First Stage: 7 Dec 2015
Oireachtas Link: http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/debates%20authoring/debateswebpack.nsf/takes/seanad2015120700002?opendocument#Prelude
Report and Final Stages: 16/12/2015
Wednesday, 16 December 2015
Prison Bill 2015: [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] Report and Final Stages
Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome this Bill, on which we spoke in the Seanad last week. It is a notable achievement of this Government finally to see the closure of St. Patrick's Institution and it is a notable achievement on children's rights as well as on penal reform. Last week the Minister highlighted the fact that she would bring forward this amendment in the Dáil, so it is not a surprise to see the new Part 5, section 24 in the Bill.
I agree in general with what Senator Ó Clochartaigh said on the widespread practice of using particular Bills to make amendments to other Bills in a piecemeal reform. It is unfortunate to see this provision in a Bill that otherwise has such a key core purpose. At the same time, I accept the need for this change. I assumed the change would be by way of an amendment to existing legislation but section 24 is just a stand-alone provision. What was the basis for the power? Was there no statutory power previously? I have not read the High Court judgment.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: That might be a little ultra vires, but the Minister may respond if she wishes. It is Christmas time.
Senator Ivana Bacik: On the subject of committal, I welcome the Minister's announcement last week that the legislation will be commenced in the new year, so we will no longer see people committed to prison for non-payment of fines. Senator Mooney raises a pertinent issue. There will probably be a reduction in the number of committals, one hopes, but perhaps not a reduction in the numbers incarcerated, given how short a period of time people tend to spend in prison when they are committed for non-payment of fines, as we saw last week. Perhaps the Minister can comment on that.
Committee and Remaining Stages: 11/12/2015
Friday, 11 December 2015
Prisons Bill 2015: Committee and Remaining Stages
I echo what others have said. This is indeed a historic and welcome day. It is long overdue. At last we have seen this Government move on this issue, after years of inaction by successive Governments in the face of mounting criticisms from international sources and from successive inspectors of prisons. It is a proud day and one we can be thankful for. It marks a new step in our penal policy and, as I said on Second Stage, our position on children's rights.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Reilly, who also had a role, as did the officials who worked on the Bill.
This Bill finally marks the closure of St. Patrick's Institution and the end of the practice of detaining children in prisons. It is most welcome, especially on the day when we have also seen the order on reasonable chastisement finally signed into law. Let us hope we see more progress on children's rights in the short time left under this Government. I think we may do so. I commend all those who have worked on this issue, including Senator van Turnhout.
Second Stage: 07/12/2015
Prisons Bill 2015: Second Stage
Monday, 7 December 2015
Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, to the House and echo the words of others about her incredible working record. I also welcome her hard-working officials, as we are conscious of the volume of legislation coming through from the Department of Justice and Equality. This is historic legislation, as others have said, which I very much welcome. I was moved when reading the language of the Bill, particularly the first line, which is "an Act to provide for the closing of Saint Patrick's Institution". Like many others, I have campaigned for its closure for many years with the Irish Penal Reform Trust. Senator van Turnhout has mentioned the Children's Rights Alliance and the Minister mentioned the long history of constant criticism to which Ireland has been subjected from international bodies and internally, from our own Inspector of Prisons and the Whittaker report of 30 years. There was an appalling culture and abuses perpetrated on children and young adults, including violation of human rights, within St. Patrick's Institution. It is very welcome to see this final stage in the legislative process moving towards its closure.
As Senator Conway has said, this is almost technical legislation, despite the rather moving language in it as the decision to close was taken some years ago. I will speak in a moment about the process that has led to it and will return later to the criticism issue. I remember representing young offenders before the children's courts, with many of them being desperately sad cases. Those of us who practised criminal law or worked on the front line remember the whispered stories of sexual and physical abuse and the drugs culture in St. Patrick's Institution, all of which was documented by successive inspectors of prisons. One former inspector, Mr. Justice Dermot Kinlen, described St. Patrick's Institution as a finishing school for bullying and developing criminal skills and uttered stronger language about it in private. The groundbreaking 2012 report of inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, on the culture of violations there played an important and pivotal role in the decision to close it. In the 1990s, the work of the recently deceased Dr. Paul O'Mahoney, a leading criminologist, on recidivism in the Irish criminal justice system exposed St. Patrick's Institution, as Mr. Justice Kinlen said, as a breeding ground for future criminality. The average prisoner in Mountjoy would have spent time in St. Patrick's and would have been reconvicted nine or ten times on average. Senator Wilson quoted more figures on recidivism which expose the legacy of St Patrick's Institution. It has been a black spot on the Irish record in terms of penal policy and children's rights.
