Justice Minister Alan Shatter yesterday announced the closure of St Patrick’s Institution for young offenders in Dublin.
The Inspector of Prisons recommended the closure for health and safety reasons in his annual report of 2012.
The inspector warned the safe and secure custody of young offenders could no longer be guaranteed at the institution. The young offenders will be moved to Wheatfield Prison over the next six months, pending the development of facilities in Oberstown in 2014.
The director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust warns, however, that Wheatfield will not be ready for the 17-year-olds from St Patrick’s. He insisted a clear commitment is necessary from the minister for children that those 17-year-olds being transferred to a dedicated unit in Wheatfield should be moved on to Oberstown as soon as possible.
Henceforth the two wings of St Patrick’s Institution will be designated as part of Mountjoy Prison. One will be used as a protection wing for prisoners being transferred from Mountjoy, the other will be used for prisoners being transferred from Wheatfield to make room for the young offenders.
St Patrick’s had become unfit as a correctional institution. In recent years there were alarming reports of sexual and physical assaults on young prisoners by other inmates. The annual assault rate at St Patrick’s, which was the highest of any jail in the country, accounted for one-third of the annual assaults within the prison system.
One fifth of the inmates at St Patrick’s were being locked in their cells for 23 hours a day — the highest rate of any prison. This has been necessary either for their own safety, or because they pose a significant threat to others.
In May, Prof Harry Kennedy, clinical director of the Central Mental Hospital, warned that a study of 171 young male offenders at St Patrick’s — conducted between June 2011 and May 2012 — found that 23% were in the ultra-high risk category of developing psychosis, The rate for the 18-year olds was significantly higher at 36%.
This did not mean that those young offenders suffered from severe mental illness, but were at high risk of developing it. He added some research indicated that one in five or six of them could develop mental illness.
Recent advances in psychiatry suggest severe mental illness develops in stages. As with physical diseases, mental illness can be more effectively tackled with early intervention, which the mental health authorities recognised was not really possible at St Patrick’s.
Any prison should be a place of reform and rehabilitation, especially an institution for young offenders. Many young offenders probably came from disturbed backgrounds in which they never had a chance to develop properly. St Patrick’s was certainly not going to help them, because it has been a breeding ground for future social problems.
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