As director general of the Prison Service, he said the system will undergo major reform in the next five years, largely due to a massive prison building programme.
The flagship is Thornton Hall, a so-called “super prison” complex in north Dublin. It will house 1,400 prisoners, with the capacity, if needed in the future, to take 2,200 inmates.
The other main project Mr Purcell holds up as inaugurating new levels of rehabilitation is ISM, or Integrated Sentence Management.
This will be a structure bringing together all relevant agencies which will assess and implement a rehabilitation plan for every offender from point of entry, through imprisonment and back into society.
“Certainly, my belief is that prisons do work,” said Mr Purcell. “There is a lot of criticism of the prison system and various people claim it doesn’t work.
“Many seem to think the prison system doesn’t work if everyone coming out of prison isn’t completely crime free for the rest of their life. When you consider the cohort we deal with, I believe we’re remarkably successful.”
He said the Law Reform Commission said prison included elements of incapacitation, retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation.
“In terms of incapacitation it works, you take criminals out of society and put them into prison. We provide safe and secure accommodation. The deterrent effect you could argue back and forward.
“We provide rehabilitation insofar as we can and is possible. We would like to improve on that and we believe we are doing so.”
He argued a 2006 study on re-offending by Prof Ian O’Donnell in UCD showed prisons were having success in terms of re-offending.
“He came up with recidivism rates of less than 50% after four years. That certainly would be in the mid-to-lower range by international standards. That would seem to indicate the system does work.”
Mr Purcell said he was proud of the rehabilitation activities in prisons. “I’m not saying we can’t improve, but we have 220 full-time equivalent teachers in the system. There are 250 staff dedicated to work training. We have 90 workshops across the system. At any time, there are in excess of 800 prisoners engaged in work training.”
Mr Purcell said ISM would push rehabilitation to a new level.
He said ISM was a more structured approach to prisoner rehabilitation.
“We will have integration between prisoners and the prison system and the communities they have to go back to.”
He said it involved initial assessment of the prisoner, individual programmes, with targets and reviews, a structure for all disciplines and services in the prison and, of “absolute importance”, integration between prison and agencies on the outside.
“We are looking at another four years to have ISM fully operational in all the prisons.”
He said personal choice was the key to rehabilitation. “You can’t force people to change. They’ve got to come with you. You can provide the services to facilitate that change for those who genuinely want to do it. Say with drugs, not everyone wants to give them up. People conveniently forget that.”
He accepted violence posed a threat: “We’ve seen in the recent past the emergence of gang feuding on the outside.
“They come in with drug debts, or feuding for whatever reason. That’s been brought into the prison.
“The fact we have prisoners on protection indicates the steps the Prison Service is taking to try and make sure they don’t become victims of violence.”
He said despite the serious feuding in Limerick, Limerick Prison was a “disproportionately safe place”.
“The fact we manage to keep feuding gangs apart in Limerick is a huge achievement and huge credit must go to management and staff.”
The service has to deal with about 60 Limerick gang members.
He said overcrowding was an issue: “The numbers issue is one for prisons everywhere. We can’t put our hands up and say ‘house full’. We have to take everyone committed by the courts.”
He pointed out there was no longer a “revolving door” as in the 1990s.
“We are up about 100% capacity all the time, but we are engaged in a major capital programme that will effectively replace 40% of our estate when completed.”
The main element of that is Thornton Hall, due to be completed in 2011. Kilworth Prison in Co Cork, with a capacity for about 450, will replace Cork Prison and should come on stream by 2014.
Before then, a block will open in Portlaoise this summer, housing 130, a remand block in Castlerea by the end of the year, housing 64, and a block in Wheatfield before the end of 2009, housing 144.
He said the cells in Thornton would be 11sqm in size, compared with less than 8sqm in Mountjoy and would have state-of-the-art rehabilitation services. “The system will give us a 21st century model. Slopping out will be gone.”
He rejected criticism of delays in security measures for drugs and contraband.
He said screening of visitors with x-ray and metal detectors operates in the Midlands Prison. He said screening of visitors, and staff, would operate in nine closed prisons by September.
He said the operational support unit, which will carry out searches inside prisons, would be in place in all nine prisons by the end of June.
He said 31 drug detection dog unit would be in all prisons by early next year.
Mr Purcell said plans to introduce technology to jam mobile phones in prisons were still being piloted in the Midlands Prison.
He said once the pilot was evaluated, the technology would be rolled out within the next two years to all closed prisons, with Portlaoise, Wheatfield and Cloverhill next.