo ach an oiread. Sinn Féin is not opposed to the Bill. As the Minister stated, the main purpose of the legislation is to facilitate the complete closure of St. Patrick's Institution. It repeals statutory provisions that enable the courts to order the detention of offenders under the age of 21 years in St. Patrick's Institution and deletes references to "St. Patrick's Institution" in the Statute Book.

In part, the Bill owes its origins to a commitment given in the programme for Government to end the practice of sending children to St. Patrick's Institution. For decades, non-governmental organisations, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Irish Penal Reform Trust and a plethora of international organisations, including the United Nations, have called for the closure of St. Patrick's Institution and an end to the detention of children in adult prisons. Across the child protection and criminal justice spectrum, there is unanimous agreement on the importance and significance of ending the practice of detaining children in adult prisons. For example, the Irish Penal Reform Trust has repeatedly pointed out that adult prisons are completely unsuitable for meeting the particular needs of young offenders. This sentiment was echoed by the new Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, who stated that rehabilitation must be a paramount consideration in the detention of young people.

The legal erasing of St. Patrick's Institution and the addition of six new buildings, each with a capacity to house between eight and ten children, are positive steps. Again, the Ombudsman for Children and the Irish Penal Reform Trust agree that the Oberstown centre is the most appropriate environment for the small number of young people for whom detention is necessary. However, both entities have also expressed concern at the findings of a report by the Health Information and Quality Authority published on 23 February concerning two inspections it carried out on the Oberstown centre in October and November 2014. Of a total of ten standards, HIQA found that the child detention schools met just one - education - in full. Six standards were found to require improvement, and the failure to meet three standards was found by HIQA to present significant risk.These were in the areas of single separation, the management of medication and staffing and training issues. The isolation of any child or young person from his or her peers can be damaging and the standards are clear that isolation must only be used sparingly and for the minimum, appropriate period of time. The Irish Penal Reform Trust, IPRT, is particularly concerned at reports that single separation was used due to staff shortages. Concerns regarding insufficient staffing, staff training and high levels of staff absenteeism are also detailed in the inspection report. In a 12-month period, more than 700 cases of single separation were recorded at Oberstown, with one child spending more than 83 hours in isolation over a four-day period.

It has been proven that in areas where supports exist for minors who are exposed to violence or trouble in their communities, these supports significantly reduce the number of children who get into trouble with the law. We must start discussing the issue of early intervention and prevention. We must create a system which is humane and progressive - a rehabilitation process which encourages all children to reach their full potential rather than a system which negatively impacts future generations for life.

It is worth reminding ourselves that this State's reputation in regard to prisons is justly criticised for being embarrassing. The Government should be embarrassed. Ireland is one of only four European countries not to have ratified the UN's anti-torture protocol. Professor Malcolm Evans, whose work focuses on preventing torture and degrading treatment, expressed frustration at the fact that the Government has repeatedly promised but failed to ratify a system of independent, international inspections. He said at the last universal periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN member states in 2011, that Ireland's failure to sign up to the UN's anti-torture protocol was openly criticised, even by some countries in the developing world with very poor human rights records. Professor Evans said some would reach the conclusion the justice authorities in Ireland had an issue with transparency and accountability. The protocol provides for the UN and national bodies to make unannounced visits to all places of detention, including prisons, police stations and psychiatric hospitals and to report on what they find. The bodies have the power to examine the facilities and interview staff and detainees in confidence as part of that inspection process.

I note a certain irony to the scheduling of business today. I welcome the fact that we are closing down St. Patrick's Institution, which Senator Bacik rightly called a "black spot on the Irish record", but this is being done on foot of a report done 30 years ago. I seriously hope we will not be in a similar position in regard to what we are doing on direct provision, namely, that we institutionalise it ad nauseamand in 30 years' time other parliamentarians will be here debating reports about how that system is not living up to the human rights standards it should. In numerous reports, the direct provision system has been called a form of open prison and has been reported as violating human rights. It has been termed as "privatised institutionalisation". In the case of St. Patrick's Institution, we had HIQA oversight, but we do not have that independent oversight of the direct provision system and the Ombudsman has no role in overseeing it.

In the context of closing down one prison today, I call on all Senators to ensure that we do not perpetualise another open prison type system in the direct provision system later today and to vote against the Bill coming up in that regard.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome this Bill. I also welcome the Minister and endorse what she is doing in this regard. Senator Quinn mentioned one of our greatest public servants ever, T. K. Whitaker, who chaired the report on the closure of St. Patrick's Institution 30 years ago. This report is now only being acted on, but Mr. Whitaker should be recognised for it. As someone who had the pleasure of meeting him on two or three occasions when I was involved with the constitutional committee chaired by the late Brian Lenihan, I note with joy that he is 99 tomorrow. It was an honour and privilege to meet him. We should express our gratitude for the wonderful work he has done, not alone in this regard, but in many other areas over his long decades of public service.

I endorse the point that a prison is a place of last resort and would like to raise the issue of where people are sentenced to prison for minor offences, such as not paying TV licence fees, and are committed to prison for being seven, 14 or 21 days in default. Let me outline a problem that arose for a small farmer in a part of Munster.About three years ago he decided to travel up to the midlands to get a part for his tractor. He came into a strange town and looked to put a coin in the box for a parking permit, but there was a sign up saying the machine was out of order. He went and got his part and had a cup of tea and a sandwich after his long journey from the south of Ireland. Unfortunately a ticket was placed on his car and, feeling aggrieved, he rang the people concerned. He talked and appealed but to no avail. His mistake was that he did not turn up at the District Court a year later for the hearing. That poor individual was arrested and dragged from a remote part of southern Ireland, with the assistance of the Garda, all the way up to Mountjoy because of a parking fine. He was let out the same day. I rang the prison governor who was embarrassed that this should happen. We must get away from this system of penalising people by sending them to prison for one, seven or 14 days.

