Address by Mr Alan Shatter TD Minister for Justice, Equality & Defence to Prison Officers’ Association Conference, 5 May 2011
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Mr. President, Distinguished Guests, Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to thank you for your kind invitation to address your annual conference.
At the outset, I want to acknowledge the very significant contribution that prison staff make to Irish society, both collectively and at an individual level. The work of Prison Officers is not easy. Society does not always see the vital work that you are carrying out on their behalf. I have seen the work you do. And on behalf of those for whom you carry out these duties, the public, I thank you for your hard work and the dedication you bring to this most important role in the criminal justice system.
Since my appointment as Minister, I have visited a number of prisons and I have seen at first hand the professional, dedicated, and honest hard work that your members carry out. Let me say that I have the greatest of respect for prison staff and management. I believe you perform a difficult job on behalf of the State and you perform it well, coping with the unique challenges that your job entails.
As you are only too well aware, there has been a consistent increase in the total prisoner population in Ireland over recent years, with dramatic increases in the number of sentenced prisoners and a trend towards longer sentences. On the 26th March 2010 the number of prisoners in the system exceeded 5,000 for the first time in the history of the State. As of yesterday, there were 4,495 prisoners in custody and 794 (that is 14.6%) on temporary release. Of course, the Irish Prison Service must accept all prisoners committed by the Courts into it’s custody and does not have the option of refusing committals.
For my part, I am conscious of the level of overcrowding in our prisons and the impact that it has on services to prisoners. I am also conscious that the number of prisoners on temporary release is simply unacceptable and that increasing those numbers to deal with overcrowding is not the solution. In line with the Government Programme for National Recovery, I believe we need to take steps to reduce the prison population and alleviate overcrowding.
As you know, I recently established a committee to review the Thornton Hall Project. The committee has been asked to examine the need for new prison accommodation and to advise by 1 July 2011 whether work on the site at Thornton should proceed. Their terms of reference specifically requires them to take into account the need for an adequate stock of prison accommodation that meets required standards and to look also at alternatives to custody.
The State has been engaged in an ongoing capital programme with almost 600 additional prisoner spaces constructed and brought into use since January 2008. There are also 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. In addition, a contract was awarded in late 2010 for the provision of 70 dormitory style spaces for female prisoners at the Dóchas Centre within the Mountjoy Campus which is due to be completed by end July 2011.
The Irish Prison Service is currently engaged in a project to upgrade and re-commission 36 cells with in-cell sanitation coming on stream by mid 2011 in the basement of the "C" Wing at Mountjoy Prison. Work has also commenced on a project to provide in-cell sanitation in the remaining 74 cells on the same wing which is expected to be completed by the end of the summer 2011. Depending on the outcome of this project, the Prison Service will then consider installing in-cell sanitation in other areas of the prison and indeed to other facilities that do not have in-cell sanitation.
As of yesterday, 4th May 2011, there were 222 prisoners in custody serving sentences of less than 6 months and 390 serving sentences of between 6 to 12 months. That is over 13% of the prison population of prisoners serving sentences of 12 month or less. As you know, the first Bill published by me as Minister for Justice imposes an obligation on Judges, when considering imposing a sentence of 12 months or less, to first consider the use of Community Service as an alternative to a custodial sentence. Dail consideration of this measure has already commenced and it is my hope that it will be enacted by early July. Whilst undoubtedly an overriding concern for public safety will result in the continuing imposition of short prison sentences it is my belief that this legislation will result in a meaningful reduction in the numbers serving such sentences and instead undertaking Community Service at lesser cost to the taxpayer and to the benefit of the wider community. Such an outcome would of course reduce some of the pressure within our prison system.
Concern has been rightly expressed about the detention of 16 and 17 year olds in St Patricks Institution. As you are all aware, the Irish Youth Justice Service will take responsibility for the detention of 16 and 17 year olds when its’ new facilities in Lusk become available. My colleague Frances Fitzgerald TD, the Minister for Children, will be assuming responsibility for development of the new facilities in Lusk and, ultimately, the new Department for Children will be assuming responsibility for all detention facilities relating to young people convicted of offences.
