Super-prison plans scaled back

Controversial plans for a super-prison which have already cost taxpayers €40m have been dramatically scaled back, it was revealed today.

Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said the new jail at Thornton Hall in north Dublin will now be built in three stages.

But he admitted there is no timeframe for the completion of the final two phases.

Instead of completing the entire complex with room for 2,200 inmates as originally planned, the Government will only commit to building two blocks holding just 700 prisoners by 2014.

Labour justice spokesman Pat Rabbitte derided the project as a shocking white elephant which will go down as one of the most expensive, misconceived and poorly planned in Irish history.

“What Mr Ahern’s announcement means is that almost 10 years after the project was first announced by his predecessor, Michael McDowell, and after the expenditure of vast sums of taxpayers' money, we will have, at best, less than one third of the number of prison cells originally promised,” he said.

Mr Ahern said roadworks for the prison costing €2.6m would start by September with the building of the perimeter wall scheduled to begin next year.

But the downgraded construction of just two blocks at the campus – which will house 400 cells for 700 inmates – will not start until 2012 and take around two years to finish.

Original proposals to fund the costly super-prison with the help of investors through a public-private partnership have also been ditched.

Instead, tenders will go out in the traditional fashion with the State picking up the entire bill for works.

Then Justice Minister Michael McDowell came under fierce criticism in 2005 when the site was bought for €30m, reputedly eight times higher than the market rate at the time.

Another €12m has already been spent preparing the site for construction.

The original plans involving a private consortium were shelved last year because the Government could no longer afford it.

Mr Ahern said the revised plans would not have “all the bells and whistles that was originally intended” but insisted it would ultimately cost less than expected.

Asked if there was a timeframe for the second and third phases of the prison, he responded: “Not at this stage, no.”

Around 1,000 inmates have been let out of prison early because of overcrowding.

Insisting jail capacity was the biggest issue on his desk, Mr Ahern said plans are also under way for a new 300 cell block in Midlands Prison and room for 100 more inmates at Castlerea Prison.

Mr Rabbitte accused the justice minister of throwing “all the fine design and promises” for the Thornton Hall super-prison out the window and reverting to doubling up in cells at a site that was never suitable for a prison.

“This has turned into a shocking white elephant for which Mr Ahern and Mr McDowell must share the responsibility,” he said.

Last year, plans to relocate the Central Mental Hospital from Dundrum in south Dublin to Thornton Hall were abandoned.

Junior Health Minister John Maloney told the Dáil some difficulties with the site had emerged.

Fine Gael justice spokesman Alan Shatter said the planned super-prison laid bare the Government’s “astounding” ability to waste taxpayers’ money.

“Over €42m has been spent on the Thornton Hall project with almost nothing to show for it,” he said.

“No date has been given as to when the entire project will be finished only that it will be completed in a phased approach.

“The type of money wasting and time delay that has characterised the Thornton Hall project from the start makes it difficult to believe any timeline this Government puts forward.”

The Prison Officers Association (POA) said it was bitterly disappointed the revised plans would leave a shortfall of more than 1,300 promised places for inmates.

Branding it a “major breach of promise and commitment”, the representative organisation demanded an explanation from Mr Ahern.

“All this is occurring against a background of escalating violence and gang culture in our prisons, with present staffing resources becoming more limited,” said a spokesman.

“The Prison Officers Association is concerned with regard to the lack of any immediate plan to maintain safe prisons and now even the long term solution is based on overcrowding.”

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