In his report on penal reform published 30 years ago, T.K. Whitaker recommended that St. Patrick's be closed. Some 20 years on, in 2005, a follow-up to the Whitaker report again recommended its closure. It is great to see that it is finally being closed, 30 years after the Whitaker report. This is hugely progressive in terms of penal reform policy and children's rights. The policy decision to end the practice of detaining children in St Patrick's Institution was hugely welcome when it was made in 2011 and there has also been a number of progressive steps which the Irish Penal Reform Trust has welcomed. The trust has been to the forefront of ensuring closure. Following the inspector of prisons' report, there were commitments made by the Minister in 2012, when she was Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The current Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly, signed ministerial orders in March of this year to end the practice of remanding children to St. Patrick's Institution. In addition, the Children (Amendment) Act 2015 has been enacted. There have been progressive stages involved, not only of a legislative nature. As the Minister said, it also required the expansion of Oberstown. I note the building work is almost complete on the expansion of the Oberstown campus. The Minister also mentioned the recruitment of staff. Senator van Turnhout has said it is a key issue and one about which there is some concern regarding whether the necessary staff can be recruited in time.
I have three points to raise on the practical impact of the legislation. In terms of timing, when will the Bill take effect? We intend to pass it as swiftly as possible. I am delighted that it has been commenced in the Seanad. I hope it will be passed by the Dáil next week and that the ministerial order commencing its provisions will be signed. Under section 6, a closure order will be required. Before the latter can be signed, it will need to be co-ordinated with the commencement of the relevant provisions of the Children (Amendment) Act 2015. We would also need to see the relevant staff in place and the campus at Oberstown finally completed. Can the Minister say exactly when the Act and this historic provision will take effect?
On the question Senator van Turnhout raised, we know from the Irish Penal Reform Trust that 13 boys are currently detained at Wheatfield Prison. I think they are all 17 year olds so it may be that they will age out, - in other words they will reach 18 shortly - but one does not know. How long is it proposed that boys under the age of 18 will be detained at Wheatfield? That is a matter of concern. Will it be possible, when this legislation is brought into force and the closure order is made, for those boys to be transferred to complete the remainder of their sentence until they turn 18?
Senator Conway mentioned the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality's report on penal reform a number of years ago and kindly referenced my contribution to it as rapporteur. In the same spirit as Whitaker's report 30 years ago, we recommended that imprisonment should be a sanction of last resort and that a commitment should be made to reducing the number of people imprisoned. Since the Government took office in 2011, there has been a reduction in the number of people being detained in prison, which is welcome. Others have mentioned the community return programme - a hugely progressive initiative - which has shown really positive results in tackling recidivism rates and reducing reoffending.
My concern is that if, on the closure of St. Patrick's, its buildings are designated as part of the male section of Mountjoy Prison, this would lead to an expansion of the adult places available in Mountjoy. An expansion of prison places tends to lead to an expansion of the use of imprisonment as a sanction, which would be unwelcome. It is clear that prison is needed, in particular for offences of violence and for offenders who are serious recidivists who commit serious crimes, but when we looked at the issue in detail in the Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, we were conscious that a large number of people were still being detained and imprisoned for very minor matters such as non-payment of fines. We must ensure we do not expand prisons for the sake of it and that we do not see any regression in terms of returning to a position where we are simply building up the numbers of people detained. I would be concerned about what the redesignation of the St. Patrick's buildings would mean in terms of the adult prison population.
The Bill is very welcome and I am sure it will be welcomed across the House. It marks a change in approach from retributive punishment and sanction to rehabilitation. The culture in Oberstown is clearly about rehabilitation and, as the Minister said, seeking to give people a second chance, which is hugely welcome. The Bill marks an historic day in terms of penal reform and the development of children's rights, so I very much welcome it.
I must state that this is a nice opportunity to send birthday greetings to Dr. Whitaker from the House, and I believe he would be pleased.
Senator Ivana Bacik: Hear, hear.
Acting Chairman (Senator Diarmuid Wilson): When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Senator Ivana Bacik: Next Friday.
Committee Stage ordered for Friday, 11 December 2015.