“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” - Fyodor Dostoevsky
This is an oft-used quotation in the area of penal reform, but it is no less true. And Ireland would not fare well, were we to be judged by the state of our prisons.
Ireland's prisons have drawn serious censure from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Of great concern to the committee are: the ongoing lack of sanitary facilities ('slopping out'); the lack of open prison provision for women; the lack of comprehensive independent monitoring; over-crowding, and the consequent rising levels of inter-prisoner violence.
This reflects on Irish society as a whole.
While Ireland’s rate of imprisonment remains close to the European average in terms of the average prison population, there was a trend towards expansion up until 2011. In October 2007, the average daily prison population was reported as being 3,325, which represents an increase of more than 50% since 1995. By April 2011, there were 4,587 people in prison. From 2012 onwards, we saw a levelling-off of numbers, and there were 3,719 people in prison custody in February 2017. These figures began to rise once again in 2018 and 2019, with a daily average of 4,052 people in custody in January 2020.
Ireland's rates of committal to prison, and consequently our rates of release, are among the highest among the 46 countries of the Council of Europe area, and third highest in the European Union. This cannot simply be explained by demographics and rates of crime; it is the result of sentencing and penal policy in Ireland.
Notable features of our prison population include poor literacy levels, poor mental health, addictions and homelessness. Overcrowding is common and although lack of basic sanitation or “slopping out” has come down from 20% of the prison estate in 2012, to 1.4% of prisoners in January 2020, 43% of prisoners do not have access to private toilet facilities and are required to use a toilet in the presence of another prisoner. 47% are still required to share cells, which does not contribute to prison safety. Illegal drugs are widespread and there is a wide awareness of rising levels of inter-prisoner violence.
The mental health of Irish prisoners is becoming increasingly concerning. This issue has been raised by the UN Committee against Torture on more than one occasion, but there has been little action on the Committee's recommendations. There is ongoing overcrowding in the Central Mental Hospital, often leaving mentally ill prisoners sleeping on floors and in unsafe conditions.
On a positive note, important progress is being made in relation to the system of youth justice and there are some positive moves towards developing alternatives to custody. At the same time, systems for the rehabilitation of prisoners in detention and for reintegration to society on release remain under-developed and under-resourced.
The question is not whether we need progressive reform of the penal system in Ireland; the question is how can we work together to achieve real change as soon as possible.
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