Prison Development (Confirmation of Resolutions) Bill 2008

First Stage: 19 Jun 2008
Oireachtas Link: http://www.oireachtas.ie/viewdoc.asp?DocID=9641

Ivana's Contributions

Second Stage Debate: 26/06/2008

Second Stage Debate - 26/06/08

Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I am glad of the opportunity to speak on the Bill. As Senator Hannigan has said, I regret there has not been more time to debate the proposed construction of the new Mountjoy Prison, or if we are in the business of naming it after individuals, perhaps we should call it the Michael McDowell Prison since he was the Minister who seems to have come up with the idea for it.

I want to speak against the adoption of this Bill for a number of reasons. The first, and perhaps the most significant, is in relation to the size of the prison. The Minister of State has addressed the issue of whether it is a super-prison, and clearly, when one looks at prison policy in Ireland in the context of Irish imprisonment, to date, this constitutes a super-prison. It is certainly on a much larger scale than we have ever seen constructed in this country before and will concentrate a number of different carceral institutions on one site.

I also want to take issue with something said by the Minister of State in terms of imprisonment rates. It is a matter of some pride that we have a low imprisonment rate, by international standards, per 100,000 of the population in jail on any given day. The figure is approximately 3,000 on any one day. However, our committal rate is somewhat higher. That is the absolute number of persons committed to prison in any one year. There we see a very different figure, equivalent to 10,000 persons committed to prison in any one year. On women prisoners the figures are in stark contrast. The Minister of State has pointed out that there are, on average, 106 women in prison in any given day in Ireland, representing less than 4% of the overall prison population. However, in 2006, some 960 women were committed to prison, representing almost 10% of the overall committals figure for that year. Again, the absolute figures perhaps give a truer picture of the scale of imprisonment.

Clearly, what we are seeing are large numbers of people imprisoned for short sentences. Ideally, these are people who should not be in prison at all. If we have a true commitment to rehabilitation in Irish sentencing policy, and I am pleased the Minister of State said we do, then we need to put our money where our mouth is and invest more heavily in the probation and welfare service and alternative sanctions, not imprisonment.

What we is enormous sums of money being devoted to the building of a new carceral institution as opposed to resources being spent on the probation and welfare service and non-custodial sanctions. This Bill is a wasted opportunity to carve out a new direction in sentencing and prison policy. It is true the Executive cannot have a direct role in how many people are sent to prison, but it is also a fact that in making legislation and putting policy into practice, the Executive and the Legislature have a very strong indirect effect in terms of the numbers of people incarcerated through, for example, mandatory minimum sentences, the building of prisons and so on which ensure more people will be sent to prison. It is unfortunate, therefore, that we are seeing the building of this new institution with up to 2,200 places being provided.

I raised this matter at the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights and I am concerned to know what will trigger the double occupancy cells of which the Minister of State speaks. I know he said it is not envisaged that the 2,200 maximum will be filled in the foreseeable future, but again we must be concerned that if we build a prison on this immense scale, it will be filled, with more people being imprisoned as a result.

There is one issue of which we need to be aware, even if the Bill is passed, and it is something of which I hope to continue lobbying on a cross-party basis. I know there are party colleagues of the Minister of State who feel strongly about this. I shall continue to lobby to prevent the new women's prison going ahead on this site. It is important we look again at the principle of the imprisonment of women. We had a seminar very recently in Leinster House, hosted by Deputy Mary O'Rourke and I, where we heard from Baroness Jean Corston, author of a very influential UK report on the imprisonment of women. She suggests prison should only be a last resort for women, and only for those who commit crimes of violence.

Again, I do not believe we need a larger prison to be built. Women prisoners do not suffer from the same appalling conditions men do in Mountjoy. The Dóchas Centre is less than ten years old and there is a strong case to be made for retaining it on its present site. I raised this before and was told the reason we needed to build a new women's prison was because of overcrowding in Dóchas. I am reliably informed that a large number of the women in prison in Dóchas are there because of immigration related matters. Certainly, very many of them are there for short periods and more than half are not there under sentence. We need to look again at the profile of the women being sent to Dóchas and provide alternatives to prison for women.

The new prison envisaged for women on the new Mountjoy site will, once again, be a closed institution. There is no facility in this country for open prisons for women and no facility for smaller custodial units - the type Baroness Corston recommends - for those few women offenders who commit crimes of violence.

I have no choice but to oppose this Bill because it sets out the wrong direction for our penal and prison policy. It is unfortunate we are missing an opportunity. Instead of developing a whole new super-prison on a greenfield site, we should use the very detailed plans developed by the Office of Public Works some years ago under the predecessor of the former Minister, Michael McDowell, to redevelop that site on true rehabilitative principles. We should look at an overall prison policy that aims to reduce the numbers in prison and in particular to reduce the use of imprisonment for those who commit crimes that are not violent. I urge the Minister of State to take on board my remarks about the women's prison, even if the Bill is passed.