Prison system report - No reform from repeat of failures

Prison is a place of punishment, but it will serve no useful purpose for society until it also functions as a place of effective rehabilitation.

Instead of exploiting the correctional opportunities, our jails are acting as training facilities and breeding grounds for hardened criminals. The deprivation of liberty is the punishment. In the captive environment, it should be possible to educate and reform prisoners for their own advantage as well as for the good of society.

The Department of Justice drew up a reform programme for the prison system in 1994. It envisaged implementing key principles of human rights outlined by the Council of Europe and the UN, but there has been a considerable gap between the principles espoused and what has been practiced within prisons. The plans have not been implemented, so nobody should be surprised those un-implemented policies are not working.

The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has published a document calling for vision and reality within our prison system. Fr Peter McVerry, who has been a particularly articulate voice in this area in recent years, warns that the authorities have been passively accepting a continual rise in the prison population. This amounts to submissive acceptance of the failure of our prison system as a deterrent. People may argue over the causes of the failure, but there can be no argument that it has been failing.

Launching the centre’s document yesterday, John Lonergan, the former governor of Mountjoy Prison, warned that drug policy within prisons has been an enormous failure. Prisons must tackle the demand for drugs, and this will only be done by effectively addressing the drug habits of prisoners. As things stand, conditions within the prisons are promoting drug use.

The report suggests prison policy should reflect some key principles that would encourage rehabilitation and social integration of inmates. Depriving prisoners of liberty is the punishment, but within that deprivation, they should treat prisoners with dignity and humanity.

Prison life should be as normal as possible, with security measures limited to what is necessary to ensure safe custody. The practice of slopping out should be discontinued and prisoners should have the private use of toilet facilities. Overcrowding should be tackled by the reintroduction of one person per cell and smaller and more dispersed prisons should be built, not large central ones. Imprisonment should be kept to a minimum. Non-custodial sentences ought to be used as an alternative where possible and increased remission should be adopted as an incentive for reform.

Repeating measures that have failed is not a prescription for success, but an assured recipe for further failure.

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