IN the last two days we’ve seen the depth of the problems facing the prison system. We also saw the good, and unnoticed, work going on in institutions like Wheatfield.
So where is government penal policy going? How do prisons compare with alternatives to custody?
EU figures show we have the third lowest number of people in prisons per capita in the EU, at 75 people per 100,000. The EU average is 132 (see graphic).
However, Eurostat, the EU statistics agency, said the number of people in prison here had grown, on average, by 4% every year over the last 12 years.
This puts us in joint-fourth place for countries who are increasing their prison population the most.
Prison Service figures show that at the end of last year prison capacity was 3,525 people, with almost all spaces being filled. This compared to 2,793 in 1998, a rise of 26%.
A new block will open in Castlerea this year housing an extra 64 people. By early 2009 a new extension in Wheatfield will open with around 170 extra spaces.
But the mothership of prison expansion is Thornton Hall, which will accommodate 1,400 prisoners when it opens in 2011.
This will replace the four institutions in Mountjoy, which have 979 people in them, giving an extra capacity of over 400.
Not only that, but the Prison Service said that, to “future proof” Thornton, the cells could be doubled up to house a possible 2,200.
In addition, Kilworth will open around three years after Thornton and house up to 450 prisoners. It is set to replace the overcrowded Cork Prison, which has 269 inmates.
Altogether, prison capacity will rise by more than 800 people (1,600 if Thornton takes 2,200).
The Prison Service say this expansion is needed to address overcrowding and poor conditions in the older prisons.
Penal reformers don’t accept that. “The Whitaker Report of the mid-80s called for in-cell sanitation as a matter of urgency. Nothing was done for 20 years,” said Liam Herrick of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT).
“Now, they go from that and say we need a large prison as the only possible solution.
“Thornton is a significant expansion in the prison population. There is no evidence to support the case we need a prison that size.
“The prison population has already gone up a lot. There has been no similar expansion in population or crime rates. The big fear is that the extra capacity will be filled. The trend internationally is away from large prisons to smaller ones.”
He said the expansion did not tally with the projected trends at juvenile level, as outlined in a recent report of the Expert Group on Children Detention Schools.
“That looked at projected numbers and concluded that the spaces needed is slightly smaller than what we have at the moment.”
The report said the “proportion of children given detention orders should continue at the same level”. It said the average number detained had actually fallen, from 134 in 2004 to 116 in 2007.
It said while the total number of juveniles referred to the Garda National Juvenile Office had risen from around 13,000 in 2000 to 20,000 in 2006, the number prosecuted in the courts fell from around 2,700 to 2,500.
In its inspection report last December, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) said: “Building new prisons is unlikely in itself to offer a lasting solution. There is a necessity to develop the possibilities for alternative, non-custodial, sanctions.”
The Inspector of Prisons, the late Justice Dermot Kinlen, said in his fifth report he was “opposed to the idea of large prisons” and said the Prison Service had spent at least twice the going rate for the 159-acre site at Thornton.
The land cost around €30m, and another €5.6m is reported to have been spent on site preparation. It’s not known what the construction cost will be.
The Prison Service said the sale of Shanganagh in 2006, which realised over €29m, will go towards the cost, in addition to the sale price for the Mountjoy complex.
Sr Imelda Wickham of the Prison Chaplains’ Association said there had been “very little discussion or research” about Thornton.
“We keep creating more places. We need to sit down and see what are the alternatives. Do we need to lock all these people up.”
A major piece of research carried out by the Central Mental Hospital, published last July, said Irish prisons were being used as “psychiatric waiting rooms”.
It said 60% of all female inmates and 35% of all male prisoners had a history of mental illness.
This included 37% of females and 17% of males who had suffered from a major depressive disorder. It said there were indications imprisonment worsened the conditions of many.
The report recommended mentally disordered offenders be diverted by the courts from prison into treatment, allowed for in the Criminal Law (Insanity) Act 2006.
