Address by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Mr Dermot Ahern TD

on the occasion of the opening of the New “C” Block at Portlaoise Prison Co. Laois

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I am very pleased to be here today at Portlaoise to open and to see at first hand this very impressive new prison facility. I would like to thank the Governor, Mr Ned Whelan and the Director General of the Prison Service, Mr Brian Purcell, for their kind hospitality and extend my congratulations to them on this excellent facility.

Portlaoise Prison received its first inmates as long ago as 1830 - some 20 years prior to Mountjoy - so, along with Limerick, Portlaoise is by far the oldest operating prison in the State.

This new Block is designed and built to best international standards. The provision of the facilities being opened today represents just one aspect of the major prisons capital programme into which this Government is, and has been, investing significant resources.

The new accommodation block has provided 60 double cells and 75 single cells with in-cell sanitation plus a 3 single cell area for vulnerable prisoners. This has increased the overall prison capacity to 300. This additional accommodation is extremely important also in the context of alleviating the continuing pressure on prison numbers generally and contributes to the realisation of my promise to deliver extra prison spaces in 2009.

In fact, since 1997, in excess of 1,400 additional spaces have been introduced in the prison system, including a new accommodation block for 100 prisoners which I recently opened at Castlerea Prison. This new block in Portlaoise Prison will have the potential to accommodate approximately 200 prisoners and a further 250 spaces will be provided by means of -

• a new block in Wheatfield Prison which will also have the potential to accommodate approximately 200 prisoners;
• opening the separation unit in Mountjoy Prison which will have the potential to accommodate 50 prisoners. 

I have  also recently reaffirmed this Government's commitment to the replacement of the four prisons on the Mountjoy campus on a 140 acre greenfield site at Thornton Hall, North County Dublin. I also intend to proceed with  the replacement of Cork Prison with a new prison at Kilworth. Between them, these comprise nearly 40% of the entire prison estate. When this programme is completed, the Irish prison estate will be comparable to best international practice in terms of accommodation, facilities and services for the rehabilitation of prisoners and their reintegration into society. 

Developments in the prison system are not solely confined to improving the prison facilities. The Prison Service is committed to the development and improvement of the rehabilitation programmes in place for offenders in a way which encourages and supports them in their endeavours to live law abiding and purposeful lives as valued members of society. 

The Irish Prison Service places a strong emphasis on the provision of vocational training activities for prisoners. This new Block at Portlaoise contains a large Education Unit and a new Library. The new library provides the opportunity and the environment to promote active learning, and reinforces the prison education ethos. There are also significant work training facilities available. For example, this prison currently operates 7 workshops engaging in activities such as Catering, Laundry, Industrial Skills, Computer/Printing, Industrial Cleaning, Grounds and Landing Care, Waste Management and Recycling and Induction Training. In addition, there is a also a Medical Centre with a dentistry as well as a prisoner Reception  Unit. 

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank Brigadier General Pakenham, the Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Dermot Early, Lieutenant Colonel Harrington and Commandant Larkin and their colleagues for their contribution to the running of the prison over many years. The deployment of military personnel at Portlaoise is viewed by the Government as being critical to the security of the state.

I would like to commend the main contractor Laing O'Rourke, who won the tender to construct the building and ancillary works and have done so to a very high standard. The project was managed on behalf of the Prison Service by the OPW and I congratulate the Project Architect Ms Caroline Leaden of the Office of Public Works for her professional approach and great patience - as it is well known that prison projects can be quite demanding at times and this one was no exception!

I would like to thank the Governor and all his staff for their hard work, dedication and professionalism that they display on a daily basis here in Portlaoise Prison and to wish them well going forward.

Finally, I am delighted to declare these facilities officially open.