Prisons Bill 2015
Monday, 07 December 2015

During the second stage debate in the Seanad on the Prisons Bill 2015, I said: I sent a birthday card today to Dr. T. K. Whitaker, who will be 99 tomorrow. I will speak to him later on about today and the fact he has been mentioned so often. He is a former Member of this House, as was the Minister herself. It is a delight to see that something he recommended 30 years ago is taking place. He will be very pleased to know that. I remember speaking on a prison Bill many years ago when I was first elected the House. I was trying to work out in my mind why we put people in prison. Senator Bacik referred to the issue in one way, namely, to protect society. In another way it is a punishment, to ensure a person is discouraged from doing something again. However, by far the most principled approach to take to criminals is rehabilitation and to consider what we must do to ensure we give people another chance...

I was only once in a prison, on a visit to Wheatfield Prison. I was involved with the leaving certificate applied course. I was very impressed with the work being done with younger people, not necessarily under 17 years, who were being taught the leaving certificate applied course, many of whom had never learned to read or write in school. They had fallen out of the system and that got them into a bad habit. One of the reasons I was impressed is that we got our meal in the prison that evening and it had been cooked by two young men who had learned how to cook there. I am confident they would have gone on to benefit from that because the education they got in prison was such that it would enable them to stay out of prison in future and stay away from crime. Senator Conway expressed the hope that we would have the unanimous support of the House. I think the Minister will have that. It is very difficult to see how anyone would disagree with what she is attempting to achieve.

We have all read of the issues that surround St. Patrick's Institution. In recent years a considerable number of people under the age of 21 were held on a 23-hour lock-up. That just seems horrific. The closure of St. Patrick's, which the Bill will bring about, is very welcome, and thus the Government will be able to end the practice of sending children to the institution. The transition process has taken some time. It is an ongoing process. It is worth mentioning that when the Council of Europe delegation visited St. Patrick's in September last year, it noted that five 17 year olds were still being remanded there. However, it could be said that the Council of Europe's newly published report carried a relatively positive assessment of child detention facilities in this country. That is a considerable improvement on the situation that pertained in the past. The report highlighted high levels of violence in prison, to which previous speakers referred, and the practice of slopping out as well as the detention of failed asylum seekers in prison.While we have seen considerable progress with regard to young offenders, we could learn more from the best European policies and practices in this area. It is worth noting that in Germany education and vocational training are central principles for young people in custody. Another principle worth noting is that in Germany and the Netherlands, young people aged 18 to 21 can be treated either as juveniles or adults. This is an interesting concept to consider. Whether a person is treated as a juvenile or an adult depends on the seriousness of the crime, the circumstances in which it was committed and the personality of the defendant. We must tailor the punishment by taking age into consideration. Just because someone has turned 18 does not necessarily mean that he or she can be regarded as a fully competent adult. The number of people who are unable to read or write at that age is a good example of that.

We should use community service much more than is currently the case, rather than sending people to prison. The highly respected policy think tank, Howard League for Penal Reform, conducted research demonstrating that community service can reduce re-offending by up to 22% compared with short custodial sentences of up to 12 months. Community service often means that work gets done that probably would not have been done. It also provides offenders with a work routine, builds their self esteem and can change their lives for the better, unlike locking them up at enormous cost to the taxpayer. In the UK community service is now officially referred to as compulsory unpaid work. Why not call a spade a spade here too? I ask the Minister to give her views on this.

One of the issues related to both juvenile and adult justice is that of restorative justice, where the offender pays back for his or her crime. In some European countries citizens can nominate a local project or vote for a project that they wish to see benefit from unpaid labour. In that way, citizens have a worthwhile input into the justice system. This is a concept that is worth considering in the Irish context.

Finally, it is worth asking if wider society could play any part in juvenile justice policy. There is a plan in the UK which involves academics and free schools, that is state-funded schools which are free of local council control, being invited to take over the education of young offenders. The aim is to create what have been termed "secure training colleges" in order to improve the rehabilitation of young offenders.

I am delighted that the Minister has grabbed hold of this issue and am confident that this Bill will pass through both Houses quickly. The next stage is to make sure that its provisions are implemented as quickly as possible, which I have no doubt the Minister will achieve.


For the full text of that debate, please click here.

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