My first address to a POA Conference comes at a time of change for all of us, not just in the Prison Service, but across the entire Public Service and beyond. We are facing testing challenges over the coming months and years. It is an unfortunate reality that the resourcing of the Prison Service, and of the public service as a whole, must take account of our financial and economic circumstances. If we don’t restore balance to our public finances, our capacity to continue funding our public services will be undermined. It is vital for the medium and long-term sustainability of public services that the gap between Government income and expenditure is closed.
Closing that gap will not always be easy but there is no question but that it must be closed. The bottom line is that Ireland has to reduce its expenditure on public services and that means further difficult and painful decisions. I doubt that there will be any disagreement between us on one issue - that we should not have ended up in this situation; however, this is the appalling legacy that the Government has inherited. One of my colleagues in Government has made the point that this country is effectively in receivership. Frankly, that’s how bad it is. However, we must not reduce our engagement to a counsel of despair. We need to accept this reality and turn our focus and energies to restoring our economic sovereignty, getting this country working again and building sustainable public services that deliver for the citizens of this country and those who work in them.
I understand the pressures and difficulties experienced by members of the Prison Service and the rest of the public service; pay reductions are not a pleasant experience for anyone, though I note that pay in the prison service is and has been consistently higher than elsewhere in the public sector. Avoiding further cuts in pay must be your key priority and to ensure that we must make sure that the Croke Park Agreement works – that is the agenda. Reforming our public services, and I mean real reform, is the only way that we can pay for and deliver good public services. It is of vital importance in the current dire financial situation confronting our country that we urgently and rapidly bring about the necessary transformation.
The Croke Park Agreement provides us with an opportunity to work together to change the way we do business, to reduce our costs and deliver a better service. Working together is central to achieving this goal. I have met with the National Officers of your Association and I am impressed with the professionalism with which they appear to be engaging with this process to date. However, it is vital that we now start to see real change happening on the ground. This exercise is not just about reducing the numbers of staff working in the prison service – that in itself would be a relatively straightforward, if unpleasant, task. The purpose of the reform process is not simply to cut numbers and be more cost-effective, vitally important though that is, but to see where the service we provide can be improved. If the reform process is to be credible we must see changes in how services are delivered and seek to improve significantly in some areas that are currently deficient.
In particular, I want to see improvements in prison regimes and I support fully the principles set out in the Agreement as to how this will be achieved. Implementation of the Agreement will allow us to move towards lower staffing levels while at the same time allowing us to lay greater emphasis on a more comprehensive management of prisoner’s sentences and prisoner rehabilitation. Achieving this will truly be delivering more for less and this will provide a sustainable basis for the Irish Prison Service going forward. For my part, I will work with you to achieve this, but I must also demand that real change happens and that it happens quickly.
I know that new prisoner accommodation at Wheatfield Prison opened last year on a new staffing model and regime based on the principles set out in the Agreement. This was a laudable achievement. I know also that the Task Reviews provided for in the Agreement are underway and will start delivering soon. Indeed, they must start delivering soon. I want to see new working practices in place and I want to see the efficiencies that can be achieved through campus working in place. I also want to see new management structures and I want to see prison regimes improving. Staff and management have agreed that these things will happen and I urge all concerned to get on with the work ahead.
At the end of this process we should have a prison system that is economically sustainable, fit and safe for staff to work in, that holds offenders securely and humanely and that contributes to prisoners returning to society with an improved opportunity of leading a law abiding life. It is, of course, vital that, in so far as is possible, the manner in which we deal as a society with those convicted of crime, not only provides necessary protection to the community and acts as a deterrent but also results in a substantial reduction in reoffending and recidivism and affords to prisoners the possibility of becoming productive members of society. That is the huge challenge we have set ourselves. I strongly believe that this can be achieved if we work together – it is in all our interests.
Thank you again for your attention and best wishes for a successful conference.