Topical Issues Debate - The planned release from jails of 1200 prisoners

Check Against Delivery 

I would like to thank Deputy Calleary for raising this matter and for the opportunity to speak on this important issue which has been a topic of some discussion in recent days.

As the Deputy is aware, I launched, on Monday last, the new Three-Year Strategic Plan for the Irish Prison Service. The Plan contains a new mission statement and vision for the Irish Prison Service – a mission to "provide safe and secure custody, dignity of care and rehabilitation to prisoners for safer communities" and a vision for the Service of "a safer community through excellence in a prison service built on respect for human dignity".

This plan has the potential to deliver a safer and more secure environment for prisoners and staff and to enhance prisoner rehabilitation through greater involvement in sentence planning and structured activities. It can also be a catalyst for bringing about cultural change in the prisons.

The Plan’s key objectives are -

· Increasing public safety by maintaining safe and secure custody for all those committed by the courts and by reducing reoffending and improving prisoner rehabilitation through the development of a multiagency approach to offending;
· Ensuring Ireland’s compliance with domestic and international human rights obligations and best practice; and
· Delivering reform and implementing change in accordance with the Public Service Agreement and the Integrated Reform Plan for the Justice and Equality Sector.

The Plan includes several concrete and practical, if ambitious, targets for the next three years. Many of those objectives give effect to commitments given in the Programme for Government. These include:-

· the elimination of slopping out across the prison estate
· the replacement of outdated accommodation and facilities in Mountjoy, Cork and Limerick prisons
· ending the detention of juveniles at St Patrick’s Institution
· the creation of drug free units and
· the enhancement of current programmes included accredited education and vocational training for prisoners.

The Prison Service is setting out to re-engineer our prison system to give further effect to the principles of normalisation, progression and reintegration. This is done through work training and education, but also through the work of the medical, dental and other healthcare services, the psychology service and the chaplaincy not forgetting the inputs from the Probation Service and voluntary and community organisations.

On many occasions in this House I have been asked about prison overcrowding. Chronic overcrowding and all the problems that come with it are the result of the failure of previous Governments to provide an appropriate number of prison places across the prison estate. This is an issue that this Government is determined to address. Already, after only 14 months in Government, arrangements have been put in place for the provision of a 300-space wing at the Midlands Prison to be provided by the end of this year and plans are already underway for the provision for a new prison in Cork. The Capital Plan funding allocation to the Prison Service Building Programme for 2012 also provides for the continuation of the refurbishment and in-cell sanitation project in Mountjoy Prison.

A pilot Community Return Project commenced in October last in line with the recommendations of the Thornton Hall Project Review Group. The Project, run by the Probation Service and the Irish Prison Service, provides for earned early temporary release to be offered to offenders, who pose no threat to society, in return for supervised community service. The pilot project has been very successful and it is planned to roll the Project out nationally. Any one time, a maximum of 150 prisoners will be engaged in this scheme. Over the 3 year life time of the Plan up to 1,200 prisoners will participate.

The potential benefits of the programme are obvious. Instead of releasing large numbers of prisoners on temporary release, without any assessment, in an unstructured manner we will now have a structured programme involving carefully selected, motivated prisoners. The Community Return Programme is restricted to suitably assessed prisoners who are serving sentences of more than one and less than eight years and who have served at least 50% of their sentence.

The overriding consideration in the operation of the Programme is that of public safety. The following factors are taken into account in considering the suitability of a prisoner for temporary release to participate in the Project:

· the nature and gravity of the offence to which the sentence being served relates
· the sentence concerned and any recommendations made by the Court in relation to the sentence imposed
· the potential threat to the safety and security of the public should the person be released
· previous criminal record
· the risk of the person failing to comply with any of the conditions of temporary release
· the extent of the prisoner's engagement with therapeutic services while in custody
· conduct while in custody.

It has been the practice of previous Governments to release prisoners before their full term of imprisonment has been completed. The Community Return Project gives a structure, an assessment process and specific objectives to such releases. Prison must not be merely a warehouse to contain convicted offenders for a period of time before releasing them back into the community to re-offend. We must innovate and do things differently to reduce the unacceptable level of recidivism and reoffending so as to provide greater protection from criminality for the general community.
Once again, thank you for this opportunity to address the House on this issue.

2 May 2012

Ends