Serious questions over plan to free 1,200 prisoners

There are serious questions surrounding the Government’s plan to ease prison overcrowding by releasing 1,200 inmates over the next three years.

The union representing staff in the Probation Service — which is tasked with managing these inmates in the community — said it does not have the staff or resources to take on such a “phenomenal” number of extra offenders.

David Williamson, spokesman for the Probation Officers’ Branch in Impact, said the rollout of the community return scheme comes at a time when the service was still reeling from a 10% cut in staffing levels and an increased workload of about 40%.

“The issue for the probation officers dealing with these matters at the coalface is that the goal of a properly resourced, supported and managed expansion of community service to a community service and return scheme has been bypassed.”

He said staffing levels had fallen from 356 in 2009 to 322 in 2011. He said officers had also renegotiated an agreement whereby the number of cases an officer could take on jumped from a maximum of 35-40 cases to a maximum of 55 cases.

He said between 2008 and 2010 the number of community service orders — issued by judges as an alternative to imprisonment — jumped from 1,413 to 1,972 (+40%).

“We have no issue with the community return scheme in principle. In fact we welcome it.

“We see the use of the community return scheme as potentially offering a chance to address the overcrowding issue in prisons and positively impact on offenders and future offending at the same time.

“Our issue is that we have already been asked to take on additional workload and our general staff levels are down. All this is being done in the absence of staff and sites to provide it.”

He told the Irish Examiner the Government was shifting demand from “one pressurised system — the prisons — to another — the probation service”.

Mr Williamson pointed out the Probation Service was still without a director since Michael Donnellan was appointed head of the Prison Service last November.

“It is perhaps ironic that the service he left, and which is now to be charged with managing an extra 400 offenders a year on release from custody, has not been deemed worthy of having a new director appointed or even advertised for.”

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), while supportive of the scheme, said it was crucial the probation service and community organisations working with prisoners were adequately resourced to implement the strategy.

IPRT director Liam Herrick also said regimes and education services within prisons needed to be resourced.

“After decades of misguided prison expansion and an apparent lack of effective policy, IPRT believes this strategic plan puts forward a coherent approach to prison policy and planning, based on sound principles.”


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