Status quo is a death knell for optimism - Prison reform report

Earlier this week, Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy said 522 people had been warned by An Garda Síochána that their lives were in danger from criminals.

Status quo is a death knell for optimism - Prison reform report

Earlier this week, Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy said 522 people had been warned by An Garda Síochána that their lives were in danger from criminals. The level of threat varied — 11 people were categorised as being in critical jeopardy. Mr Leahy pointed out that the Kinahan-Hutch feud is the driving force behind these figures.

Reaction to the deathwatch warnings was varied. At one end of the spectrum, the entirely predictable stand-back-and-let-them-at-it response prevailed. This may be an accurate reflection of how some in society view these murderous gangs, but it is hardly one that might lead to a solution to this toxic behaviour. It is certainly not one that might help create more stable, secure communities where now there are inner-city fiefdoms controlled by drug dealers.

Dublin’s archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, offered a calmer, more rational response when he said that these figures are just the tip of a community-destroying iceberg. He said the drug gangs ensnare and corrupt, turning innocent teenagers into criminals in a way that is utterly life-defining and very difficult to reverse. Like many others, he wondered how that cycle of waste might be broken. He expressed the hope that better, more focused education programmes and supports might turn the tide.

The same principle was invoked in a report on Penal Reform and Sentencing published yesterday by the Joint

Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality. It said education and training facilities should be available to prisoners to equip them with the necessary skills for re-entry to society once released.

The all-party committee found that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ philosophy is not appropriate in a prison setting. It also said there is still a huge over-reliance on closed prisons, where prisoners spend 16 to 17 hours a day in a cell. It also pointed to overcrowding and it recommended capping of prisoner numbers in each jail.

Committee chairman Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin recorded that “there is systematic overuse of imprisonment ... and that sentencing alternatives need to be explored ... conditions in prisons 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”.

If this report has a certain air of familiarity it is because most of these proposals have been made, in one form or

another, many times before. Prison reform, the provision of a more humane penal system where a person might get a second or third chance in life, is not a subject that generates the kind of momentum that might, eventually, usher in humane and practical change. The unspoken subtext is that these people made their bed so now they can lie in it.

In a society where old people in remote rural settings live in dread of a sound in their yard at night, that response is entirely understandable. That, however, denies one of the most powerful human emotions of all — hope. Surely we can summon the optimism needed to give those in our prison system who are trying to build a new, better life the chance to do so.

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