Crisis, What Crisis?

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This post was written and published on the 12th June last on the Irish Penal Reform Trust Director’s blog. It is being republished here with the kind permission of IPRT.

In response to a number of serious incidents at Mountjoy this week, IPRT was asked to make public comment on a number of radio programmes. By any measure, the current level of overcrowding in Mountjoy can only be described as at a critical level. 656 prisoners were in the prison last night; numbers have been as high as 678 in the last 3 weeks. To put this in context: there were 609 there last July when a serious disturbance threatened control of the prison; there were 570 when Gary Douch was killed in the prison in 2006 while being detained with 6 other prisoners in a holding cell. Official bed capacity is 540, but the real design capacity of the prison is closer to 420. These are the bare facts, not in any way disputed by the State, which IPRT set out publicly this week.

Given that there is universal recognition that overcrowding increases the risk of violence in a prison and makes a prison harder to manage, one would imagine that the implication of these facts would be an urgency to address the problem. In 2007, the Council of Europe certainly thought so, when deeming Mountjoy (as well as Limerick Prison and St. Patricks Institution) as being unsafe for staff or prisoners. In 2008, the UN Human Rights Committee thought so when requesting that the Government respond urgently on the measures it proposed to take to address prison overcrowding. Similar urgency was expressed by the Prison Visiting Committee at Mountjoy, the Prison Officer Association, the Prison Chaplains and ourselves, all flagging a dangerous and chronic situation in need of immediate action.

So what is the Government response? The Minister has referred to plans to provide 400 extra spaces over the coming months at Wheatfield, Castlerea and Portlaoise, which may provide some respite in the short term. However, he has also claimed that this overcrowding level is a result of increased Garda resources and crime-fighting measures. It may not have been the Minister’s intention, but the implication seems to be that we should be in some way pleased at what is happening. Whereas IPRT pointed out that the building of 1,300 new places since 1997 had not solved the problem of overcrowding (nor has it had any effect on rising rates of crime), the Minister interpreted this as IPRT “[giving] this government credit for building up the prison system”.

IPRT is steadfastly opposed to any increase in prison spaces or prison numbers; prison should only be used as a last resort, and resources should instead be directed towards early intervention and diversion, alternatives to custody, and ensuring the humane treatment of prisoners where imprisonment is deemed necessary.

In many respects, the current situation goes beyond ideas of penal reform, rehabilitation of offenders or prison regimes. It is far more basic than that. It is about the fundamental obligation to ensure the safety of prisoners and staff and to ensure that prisoners are not subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment. Our interpretation of the State response to date is that there appears to be no sense of urgency, no reference to what is a safe number of people to be accommodated in Mountjoy, and no commitment to ensuring that the problem of overcrowding is solved in the short term or in the longer term.

What do you think?

Coverage of this topic in the media:

Photo of Mountjoy Prision, Dublin taken from the New York Times.

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