Crossroads in Prison Building Presents Opportunities to Rethink Direction

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In a press release today, IPRT welcomed the Government announcement that it is to reconsider the proposed building of what would have been the largest prison in the State, and one of the largest prisons in Europe, at Thornton Hall. We believe that the decision to rethink Thornton Hall is an opportunity to conduct a general review of the emphasis of spending within the criminal justice system away from building prisons and towards crime prevention and supporting communities with the resources to address the underlying causes of crime.

IPRT has held the view consistently throughout this process that the objective of providing modern, humane prison conditions could be achieved without the large scale expansion of the prison estate. A key recommendation in our Position Paper on Thornton Hall (published June 2008) was that any planning for prison building must be framed in the context of a wider plan regarding the proper use of imprisonment and the appropriate use of alternatives to custody.

Our main objection to the project from the outset has been that increasing the number of prison places is more likely to lead to an increase in our overall prison population without addressing the critical questions about whether we are sending the right offenders to prison.

In 2007, there were 1,564 sentenced committals for road traffic offences, representing 24.2% of the total; 27% of sentenced committals in 2007 were for offences against property without violence. (Source: Irish Prison Service Annual Report for 2007.) Furthermore, in 2008, 276 people were imprisoned in relation to the non-payment of a civil debt, in contravention of international human rights standards.

Throughout the economic boom, the focus of criminal justice policy has been on building more and more prisons with the number of prisoners increasing from 2,180 in 1990 to over 3,800 today (an increase of 74%).  This expansion of our prison system has been hugely expensive and has not had a measurable impact on reducing crime.

All of the evidence from Europe and North America demonstrates that the most effective and cost-efficient way of fighting crime is to shift the focus of resources to addressing crime at the root, looking at why young people get drawn into criminality and diverting them away from the criminal justice system.

Forum: “Re-imagining the Role of Prisons in Irish Society”, 18 June 2009

IPRT believes that the issues raised by this Government decision are of major public importance. We will provide a forum for an inclusive public debate on the future direction of Irish prison policy at a Public Forum “Re-imagining the Role of Prisons in Irish Society” to be held in Dublin on June 18th, 2009.

Speakers will include Professor Andrew Coyle of the International Centre for Prison Studies at Kings College London on the work of the Commission on the English Prison Today – a body comprised of key academics and public officials in the English justice system and chaired by Cherie Booth, that has reviewed the use of imprisonment in England; and also Professor Fergus McNeill who has been part of a similar process with the Scottish Prisons Commission. IPRT believes that Ireland is now at a crossroads in our prison policy and calls for all interested parties to contribute to a wide public debate on this issue.

IPRT believes that Ireland is now at a crossroads in our prison policy and calls for a wide public debate on this issue.

Fíona Ní Chinnéide is Campaigns & Communications Officer with the Irish Penal Reform Trust (www.iprt.ie). If you have any media enquires you can contact Fíona at communications(at)iprt.ie