I welcome the closure of St. Patrick's Institution. No person under 18 should be in prison, unless there is a very serious reason. There is community service as well as other methods which were mentioned by Senator Cummins.

People who are not paying fines should have the money taken from their pensions, social welfare or some other source. We recently had the case - I think it was last year - of an elderly lady in some part of Dublin who had a television dish up on the side of her house. The local authority acted on a complaint about the dish and she was apparently committed to prison. This is the sort of thing we must avoid.

If we are serious about reform, we must have a root and branch overhaul. People who have not committed a crime, in the real sense of having attacked, viciously assaulted or stabbed someone, should not be going to prison. There are instances where, for their own safety and the safety of others, people have to be in prison. As well as the young people who will hopefully be saved from St. Pat's - it is a place I visited once in my capacity as a solicitor - I hope that we can get rid of imprisonment for petty offences. It has been going on for over 100 years that someone in default of a fine, say of €50, gets seven or 14 days. We must move away from that. Sending people to prison for non-payment of fines or of small payments due to credit unions or whatever is sending out the wrong signal. We are mixing the chaff with the wheat and that was never intended by the criminal justice system.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister and support the Bill. There is an irony in calling a juvenile prison "St. Patrick's". After all, we kidnapped him in Britain and held him against his will on Slemish Mountain and made him do forced labour. It is hardly something we would wish to celebrate and I am delighted the Minister is shutting down the institution that is so unaptly named.

I note that in the prisons budget €333 million is allocated for 3,777 people, or €88,000 per prisoner per year. I believe in Portlaoise it is up to €250,000. We should do anything we can to spend that money more effectively in DEIS schools, preschools, social programmes, electronic surveillance outside prisons, having people signing on - they are all much better alternatives than this huge expenditure.

I compliment the Minister again on shutting St. Patrick's. The programme should continue and we should shut down more prisons if we can. It is an extremely costly way of accomplishing remarkably little in terms of the rehabilitation of people.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank all the Senators for their unanimous support across the House for the closure of St. Patrick's. It is long overdue indeed, as we know, and I am delighted to be in a position to bring the Bill to the House. We have had wide-ranging comments on the associated issues that arise when we talk about young or older people being in detention centres and prisons. Some really interesting points have been raised.I should note the penal reform report, which I published in the course of the year and on the implementation of which I now have a working group, addresses quite a few of the issues raised by Senators. It is an extremely good report and the people responsible for it were highly expert and had a wide-ranging range of expertise. It addresses quite a few of the issues raised by Senators on keeping people out of prison, as well as some of the points Senator Quinn made about rehabilitation, training and the kinds of interesting initiatives that can be seen in other countries regarding people who are detained to ensure they get a second chance and that their lives of crime can be interrupted effectively. This has been a helpful debate and I reiterate that many of the issues are addressed in the aforementioned penal reform report.

Let us consider some of the figures, for example, in respect of community returns. Pilot projects were carried out over the past year, and at present 100 prisoners are in the community return programme, which is being run between the Prison Service and the Probation Service. It is a good programme. The success rate has been high and the incidence of crimes committed by people on the programme has been very low. Consequently, that kind of programme really is worth trying. The new fines legislation, which was mentioned by Senator Cummins and a number of other Members, will come into effect from the first week in January and will implement the legislation that has passed through the House. The Courts Service has been working on its implementation because it required some developments on the information technology side. Senators Bacik and Conway welcomed the Bill and asked the question as to the actual closure. In this regard, the last remaining issue is the recruitment of staff and it is a question of making sure those staff can be put in place. I cannot emphasise enough its critical importance, as it pertains to the recruitment of care staff and ensuring the requisite number of staff are ready to deal with the young people who will be remanded and will be sent to Oberstown. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection and I have discussed this matter and she certainly will take any action she can to ensure people know about these jobs that are available. While they undoubtedly are demanding jobs, as working in a closed institution is highly demanding, there are people around who have done this kind of work, who are skilled and who may be looking for work. It is to be hoped they will be attracted to work in Oberstown and I note the terms and conditions also have been improved somewhat. I ask anyone who is in a position to advise people who may be interested in this to do so, because it is really important that we get the staff in place to open the additional units so that we can deal with the numbers. Thereafter, everybody who is under 18 and who is referred will end up in one of the units in Oberstown rather than in Wheatfield Prison. The people who are in Wheatfield at present will serve out their sentence there, but thereafter, once the staff are in place, all new referrals will go directly to Oberstown.

I must state that this is a nice opportunity to send birthday greetings to Dr. Whitaker from the House, and I believe he would be pleased.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Hear, hear.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Justice and Equality; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

While I am sure he would state that it has taken far too long for his recommendation to be implemented, nevertheless, as Senator Quinn noted, we should take this opportunity to send him birthday greetings for his 99th birthday tomorrow and to thank him for his considerable service to the State. A number of other people were mentioned here today, including the late Dr. Paul O'Mahony, who had a huge interest in how children and young people are treated when they come to the attention of the law. He did really sterling work and influenced many of the policies that have been developed by the highly progressive Probation Service.

I agree with Senators across the Chamber who stated that this type of detention should be a last resort. For the most part, when young people who are 17 or 18 years old get into trouble, local services should be able to work with them and, one hopes, keep them out of detention. Unfortunately, however, there always will be a need for some places because we have serious and serial violent offenders, and detention unfortunately is the only place for the vast majority of those offenders. However, the Government must continue to invest to make sure people are given every opportunity to have that second or third chance, or whatever it might be. I, again, thank all Senators for their support for the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Next Friday.

Committee Stage ordered for Friday, 11 December 2015.