It recommended the development of community health services to take these people.
Similar research carried out among juveniles, published last year, said 80% of boys in detention centres had at least one psychological disorder.
The report by Dr Jennifer Hayes, senior psychologist with the HSE, said 25% of the boys experienced suicidal ideation.
“Young people in detention have serious levels of criminality, complex and debilitating psychological difficulties and deficits in IQ and in emotional intelligence.”
Penal reformers said fine defaulters were another group who shouldn’t be in jail.
“It is well acknowledged that fine defaulters do not generally pose a risk to society and do not require imprisonment,” said Mairead Seymour in her report, Alternatives to Custody (2006).
“The reality is people do go to jail in Ireland that wouldn’t in other countries, for road traffic offences and fines. There has to be a better way, even for repeat offenders,” said Mr Herrick.
Reformers criticise the extent to which most committals to prison are for short sentences.
The 2006 Prison Service report said 39% of committals were for three months or less, and a further 21% were for between three and six months.
Ms Seymour said in many countries most offenders sentenced for less than two years are eligible for community sanction.
But Garda and legal sources say most people given short sentences, as well as those imprisoned for defaulting fines, are persistent and repeat offenders and judges often feel they have no option.
Ms Seymour called for legislation and resources to expand community sanctions and for sentencing guidelines for judges.
Government-commissioned research carried out by the former head of the Probation Service Sean Lowry said the country’s approach to community sanctions for criminals was embarrassing and in need of a major overhaul.
An analysis by the Irish Examiner of official figures (see graphic) shows the courts are using community options, with an increase of almost 100% in the number of probation supervision orders in the last six years, to nearly 8,700 last year.
In his report, Mr Lowry said judges were referring too many low-risk offenders to the Probation Service putting it under pressure and deflecting resources.
The number of people sent to prison has risen only slightly (2%) between 2001 and 2006.
Separate figures from the Courts Service show that imprisonment was used in 14% of all sentences. This varied between 14% at district court level and 53% at circuit court level.
Fines were the main option, accounting for two thirds of sentences, while in 16% of cases people found guilty were given the benefit of the Probation Act and escaped a criminal conviction.
Department of Justice figures show the vast difference in the budgets for the Prison Service (€392m in 2008), compared to the Probation Service (€64m).
The Prison budget rose by 18%, while the Probation budget rose by 8%. The Prison building budget alone is €53m this year (a rise of 36%).
The head of the Impact branch representing probation officers, David Williamson, said the figures showed a “phenomenal increase” in the use of the Probation Service.
“We’re please the courts are using us more and we are up to showing the options are working, but to be effective you can’t overstretch the service, and we need resources to meet the demand.”
He questioned the rise in the prison budget, given the level of committals to prison remained largely stable and asked what evidence was there to show that the money being spent on Thornton Hall was “money well spent”.
Ms Seymour said the Children Act showed how the system could move further in the direction of alternatives to custody.
The act provides a range of options and said detention should be a “last resort”.
Health authorities can now convene a family conference in relation to a child.
Children who have committed a criminal offence and accept responsibility must be considered for the Garda Diversion Programme.
Gardaí can also convene a conference in relation to the child.
At court level, judges now have a long list of non-custodial options.
They can refer cases to the health authorities or probation and ask them to convene a family welfare conference.
If this process fails the court can avail of six community sanctions: an order to attend a day centre, a probation (training or activities) order; a probation (intensive supervision) order; a probation (residential supervision) order; a suitable person (care and supervision) order; a mentor (family support) order and a restriction of movement order.
If this process fails the court can resort to detention, but again has the power to defer that.
The act is held up as a glowing example of the way to treat juvenile crime.
The burgeoning alternative system for juveniles has been further boosted by a new structure, including the Irish Youth Justice Service and the Young People’s Probation Service.
In addition, the Garda Juvenile Liaison Office (JLO) and its much-praised scheme, the Garda Diversion Programme, are being expanded.
