Tuesday, 8 November 2011


While we had envisaged discussing the most recent Committee for the Prevention of Torture report and the Programme for Government in isolation, it appeared that there was considerable overlap, especially given the recent news of a review of Thornton Hall, and the release of the figure of €45 million spent so far on the purchase of the site and preparatory works (see Fergus Finlay's recent Irish Examiner article on the issue).

Interestingly, the Government response to the CPT report had clearly been prepared by the Irish Prison Service. The familiar refrain of ‘the prison service must accept all persons sent to it’ was the tell-tale line, a clear and frequent IPS argument. The response to the CPT should have come from Government, which would then necessitate accountability for the overall numbers entering the prison system. This chance was missed, and it appeared that the IPS instead took the opportunity to defend itself.

The Differential Association posed itself the question, what would we do? It may be pleasant to sit back and criticise previous Government policy, but the fact remains that we oppose the building of Thornton Hall, yet deplore the conditions many prisoners must live in. Apart from the initial projections on size (which seem to be a distant memory and soon to be consigned to historical folly), we objected to the location of Thornton Hall, as somewhere out of the way, and requiring considerable effort to reach. However, beyond its size and location, there was no opposition in principle to the building of a new prison with better facilities and conditions. Can we renovate older prisons wing by wing, can we re-house prisoners while such works are underway?

Beyond this though, we were cognisant of the fact that if our answer to the problem was building, we were clearly taking too literal and short-sighted a look at the question. The creation of new spaces will inevitably be followed by prompt filling of these spaces - if they expand, they will grow. What is needed is a more considered reform of the justice system, to halt the numbers reaching the gates of the prison in the first place. Reforms like the current Bill dealing with Community Service Orders, and the implementation of the Fines Act 2010, are urgently needed.

Further, within the Programme for Government there is mention of a review of mandatory sentencing as an overall review of drugs policy. It is unsure if one possible outcome of such a review is the abandonment of mandatory sentencing. (For a discussion of mandatory and presumptive sentences please see the IPRT Position Paper).

Also stated in the PfG, is the reform of prison Visiting Committees, which can only be seen as a welcome step. At the present time, annual reports often appear perfunctory and lacking in insight or consideration, further, the appointment of persons without relevant experience would seem to make little sense. However, the organisations themselves have a valid role to play in monitoring individual institutions in a fashion that the Inspector of Prisons cannot be expected to fulfil.

The question of those 16- and 17-year-olds detained in St. Patrick’s Institution was naturally felt to be a matter of urgency. The previous Government had committed to the building of a new National Children Detention Centre at Lusk and declared that money had been ring-fenced, the first stage of the project (the removal of boys from St. Patrick’s) was due to come online in mid-2013. The new Government pledges to end the practice of imprisonment of boys under the age of 18, but it is unclear whether this translates to reaffirming the commitment to the Lusk site. Similarly, the use of screened visits in St. Patrick’s and the requirement of a uniform were questioned. Why was it deemed necessary to have screened visits only in St. Patrick’s? Official rationale underpinning the uniform rule stated that a uniform would prevent boys being bullied or assaulted (for trainers or because they didn’t fit) were undermined by the fact that the boys wear their own trainers along with the uniform.

Cork, our forgotten prison, is frequently held up as one of the worst examples in the country, yet receives very little of the attention that Mountjoy receives. The situation in Cork in terms of psychiatric help is worrying, the CPT reports that without the Central Mental Hospital in-reach team, there are limited options for offenders with mental health issues. However, it was interesting to learn that inter-prisoner violence was much lower in Cork Prison, the reason cited being the incentive to remain there, rather than face transportation elsewhere if reprimanded for violent conduct. The concept of local prisons becomes more appealing considering this finding of the CPT.

One of the frequent calls of The Differential Association is for the provision of information, and for procedures to be put in place to generate significant amounts of data, which can be of enormous use in strategy, planning and research. It was the general contention that by compiling comprehensive records on prisoners' admittance to prison we could create a huge dataset which would be beneficial to researchers, policy-makers and the Government. The current state of the Prisoner Medical Records System, a computerised records system, is generally quite poor, with only cursory remarks being recorded. As this is the case, the importance of paper records remains, creating logistical headaches when records for a prisoner are stored in another institution. However, one question raised, regarding equivalence of care, is the separation of the PMRS from the IPS computer network, to ensure confidentiality and privacy for prisoners – issues which the CPT are critical of in terms of consultations with doctors. However, the CPT were quick to commend the expansion of nurse-led initiatives and creation of Nurse Officers, which is a very welcome development.

The complaints mechanism came under significant fire in the CPT report. It is recorded that only small numbers of complaints were made, and that numbers of these were withdrawn, it was further noted that prisoners felt there might be negative consequences awaiting them if they did complain. It is essential that prisoners have a clear and transparent complaints mechanism which they understand and trust. It is also worth noting, again, that those children imprisoned in St. Patrick's Institution are still not included in the mandate of the Ombudsman for Children Office.

This blog was written by Lynsey Black.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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