Prison Conditions in Ireland
Fr Donal Dorr
Since Ireland has now become one of the wealthiest countries in the world, we no longer have the excuse of shortage of money for the scandalous conditions in which some of our most marginalised people are forced to live.
A recent report showed that a quarter of our men prisoners and a third of our women prisoners were homeless at the time they were sent to prison. Ninety percent of these were drug users. The great majority of them were not guilty of serious crimes. A main reason why they were in jail was simply that they couldn’t afford to pay the fines which would have been an alternative to prison. Proposed new legislation allows judges to impose very small fines on poor people and in this way to keep them out of prison. But there is urgent need for greatly increased funding for programmes of rehabilitation in the community which will enable homeless and/or drug-addicted to be rehabilitated.
It is particularly important to have effective rehabilitation programmes for young offenders, since otherwise they will find themselves returning again and again to prison and many of them are likely to develop into hardened criminals. Even from a purely economic point of view, money spent on rehabilitating them would be very good value for money. Unfortunately, in Ireland at present there are very few votes to be gained by politicians who advocate spending money on rehabilitation. On the contrary, there is a widespread demand for more severe prison sentences and this has been fostered by the tabloid press.
In the past there was some balance in the treatment of prisoners between rehabilitation on the one hand and punishment and control on the other. Recently, there has been a notable shift away from rehabilitation and far more emphasis on punishment and control. There was little or no significant outrage or protest when two of the three detention centres for young offenders were closed down by the Minister for Justice some years ago during his dispute with the Prison Officers Association. The only remaining detention centre for young offenders is St Patrick’s Institution in Mountjoy. As Fr Peter McVerry SJ points out in a recent edition of Working Notes (issued by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice) most of those held there are damaged young people, victims of abuse or neglect. A very high proportion of them are almost illiterate.
The conditions in which young people are held are now far worse then 20 or 30 years ago. Many of the training workshops and the literacy scheme have been closed down. The young men spend up to nineteen hours a day locked up in their cells, and much of the remaining hours walking up and down a dreary yard. Many of these youths are legally children, yet there are very few staff with child-care qualifications. These young people are not entitled to have access to a social worker, and the Ombudsman for Children is prohibited from investigating complaints.
SUGGESTED PRACTICAL GUIDELINES
One of the most effective ways to respond to this crying scandal is for us to question our local politicians about the policies of themselves and their parties on these issues. There needs to be a clear policy emphasis on the rehabilitation of prisoners, and especially of young offenders.
According to Fr McVerry the most urgent need is for effective literacy and educational programmes which will enable these young people to make up for the past failure of the educational system in their regard. This requires changes in the prison regime and a notable increase in staff.
A second vital need is for training programmes which will enable these young people to find employment when they are released. Some years ago there was a programme for this purpose in some prisons but now it no longer exists. We can pressure politicians to ensure that such programmes are reintroduced and expanded.
There is also an urgent need for intense and effective programmes to enable prisoners – especially young prisoners—to overcome their drug addiction. Money spent on such programmes is very well-spent as it will save the country far more in the long-term. And of course it is essential that those who do come off drugs are placed in drug-free sections of the prisons.
As Christians we have a particular duty to do what we can to help those in prison, since they are among the most marginalised people in our community