The Department of Justice said there were 102 JLOs at the moment, and that the Garda Commissioner had given a commitment to appoint an additional 21 JLOs by 2010.
The number of Garda Youth Diversion Projects is due to increased from 100 to 168 over the next few years, with €12m set aside for this year, out of a total of €120m allocated under the National Development Plan 2007-2013.
“We have a very high success rate through the JLO and the Diversion Programme,” said Joe Dirwan, general secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors.
“It is being expanded but, in my view, substantial funding should go there.” He added: “You are dealing with people on an individual basis. The objective is to wean people away from crime at an early stage. When they go into prison they begin to adapt the culture of the prison.”
Some researchers said the JLO should be strengthened by psychological supports given the background of the juveniles.
“All young people who come to the attention of gardaí as first-time offenders should be referred to community care psychology services for psychological assessment and intervention,” said Dr Hayes in her report.
“Pupils who engage in truancy and display repeated behavioural difficulties in school should be referred by school principals to community care psychology services for assessment and intervention.”
Penal reformers and the Probation Service believe the non-custodial options in the Children Act could be expanded to adults.
“What’s happening in youth justice is encouraging,” said Mr Herrick.
“There is a lot of potential for young offenders. The results should be better for adults. Many models could be applied to certain categories of adult offenders.”
Such a response is part of the restorative justice philosophy in which an offender admits guilt and is willing to repair the damage and hurt caused to the victim, who is given the opportunity of playing a more active role.
Restorative justice is still a small part of the justice system, but it expects to receive a major impetus through the work of the National Commission on Restorative Justice (NCRJ), set up by former justice minister Michael McDowell.
There are only two adult schemes in the country, the Nenagh Community Reparation Project (NCRP), Co Tipperary and the Restorative Justice Services in Tallaght, Dublin.
The two projects report re-offending rates among participants of between 10% and 20%, compared to around 50% for ex-prisoners, and boast a cost of around €2,500 per person, compared to around €90,000 per prisoner.
Barriers to expansion include a lack of legislation, something the NCRJ may make recommendations on, when it submits an interim report in the coming weeks.
“It’s a very new area, but no doubt has shown very promising results for certain types of offending and in certain contexts,” said Mr Herrick.
Many see restorative justice as a means of bringing the rights, and voices, of victims more centre stage.
So, government policy seems to be going in two directions.
The Government is significantly expanding the prison population. At the same time, it is expanding alternatives to custody for juvenile offenders. It is also giving more resources to the Probation Service, which is setting up a range of innovative projects.
But reformers say the budgets for probation pales in comparison to prisons, although some, including the head of Probation believe the cost comparison is simplistic.
But Probation-funded community projects, such as Bridge (see below), and the restorative justice projects above, could be expanded and replicated elsewhere.
These community projects and some prisons, like Wheatfield, show rehabilitation is possible, albeit difficult.
Prisons, however, are burdened with serious overcrowding, which is jeopardising those prisons where rehabilitation is happening.
Prisons also face a severe problem with violence, intimidation and drugs, although some efforts are being made to address this. Many prisons also continue to have deplorable conditions.
Thornton Hall should greatly improve conditions and should ease overcrowding, but concerns remain about its size and cost.
New prison policies, such as Integrated Sentence Management and a proposed remission system linked to rehabilitation, offer potential.
The moves in the juvenile area offer great hope and, if successful, could be copied for many adults.
Major state projects, as in Limerick, show the government is making some efforts to deal with crime at an earlier and inter-agency level.
But resources are key.
Only now is the Probation Service beginning to receive the staff and funding it needs.
The painfully slow implementation of the Children Act was largely due to lack of resources, and continued funding will be needed to make it work.
The mental health system - which could divert many from the criminal justice system - remains undeveloped and underresourced.
The recruitment embargo in the HSE has placed crippling burdens on social workers tasked with protecting children, and families, at risk.
While there is some evidence of a vision for change, commitment and resources must match this.