Poverty of Imagination: Government Stumbles Blindly Towards Penal Expansion

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Thornton Hall to go ahead despite overwhelming evidence that ‘super-prisons’ do not work

300 prisoners is the maximum manageable size of a prison, according to incontrovertible international evidence presented at the ‘Re-imagining the Role of Prisons in Irish Society’ Open Forum last week, yet the government – whose officials were in attendance at the IPRT event – has decided to commit even more taxpayers’ money to the ‘super-prison’ at Thornton Hall, planned to house 1,400 to 2,200 prisoners.

Ireland is poised to make an irreversible decision to travel in the direction of further penal expansion mimicking the mistakes of the United States and England and Wales, without looking at the alternative approaches prevalent in many other European countries and which Scotland is now trying to emulate.  Ireland is also rejecting the huge volume of evidence which shows that approaches to crime centred on penal moderation and moving away from imprisonment are more successful – in terms of social and economic value -and in creating a safer society.

Speaking today, IPRT Executive Director, Liam Herrick said:

“There is a very real danger that now we might get the worst of both worlds. IPRT’s main objection to the Thornton Hall plan was the scale of the proposed prison, in terms of what that would mean for increasing imprisonment in Ireland and in terms of how a large prison goes against good practice everywhere else in Europe where it’s now recognised that small local prisons produce the best results.  The Prison Service has argued that the scale of the new prison would be compensated for by having high-quality single cells each with sanitation and showers and by the prison being able to provide a new level of regimes and services. If the prison is now going ahead at a similar scale but it is still claimed that significant savings will be made, we can only assume that the savings will come from cell-design or regimes.

“IPRT welcomes the government’s commitment to look at making greater use of alternatives to custody, such as restorative justice and the Community Service Scheme.  In the longer term it is measures such as these that will address the problem of overcrowding, but in the short term we need clarification from Government as to its current plans for Thornton Hall.  If it is to go ahead, one practical step to reduce the size and cost of the project would be to at least commit to no immigration detention and no juvenile detention at the site and to not transfer the women’s prison at Dóchas from the North Circular Road.”

As reported in a short review of the ‘Re-imagining the Role of Prisons in Irish Society’ Open Forum Director General of the Irish Prison Service, Brian Purcell, a panellist at the event, stated clearly that plans for the 2,200 capacity “super-prison” at Thornton Hall will go ahead. On whether the 50% rate of reoffending in Ireland can be seen as a sign of success or failure, Brian Purcell interpreted it as a sign of success; Professor Andrew Coyle of King’s College London, suggested that the same criteria applied to other sectors, for example the health service, would not be tolerated.

Professor Fergus McNeill of the University of Glasgow spoke on the concept of ‘payback’ – constructive ways to compensate or repair harms caused by crime, through making good to the victim and/or the community. This shift in emphasis towards looking for community solutions – dealing with local crime within the local community – is reflected in the findings of both the Scottish Prisons Commission (report published July 2008) and the report of the Commission on English Prisons Today, which will be published 2nd July 2009.

At the same event Professor O’Donnell of the Institute of Criminology, UCD proposed specific actions which could be taken to immediately reduce overcrowding in prisons, including: increase in remission from 25% to 33%, which is already legislated for; the creation of a waiting list for low-risk offenders who would only begin their sentence when a prison space comes free; that any prison-building programmes should be linked to a commitment to close older cells, at a rate of 4 closures for every 3 new cells. Professor Coyle proposed that limiting the quota of prison places available to each judge would lead to more considered passing of sentences.

A full report on the forum will shortly be available online at: www.iprt.ie