The report by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality follows a series of meetings it held with groups and interested parties across 2017. It argues against a one-size-fits-all policy for prison environments.
It says there is “still a huge over-reliance in the prison system on closed prisons, where the regime is 16 to 17 hours per day spent in the cell”.
Committee chairman and Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said the last such report was issued in 2013, and the committee had identified reforms as a priority for its term.
“Over the course of our engagement with stakeholders, it became abundantly clear that there is systematic overuse of imprisonment as punishment in Ireland, and that sentencing alternatives need to be explored,” he said.
It also became clear that conditions in prisons themselves are unacceptable, and that far more needs to be done to rehabilitate offenders, reduce recidivism, and minimise the impact of crime on victims and the community.
The report recommends replacing court-imposed fines with a victim surcharge similar to the Canadian model, where financial penalties applied to offenders will go directly to fund an ombudsman’s office or victim-support organisations.
It states that “mother-and-baby units should be developed within the Irish prison system, especially along the lines of those in some women’s prisons in England and Wales which support female offenders in cohabiting with their children in a purpose-built facility”.
While a statutory complaints procedure was introduced in 2013, the report says the Inspector of Prisons had since argued “that the necessary element of independence in the system was not included” and recommends a completely independent mechanism.
It also notes that, last year, the UN Committee against Torture “expressed concern that there are deficiencies in the system such as lack of or incomplete documentation of complaints, delays in investigations by external investigators, gaps in referrals to police in appropriate cases, [and] confusion about the complaints categorisation as well as delays in their resolution”.
The UN committee also reported “that there is reportedly no confidence in the complaints system, that prisoners fear that they would not be protected if they were to make a complaint and were therefore discouraged from making complaints”.
Deirdre Malone, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said it met with the committee last year. “We are particularly pleased about a number of strong developments and recommendations in the report.”
She said: “These include a cap on prisoner numbers in each institution, along with the adoption of a clear strategy to reduce the prison population by half over a fixed time scale; the increased use of innovative community-based semi-open facilities; and at least 12 hours per day out of cell time with meaningful activities for prisoners.”