Closure of Mountjoy Prison Training Unit - Commencement Matter

30 March 2017

Prison Accommodation

Commencement Matter, 30 March 2017

Acting Chairman (Senator Gerry Horkan): I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I thank him for coming in. I am sorry the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality is not able to be here to take this question. He might pass on the fact that I wished to commend her on the penal reform programme generally and, in particular, the announcement this week that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, will be introducing an order that finally ends the detention of young offenders in adult prisons, which is welcome.
This Commencement matter is a lengthy question that relates to a specific issue, that is, the imminent closure of the training unit prison on the North Circular Road prison estate beside Mountjoy Prison. It has been some years since I visited it, as I visit Mountjoy and Dóchas more regularly, but its imminent closure has given rise to serious concerns among current prisoners, staff, the Irish Penal Reform Trust, IPRT, and the Prison Officers Association. I have discussed this matter with Mr. Michael Donnellan, the IPRT and others, but I wish to raise directly with the Minister of State a number of concerns. Mr. Donnellan spoke at the justice committee on 8 March on this issue, but I wish to have more details about the consequences of the closure.
I will raise three specific issues. First, there is a concern among current prisoners that their regimes might be adversely affected by the closure. Those in the training unit are engaged in a wide range of rehabilitation measures. Many are on temporary or day release and are concerned about what the transfer will mean for them. For those transferring to open centres, such as Shelton Abbey and Loughan House, key issues will arise, for example, distance from families and services and continuity of their programmes. For those transferring to Mountjoy west, formerly St. Patrick's Institution, there is a concern around normalisation as being central to rehabilitation. Prisoners in the training unit have communal eating facilities. If they move to Mountjoy, will they be subject to in-cell eating and earlier lock-up times in their cells, will there be a deterioration in their family visiting conditions and will they be able to continue with their rehabilitation regimes? The concern is that the move could amount to a regressive step for those currently serving time in the training unit, in particular those with life or other lengthy sentences who are engaged in long-term rehabilitation regimes.
Second, why is it proposed to house older prisoners together in one place once the training unit is reopened? Mr. Donnellan stated that the unit needed to be upgraded and in-cell sanitation needed to be installed. Once that is done, it is proposed to reopen the unit. I understand that there are approximately 90 prisoners aged over 60 years across the prison estate. Why must they all be kept together?
Third, will the Minister of State confirm whether the closure is in line with the overall penal policy aim of rehabilitation as articulated by the penal policy review group? The IPRT is concerned about this matter. The strategic review group on penal policy recommended an increase in open prison provision, particularly in Dublin. The closure of the training unit will reduce the provision of semi-open accommodation by 96 places to under 7% of bed capacity. This reduction is contrary to the group's report. Mr. Donnellan stated that it would take 18 months to two years to refurbish the training unit. There is a concern that this will be a retrograde step, in that there will be a reduction in semi-open and open prison accommodation during that period.
There is also a concern that the plan to close the training unit in the absence of the provision of alternative open or semi-open facilities amounts to an efficiency measure rather than what it should be driven by, that being, the needs of prisoners and an emphasis on rehabilitation.
 While I appreciate the need to refurbish the training unit, I wish to get the Minister of State's response about addressing these concerns on record.

Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Patrick O'Donovan): At the outset, I apologise on behalf of the Tánaiste, who unfortunately cannot attend. I assure Senator Bacik that I have noted the individual concerns that she raised and I will relay them to the Tánaiste.  I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to discuss the planned repurposing of the training unit place of detention as an older prisoners unit. The training unit is a semi-open facility based within the Mountjoy Prison campus for males aged 18 years and over. As a semi-open prison, prisoners accommodated within the training unit are afforded more latitude in terms of out-of-cell time than prisoners with a higher security rating. A key action of the Irish Prison Service strategic plan, specifically action No. 2.5, is to ensure that older prisoners are identified as a specific group that has particular needs within the prison population. There are a number of such prisoners in the care of the Irish Prison Service who have significant and ongoing health care needs, many of whom are dispersed across the estate, in some cases significant distances away from the health care providers on which they rely.
The development of a bespoke facility to cater for the needs of this specific cohort will allow the Irish Prison Service to provide a physical infrastructure that takes cognisance of the needs of older adults in terms of mobility, access and appropriate age-related services, forge strong strategic links with statutory and community services critical to effective care provision for older persons in custody, ensure that age-related mental health and related social needs are met through appropriate assessment and intervention methods, including early detection, and ensure that older adults in prison are given opportunities for participation in meaningful and purposeful activity or occupation to meet their needs, preferences and capacities.
The House will be well aware that significant investment has been undertaken by the Government in Mountjoy Prison. As a result, overcrowding has been eliminated and all of the wings in Mountjoy Prison have been completely refurbished, thereby facilitating the elimination of the practice of slopping out and the significant enhancement of regime activities and facilities available to prisoners. To facilitate the refurbishment of the prison, one division of Mountjoy Prison, equating to 125 cells, has been continuously closed since 2010. With the recent completion of the refurbishment project, however, these cells are now available for occupation.
As a result of the developments I have outlined, an opportunity now presents itself to migrate prisoners to Mountjoy Prison from the training unit in order to repurpose the existing facility into a dedicated unit to accommodate older prisoners. The temporary closure of the unit will not result in any reduction in the regime or sentence management arrangements currently in place for prisoners accommodated there. Given the existing capacity within Mountjoy Prison, prisoners currently accommodated in the training unit will be transferred to an enhanced area of the prison, which will allow them to continue to avail of the level of openness of regime and provide improved, more structured activities than those currently available within the training unit. Moreover, there will be no interference with the sentence management plans in place for prisoners, many of which are based on recommendations of the Parole Board. Likewise, the temporary closure of the training unit will not result in the displacement from Mountjoy of staff currently serving in the unit. Staff will be reassigned across the Mountjoy campus and the resulting surplus of staff will be redistributed across the service by way of current voluntary transfer arrangements. The latter will have the significant added benefit of allowing the Irish Prison Service to consolidate its staffing resources and will greatly assist in addressing current staffing shortfalls, pending the training of recruit prison officers, which is scheduled to commence later this month. In addition, a new lifers unit has recently opened in Wheatfield Place of Detention, offering prisoners a more open prison regime. It is the intention of Mountjoy Prison management to establish a second such unit for suitable life sentence prisoners, including those transferring from the training unit.

Senator Ivana Bacik: I thank the Minister of State for those words. I am grateful to Mr. Donnellan, the head of the Irish Prison Service, for also communicating with me much of the information that the Minister of State just provided. I appreciate the progress being made in refurbishing Mountjoy Prison, in particular the ending of the appalling practice of slopping out. I am glad to hear the Minister of State confirm that there will be no reduction in the regime or sentence management arrangements that are currently in place for prisoners accommodated in the training unit. I welcome that those being moved to Mountjoy will be transferred to an enhanced area of the prison and have the same level of openness of regime and so on. However, I will keep this issue under review. The IPRT is also following it. I would be grateful if the Minister of State could ask the Tánaiste to follow up on the more specific questions that I have raised and to respond to me on same. I will follow them up with her as well. In particular, when will the new unit that was mentioned be established and open? I refer to the more open prison unit for those transferring from the training unit. Is this closure in line with the general policy of emphasising rehabilitation as a sentencing rationale?

Deputy Patrick O'Donovan: On the Tánaiste's behalf, I assure the House that the Irish Prison Service and Mountjoy Prison management are working to ensure that prisoners relocating from the training unit are accommodated on regimes that mirror in so far as possible their current ones so that they can continue their rehabilitation and help their eventual reintegration on release from prison custody, which is a point that the Senator raised. I counted seven specific queries. I will relay them to the Tánaiste and ask her to revert to the Senator.

Senator Ivana Bacik: I thank the Minister of State.