The Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Mr Alan Shatter T.D., has today published the Annual Reports for 2010 of the Prison Visiting Committees to Arbour Hill, Cloverhill, Castlerea, Cork, Dóchas Centre, Limerick, Loughan House, Midlands, Mountjoy, Portlaoise, Shelton Abbey, St. Patrick's Institution, the Training Unit and Wheatfield.
The Minister notes that the reports have highlighted a number of issues across the prison system relating to conditions, accommodation, staffing levels, services to prisoners and longstanding issues such as slopping out and overcrowding. There is also an acknowledgement however of the efforts made by the Irish Prison Service, management and staff to address the issues despite limited resources.
Minister Shatter agrees that improvements need to be made. Minister Shatter said, "The Prison Service is currently engaged in an extensive project to upgrade and provide in-cell sanitation to more than 100 cells in Mountjoy Prison which will be completed shortly. The upgrade of the C Division of the prison will radically improve the existing physical conditions, including the provision of in-cell sanitation and the upgrading of fire safety and detection systems. In 2012, the Irish Prison Service plans to undertake a similar renovation of the B Division in the prison. This will result in 317 cells in Mountjoy Prison having in-cell sanitation by the end of that year, almost 60% of the total prison. The completion of the Midlands Prison extension and the provision of 70 extra dormitory style spaces in the Dóchas Centre will mean that approximately 80% of the prisons estate will have in-cell sanitation by mid 2012."
The Minister added, "The State has also been engaged in an ongoing capital programme with almost 600 additional prisoner spaces constructed and brought into use since January 2008. There are a number of ongoing projects, most notably the construction of a new accommodation block at the Midlands Prison. This will provide a potential 300 spaces, a new kitchen and work training/education block, and an extension to the visits/reception areas. It is planned to have the new block fully commissioned by mid 2012. An administrative building on the Dóchas site has also just been converted into a new accommodation block which will provide 70 spaces. These will become operational next month and be expected to ease the pressure on prison spaces."
Whilst the reduced capital envelope in 2012 will not allow the Prison Service to proceed with the construction of Thornton Hall or Kilworth prisons, this does not signal a reversal of the Government’s decision this July to approve in principle the recommendations contained in the Thornton Hall Review Group Report.
The Government remains very much committed to addressing the twin problems of overcrowding and poor physical conditions within the prison estate. While it has been necessary to defer the commencement of these projects, it is the Minister’s strong intention to revisit the timeframe for their delivery in 12 months time.
The Minister repeated his intention to strengthen the independent oversight of the prisons. Minister Shatter said, "Under new legislation to be prepared all such publications will be submitted to the Inspector of Prisons who will publish them. Visiting Committees will report to the Inspector on any issue that they wish to bring to his attention. They will also be able to report on any urgent or major issue to him at any time. Visiting Committees will continue their role of visiting prisons, meeting with prisoners and liaising on their behalf with prison authorities."
Under the proposed new arrangements, the Inspector of Prisons will have independent oversight of their work and the Minister is committed to ensuring that they will be more effective. Each Visiting Committee will comprise no more than six members, and only suitable people with appropriate qualifications and a genuine interest in prison issues will be appointed.
In terms of specific recommendations mentioned in the reports, the following are among those which have been addressed:
Access to the Library in the Dóchas Centre
The staff numbers in Dóchas have increased and every effort is made to provide as much access as possible to the library. Furthermore, the library is now opened 3 evenings per week.
Difficulty pre-booking visits in the Midlands Prison
The options of increasing the number of dedicated phone lines and call queuing are being considered in order to remedy this issue. The Irish Prison Service intend, early in the new year, to set up a Prisons Visit Review Committee to consider all aspects of visits to prisons.
Suggested review of number of prisoners on 23 hour lock up in Mountjoy Prison
Efforts are made on a continuous basis to reduce the numbers of protection prisoners who fall into this category and regular transfers take place to other institutions where a prisoner will not require protection. All prisoners are interviewed by a Governor and Chief Officer every Friday in order to have their situation reviewed. Management at Mountjoy Prison have also introduced a policy to provide extra recreation time for protection prisoners.
Library use in Mountjoy
A review regarding library attendance has taken place and a timetable has been established to allow structured access to library for all prisoners. The new structure was monitored and numbers attending the library are positive. The timetable is structured so that the movement of prisoners is carried out in a controlled manner which is safe for all attending the library. In addition, a prisoner can request a specific book through staff.
The reports are available on the Department of Justice and Equality website at www.justice.ie
18 November 2011