Written answers

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform

Prison Accommodation

9:00 pm

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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Question 51: To ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the steps being taken to address the serious overcrowding and inadequate conditions highlighted in the report of the Inspector of Prisons, published September 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28342/10]

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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As I have previously indicated to the House, the report on Mountjoy Prison by the Inspector of Prisons has been considered by the Director General of the Irish Prison Service and his Senior Management Team. A number of the Inspector's recommendations have been implemented or are in the course of being implemented, subject to the availability of resources.

The newly refurbished Separation Unit has opened which facilitates an enhanced regime for protection prisoners including access to a full range of services including medical, gym facilities, probation service and chaplaincy service. Prisoners in the Separation Unit now receive 2 hours of out of cell time for recreation in the yard and also a further period of out of cell time in the gym.

Prison management have identified a suitable area in the Medical Unit as the most suitable location to establish a Vulnerable Persons Unit (VPU). The Irish Prison Service hope to hold discussions with the Prison Officers Association in the near future with regard to advancing this initiative.

The Irish Prison Service introduced a new prisoner's complaints procedure in January, 2010. The main points of the new policy are: - all complaints and allegations are acted upon and investigated and acknowledgements issued no later than 7 working days. - Prisoners have easy access to complaint forms and a method of submitting complaints directly to the Governor. - Any allegation of excessive use of force should be reported to the Governor immediately and the Gardaí notified. - An efficient and effective record system to be put in place and maintained including a standardised journal.

The ambitious prison capital programme currently underway will result in the replacement and/or refurbishment of nearly 40% of the entire prison estate and the ending of 'slopping out'.

Overall, there has been major progress in recent years in terms of addressing and eliminating the problems presented by slopping-out. The final elimination of the remaining outdated accommodation, mainly at Mountjoy and Cork Prisons, and to a lesser degree at Portlaoise and Limerick is dependent on the progress of the Thornton Hall and Kilworth Projects. When the new wing in Wheatfield Prison opens, 72% of our accommodation will have in-cell sanitation.

In relation to Mountjoy Prison specifically it should be noted that 340 of the cells are single occupancy and toilet patrols are in place until 10pm. The option to introduce toilet patrols through the night would not be cost-neutral as it would require extra staff to be on duty and the Irish Prison Service simply does not have the resources necessary to escort prisoners to the toilets at times when prisoners are locked in their cells. Where possible and where security considerations allow, staff on night duty will allow prisoners to go to the toilet during the night.

A new Hygiene & Cleanliness drive has been operating on the B and C Divisions over the past month or so and will be rolled out across the prison. The purpose of this project is to ensure that general standards of hygiene in the prison are elevated and maintained to a higher standard.

All of this planned activity in regard to raising hygiene standards has had a highly visible and positive effect in the Prison improving both prisoner and staff morale. The Inspector of Prisons and the Visiting Committee have made favourable remarks with regard to same. I want to compliment Mountjoy staff and inmates alike for their efforts and success in this respect.

At the time of the publication of the Inspectors report I indicated that with the addition of 50 new spaces in the Separation Unit it is my intention, in so far as is practicable, to keep the prison population of Mountjoy under 600.

However, this has not been possible to-date given current levels of committals, but the opening of the Wheatfield block later this year is expected to give some respite in this regard. It should be noted that Mountjoy Prison, with 340 single cells, has the highest number of single cells of all prisons in the State. In addition, while the stated capacity of Mountjoy is 590 there is accommodation available to hold in excess of that number when necessary.

The Inspector of Prisons, in his 2008 Annual Report, acknowledged that overcrowding in prisons is an international problem and is not unique to Ireland. The Irish Prison Service has been engaged in an extensive programme of investment in prisons infrastructure which has involved both the modernisation of the existing estate and the provision of extra prison spaces. Since 1997 in excess of 1,720 new prison spaces have come on stream in the prison system. These include the new prisons in Castlerea, the Midlands, Cloverhill, the Dóchas Centre and new accommodation in Limerick, Portlaoise and Castlerea prisons and at the open centres in Shelton Abbey and Loughan House.

Current projects will see in excess 200 prison spaces provided in the short term by means of the opening of a new block in Wheatfield. In addition, we hope to proceed in late 2010 with a new accommodation block in the Portlaoise/Midlands prisons complex which will provide 300 prison spaces in the medium term. Also in the short term, work is due to commence on converting an administrative building on the Dóchas site into a new accommodation block. This accommodation will provide approximately 50 spaces and is due to be completed in late 2010.

I want to reiterate that I personally and my colleagues in Government are acutely aware of the limitations of the existing Mountjoy Prison. That is why the decision was taken to replace it with a completely new prison campus on a green field site at Thornton, North County Dublin. I am determined to push ahead with the Thornton project but in the intervening period, it is necessary to maintain Mountjoy as a prison and an institution run to the highest possible standards of hygiene and humanity.

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