Chronic problems in prisons in Portlaoise and elsewhere are being ignored by the Minister for Justice and Irish Prison Service, according to the the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.
Responding to an announcement by Laois TD and Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan that the Irish Prison Service’s Annual Report for 2017 will be launched in the coming weeks, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has expressed serious concerns about chronic overcrowding, failure to provide for the needs of young adults, and the persistently high number of prisoners on restricted regime, all of which highlights the dangers of prison.
Eoin Carroll is Deputy Director of the Jesuit Centre.
“The Minister and Irish Prison Service have to stop ignoring chronic problems in our prisons including overcrowding in women’s prisons, the numbers on restricted regimes, and the needs of young adults. Overcrowding persists in the Dóchas Centre, the Women’s prison at Mountjoy, as well as at Limerick men’s and Limerick women’s prison.
"For women in prison this has been the case for more than 10 years. The prison service is ignoring the Inspector of Prisons and flouting their own maximum capacity figures for these institutions. Maximum bed capacities are limits and need to be adhered to,” he said.
Responding to the number of prisoners on a restricted regime, Mr Carroll said the number locked up for all but five hours a day has increased.
“While welcoming the reduction in the number of prisoners being locked up for 22/23 hours per day, the total number of prisoners on a restricted regime – which means they are locked in their cell for more than 19 hours per day – increased by approximately 12 percent in the 12 months.
"There are now 481 people suffering in this state. TK Whitaker’s 1985 report into the prison system said that prisoners should be out of their cells for a minimum of 12 hours. More than 30 years later, we still cannot meet even basic targets,” he said.
Mr Carroll went on to say that prisons could be more dangerous.
“The number of prisoners on a restricted regime, which continues to grow, is an indicator of how dangerous prison is to both prison staff and prisoners. Figures for the previous year (2016) indicated that over a quarter of the prison population are ‘on-protection’. We’ve yet to see the figures for 2017. Prison safety needs to be core issue for the next strategic plan,” he said.
The Centre welcomes that 2017 marked the end to children being detained in adult prisons, however, now is the time to outline a plan to address the needs of young and vulnerable adults in detention.
“The Jesuit Centre’s report on the needs of young adults in prison highlighted that they are a particularly vulnerable group and require a greater level of intervention and support. Yet, there is no special intervention in place for this group. Now is an opportune time to pay particular attention to young adults in prison.
"Approximately 120 young adults are on extended lock up with restricted access to work, training and education. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, should be assigned responsibility for young adults in the criminal justice system and immediately develop a plan to address their distinct needs,” he said.
Previous commitments to reduce the number of people in prison needs to be reiterated. While welcoming the reduction in the number of committals to prison Carroll noted that the number in jail has possibly increased.
“The average number of people in prison over 2017 did not decrease, and more than likely, increased slighted. We’re waiting on the daily average figure for 2017, but comparing a snapshot figure for 30th November 2016 and 30th November 2017 we can see an increase despite the dramatic drop in committals to prison.”
Commenting on the Community Return Scheme, which was introduced to reduce the daily prison population, Carroll said it is being offered to far fewer prisoners.
“The Community Return Programme was a meaningful and constructive way to reduce prison numbers, as well as support to people leaving prison. However, it is unclear why the numbers being offered this programme reduced so dramatically in 2017. In 2016 301 completed the programme, where as only 206 did so in 2017,” he said.
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice is dedicated to creating a better society for all by promoting social justice and policy reform through research, theological reflection, awareness raising and advocacy. The current policy focus of the Centre is prison policy, environmental justice and housing and homelessness.