WATCH: Rehabilitative Services in the Irish Prison System

Full transcript:

Deputy Costello:

It was confirmed to me in recent weeks that the progression unit within Mountjoy Prison has been closed and that it is being used to deal with excessive numbers of sex offenders. My concern is for the inmates who were in the progression unit, which is an important part of the incentivised regime policy within prisons. There are basic, standard and enhanced regimes for prisoners and it incentivises them to engage in positive behaviours and education, for which they are rewarded. The progression unit was the top of this programme and allowed for a more relaxed, safer and drug-free environment that provided better incentives and better rehabilitation options for prisoners.

Now, due to overcrowding, that has been lost, and this is incredibly short-sighted. Prisoners who are doing well are being punished. Those who are engaging in rehabilitation programmes are now losing the privilege. I asked in one parliamentary question whether the prisoners who were in the unit would be kept together to maintain that positive environment, but the answer was unclear and the Department was unable to confirm whether that was the case.

One of our issues with prisons is that, in failing to provide proper rehabilitative services and supports, people who leave prison end up falling back into crime. We end up putting pressure on our prison population, cause continual chaos in our communities and continue to leave people in chaotic lifestyles, rather than help them move beyond that. Part of this is about providing rehabilitative supports in the prison and the links to outside, and the community and probation work to prepare them for release and post release. This is why the progression unit matters and is important, and it is incredibly disappointing it has been closed.

What are we doing to provide for these prisoners who have worked their way up, through the incentivised regime policy, and should be rewarded and supported? There is also the wider question of rehabilitative services within prisons to ensure that in the long run we are reducing the need for prisons and reducing the prison population by tackling recidivism. What are we doing on those two key issues of prison reform?

Minister Calleary:

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Justice. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, had the opportunity to attend the Prison Officers Association conference last week and spent time with the association talking about the important work prison officers do in our prisons. As the Deputy will be aware, prison environments can be very challenging but are professionally managed by the Prison Service and prison officers who work in them. Their commitment to providing all those in their care with a safe, secure environment that has a strong focus on rehabilitation and education is clear.

The education and training offered in prisons equips people with the tools and knowledge to reform and rehabilitate. It provides a supportive environment in order that they can build purposeful, crime-free lives on release. To achieve this, the Irish Prison Service provides a wide range of rehabilitative and educational programmes to those in custody, which everyone is eligible and allowed to use.

The Minister assures the Deputy the incentivised regime policy is a national policy. All prisoners in the prison estate can access this policy, which strives to reinforce good behaviour and provide tangible incentives to prisoners who participate in structured activities, which in turn lead to a safer and more secure environment. As the Deputy will appreciate, however, the Irish Prison Service must accept into custody everyone committed to prison by the courts. As such, it has no control over the numbers committed to custody at any given time, and the numbers held in our prison are currently particularly high. To manage this, the Prison Service is working closely with the Minister’s officials in the Department of Justice to take steps to ensure a safe working environment for staff and the safety and security of all those in custody.

In recent years, the Government has made significant capital funding available to the Irish Prison Service to enhance the existing prison infrastructure and provide additional capacity. The Minister has also recently secured additional capital funding of €49.5 million. This funding will help start four key projects, at Castlerea, Cloverhill, Mountjoy and Midlands prisons, that will create accommodation for up to 670 prisoners. Preparatory work on these projects will commence this year. The funding will also ensure more than 150 additional places come on stream this year. These projects will take time, however, and as part of managing capacity, the Irish Prison Service must make the best use of all available prison spaces.

As advised in the Minister’s recent response to the Deputy’s parliamentary question, sex offenders, both sentenced and on remand, were previously accommodated at four locations, Midlands Prison, Arbour Hill, Castlerea and the Mountjoy training unit. However, due to limitations at these locations and rising numbers of sex offender committals to prison, it was decided to consider other options within the prison estate to accommodate this cohort of prisoner. The progression unit of Mountjoy Prison is self-sufficient and there is no requirement for prisoners living there to interact with or traverse to the main prison. For this reason, it was decided the progression unit was a suitable location to accommodate sex offenders. Those currently accommodated in the progression unit who are not serving their sentences for sex offences will be moved to alternative suitable accommodation within the prison estate.

Deputy Costello:

The challenge is that the tangible incentives the Minister for Justice referred to in her prepared response are gone. Moving out of the progression unit means moving from an environment with no drug use to one with significant issues with drug use, and moving from an environment where education is available to one where educational options are frequently closed, with fewer teachers and fewer subject options. That is the reality of the education provided for the general prison population.

Contrary to what was said, I would argue the rehabilitative supports that are offered are extremely limited. To give one example, the Department estimates 70% of the prison population struggles with addiction issues. In Mountjoy, that translates to about 600 prisoners, but there are only two addiction counsellors in Mountjoy to meet the needs of those 600 prisoners. Likewise, there is significant underprovision of probation officers. I do not agree, therefore, that we provide robust rehabilitative options. As I said, the supports are extremely limited, but if we are trying to invest in people’s long-term rehabilitation and prevent crime down the line, we need to invest in those supports.

There are alternatives. There is non-custodial community-based sentencing, a commitment in the programme for Government that is not being progressed, which would be a much better choice than the significant capital expenditure of simply creating more prison spaces, where we are creating the same poor environment that is producing poor outcomes. If we are going to invest in additional prison spaces, we need to look at what is happening across Europe where the RESCALED campaign, to produce smaller prisons with lower numbers in order that services can be offered in a more effective way, is the way forward. We need to invest meaningfully in rehabilitative support services and in the programme for Government commitments to alternatives such as non-custodial sentencing, instead of throwing money at expanding the prison estate.

Minister Calleary:

The Deputy will appreciate we are in very challenging circumstances at the moment and the Irish Prison Service is doing everything it can to manage the prison population in a fair and equitable manner that continues to support the rehabilitation of those in custody. To ensure we have the capacity needed to provide that safe and secure custody, we have modernised the Mountjoy complex, constructed a new prison in Cork and provided additional prisoner accommodation in Midlands Prison.

Capacity across the prison estate has been increased by in excess of 200 new spaces in recent years through the reopening of the training unit in Mountjoy, the opening of new male accommodation in Limerick and the new stand-alone female prison in Limerick.

However, beyond the additional funding recently secured for capital builds, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, is also committed to looking at all potential options to meet the current and future needs of the Prison Service. The Minister is establishing a new review group to make recommendations on other future developments, including at Thornton Hall.