IPRT Calls for Urgent Review of Imprisonment of Women

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I’m reposting this in light of the resignation of Kathleen McMahon as governor of the Dóchas Centre and her highly critical comments about the Irish Prison Service in her letter of resignation. In today’s Irish Times report on her resignation it mentions a chilling aspect, about how the Irish prison service is developing policy based on a perceived notion in the media that they are soft on crime.

The prison service was “afraid” that media coverage of the Dóchas Centre suggested the regime was too relaxed. She believed a decision had been made to introduce a more punitive regime involving holding as many women as possible in an already overcrowded centre.

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Women should only be sent to prison where all other options have been exhausted and for the most serious offences, Ireland’s leading penal reform group has stated today. Responding to fresh reports of a deepening overcrowding crisis at the Dóchas Centre, the Irish Penal Reform Trust is calling on government to urgently review its policy in relation to the imprisonment of women, with a focus on the wider use of gender-specific alternatives to custody and increased support post-release.

IPRT is seriously concerned at the increasing numbers of women being sent to prison, mostly for non-violent offences. To date, the response of both government and the Irish Prison Service to chronic overcrowding in Dóchas and Limerick women’s prisons has centred on plans to increase the national capacity of prison accommodation for women offenders.

Speaking today, Executive Director Liam Herrick said:

“Women offenders generally present a lower risk to society, and even a temporary period of imprisonment can have a profound negative impact on the families and communities, particularly in breaking the relationship between mothers and their children.

“Expanding the number of prison places cannot and will not address offending behaviour in women. It will merely serve to compound the distress of our most disadvantaged communities in the longer term.

“Instead of increasing prison spaces, we need support services in the community to address the complex issues and multiple needs of many women offenders, including mental health issues and substance addictions, without breaking links with women’s families.”

Background Facts

The Dóchas Centre (Mountjoy Female Prison) consistently runs at 50% above capacity, regularly accommodating upwards from 120 women prisoners in a prison designed to hold 85. It is proportionately more overcrowded than Mountjoy Male Prison.

In his Annual Report 2008, published May 2009, the Inspector of Prisons stated that overcrowding in Limerick Women’s prison is proportionately the worst across the Irish prison estate. It has a design capacity for 10; bed capacity (through doubling up) of 20; and regularly accommodates up to 30 women prisoners.

In 2005, a study by the Central Mental Hospital found that over 60% of women committed under sentence to Irish prisons suffer from mental health illnesses, and 16% of those have a serious depressive disorder (see report).

IPRT is a member of the Women in Prison Reform Alliance (WPRA), which is made up of a number of organisations and individuals concerned with women’s rights and the rights of prisoners; members of the alliance include the National Women’s Council of Ireland, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, Mercy Justice Office, Dominican Justice Office and Dr Christina Quinlan.

In December 2009, the WPRA submitted a proposal to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform for a Government commissioned, independent review of policy and practice in relation to women who come into the criminal justice system. This review should focus particularly on examining the current use of imprisonment for women, and exploring the scope for extending the range and utilisation of non-custodial alternatives.

Upcoming IPRT activities include the launch a report on the reintegration of ex-offenders in Ireland (May 2010), and a large conference on how to reduce crime through justice reinvestment (Sept 2010.)

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) is Ireland’s leading non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of everyone in prison and the progressive reform of Irish penal policy, with prison as a last resort. For more information, please visit: www.iprt.ie

Photo is of a room in Dóchas Centre in Mountjoy and is taken from JCFJ report on Women’s prisons.