Inspector of Prisons, Annual Report 2008
The recently published Annual Report 2008 of the Inspector of Prisons presents a bleak picture of prisons in Ireland, with overcrowding, the mental health of prisoners and lack of sentence management in particular being highlighted.
The problem of overcrowding was described in the Report as “acute”. This is highly problematic, given that overcrowding stretches staff and monetary resources, compromises the availability of rehabilitative, educational, visiting and medical facilities, and exacerbates tension and violence. For example, in Limerick Prison the number of female prisoners was almost treble the design capacity, a situation described as “inhuman treatment”. Moreover, the situation in Mountjoy was of such gravity that the inspector wrote to the Department and to the Irish Prison Service in Feb 2009 expressing his fear that this practice could “lead to possible serious injury or loss of life.” The Inspector further noted the prevalence of drugs in Irish prisons, and the growing issue of gangs and inter-prisoner violence. Such problems are exacerbated by overcrowding. Furthermore, slopping out continues in Mountjoy, a practice deemed by the Inspector and his predecessor as inhuman and degrading treatment. Indeed, the Court of Session in Scotland in Napier v Scottish Ministers (2004) found that the practice of slopping out in overcrowded conditions breached the applicant’s rights under Articles 3 and 8 of the ECHR, leading to the payment of damages by the Scottish Government. There is no comparable successful case against the Irish State, which would could have expedited the removal of this practice.
In addition, the Report laments the absence of a proper sentence management scheme which would address the aetiology of the crime, programmes to pursue in prison, and other means of preventing recidivism. In this regard the Inspector recommends a sentence plan for all convicted prisoners for 12 months or more. This would cover the period from committal to release, and recognizes the autonomy of the person by involving the prisoner in discussion. However, the Report added that some progress in this regard is evident in the Irish Prison Service’s piloting of the “Integrated Sentence Management System” which moves to a prisoner focused model in which a personalized plan is made based on the needs of the particular individual.
Given that the prison population in Ireland seems on a steady upward arc, and given the apparent abandonment of the Thornton Hall prison plans, it is difficult to see how overcrowding can be alleviated. The Inspector called for reconsideration of the holding of illegal immigrants in prison, and welcomed the proposed move away from imprisoning fine defaulters. His progressive suggestion of temporary release combined with restorative justice initiatives could remedy overcrowding to a degree. However, it seems that an even more radical change is required, wherein imprisonment is regarded truly as the option of last resort, and where for non-violent crime the presumptive punishment is a community sanction or one based on restorative justice. Limiting the imposition of prison sentences to grave and violent crimes will improve the protection of human rights for those who are imprisoned, and will free up resources for alterative measures for non-violent and drug offenders who need not be detained in this way.