Frances Fitzgerald was speaking yesterday at the formal opening of the €44m jail which became fully operational last February.
She defended improvements, including the ending of prisoners slopping out, compared to the former Victorian-era Cork Prison where just nine of its 140-plus cells had toilets, and which was described by prison governor Pat Dawson, as like a “pressure cooker” on inmates and staff.
The new 169-cell facility, completed on schedule and budget by PJ Hegarty and Sons and designed to hold 275 inmates, features 12sq ft standard cells which sleep two compared to the old 8sq ft cells which, in some cases, slept three, and each with in-cell TV and in-cell sanitation including a toilet, a wash basin with hot water, and a small shower area.
Ms Fitzgerald, who toured the complex yesterday, said she was impressed with the improved accommodation and dining facilities, but was also struck by the scale, quality, and innovation behind some of its other features, including its welcoming and comfortable visiting facility.
“The new facility, the first of its kind in the prison estate, recognises the importance of maintaining, and if at all possible, developing the relationship between offenders and family on the outside,” she said.
She also noted the “excellent educational facilities” which she said represents a new departure in providing for prisoners’ educational needs.
“All of these new facilities will serve prisoners here well in learning new skills that will assist them in reintegrating into the workforce when their sentence has been served,” she said.
But she rejected suggestions the conditions and facilities were too plush for inmates.
“When people come into prison we want to make sure they go out in a place and a state of mind where they don’t want to commit further acts of criminality,” she said.
“We have to keep the public safe and having the kind of facilities we have here in this prison, and throughout the rest of the country, we know that this is the way forward. We want to make sure that people serve their time — we will be tough on criminals.
“But we want to make sure that what happens to them inside the prison… that it does not become a breeding ground for more criminality. That is the goal,” she said, “to make sure that people have other places to go than criminality when they leave the prison system.”
She also confirmed the State is defending claims from prisoners who were forced to slop out.
“But the good news is that over the last five years, it [slopping out] is gone from 300 cells down to just 56,” she said.
The replacement of outdated accommodation at Limerick and Portlaoise prisons, where slopping out continues, will be carried out as part of the Irish Prison Service’s capital strategy up to 2021, she said.