The Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Alan Shatter TD, today published the reports for 2013 of the Arbour Hill, Cloverhill, Cork, Dóchás Centre, Loughan House, Portlaoise, St. Patrick’s Institution and Shelton Abbey Visiting Committees.

The function of Visiting Committees is to visit the prison to which they are appointed and hear any complaints which may be made to them by any prisoner. The Committees play a vital role in ensuring the quality of accommodation and catering, medical, educational and welfare services and recreational facilities.

The Minister said "I welcome these positive Reports and wish to thank the Visiting Committees for their important work. I am pleased to note the encouraging comments regarding the kitchens which operate at a very high level in the prisons, recreational facilities, the working relationship between staff and prisoners and services provided to prisoners. I am particularly pleased to note the positive comments in terms of the improvements made in addressing overcrowding in Cork and the success of the Community Return Scheme. The general praise for the training and educational programmes and services in the prisons is testament to the good work carried out on a daily basis by staff of the Prison Service."

The Minister notes the St. Patrick’s Institution Visiting Committee’s acknowledgement of the significant attempts made to reduce the numbers on protection and to improve the Educational, Training and Recreational Facilities available to those on protection. The Committee refers to 2013 as a year of change and uncertainty for St. Patrick’s. The Minister acknowledged that St. Patrick’s has undergone considerable change recently, all of which has been positive. The only children now remaining in St. Patrick’s are 17 year old remands. The Minister said "On 3rd July 2013, I announced that St. Patrick’s was to close and that the practice of sending children to St. Patrick’s would end. Pending the development of new facilities in Oberstown, I indicated that all sentenced 17 year olds and the 18-20 year old population of St. Patrick’s would be transferred to a dedicated unit in Wheatfield within 6 months, and this has taken place. 17 year olds remanded in custody pending trial will continue to be detained in a dedicated unit in St. Patrick’s pending their transfer to Oberstown in the 3rd quarter of this year, for which the Minister for Children & Youth Affairs has responsibility. This has in the interim involved the transfer of all 17 year olds serving a sentence in St. Patrick’s to a dedicated Unit in Wheatfield Place of Detention. The 18 to 20 year old population has also transferred to Wheatfield where the emphasis is on work and training."

The Minister notes the reference in the Shelton Abbey and Loughan House Visiting Committee Reports to the many valuable activities undertaken by inmates for the benefit of charitable organisations such as fundraising events in aid of Crumlin Children’s Hospital and participation in the Bóthar project.

The concerns raised in relation to elderly prisoners in Arbour Hill Prison were also noted by the Minister who said "While the Report highlights that there are some issues in relation to the detention of elderly prisoners, it is evident from the Report that these prisons receive a high level of medical support and that prisoners in Arbour Hill are engaged in structured activity and that programmes are in place to aid their reintegration into society on their release. In terms of the reintegration of prisoners in general, I am pleased to say that the Joint Prison Service & Probation Service Strategic Plan 2013-2015 provides a framework to engage with statutory and voluntary partners to develop and deliver programmes to address the reintegration of prisoners into the community."

Overcrowding, drugs and staff shortages are ongoing issues of concern. The Minister stated that "as outlined in the Prison Service Three Year Strategic Plan, it is intended to align the capacity of our prisons with the guidelines laid down by the Inspector of Prisons during the lifetime of the strategy, in so far as this is compatible with public safety and the integrity of the criminal justice system. There has been a major improvement in the situation in relation to Mountjoy and good progress has also been made in relation to other prisons including Limerick, Midlands and Dochas. Construction of a new prison in Cork commenced in January with the investment of a substantial €35m. This new prison will have a capacity of 275 and will have modern cellular accommodation containing in-cell sanitation and showering facilities supported by a full range of ancillary services.

A major challenge to the Prison Service is the need to prevent contraband entering prisons. While considerable work has been undertaken on security initiatives, the challenge continues as technology improves and new security risks are identified. The Operational Support Group continues to support prison Governors in preventing contraband entering prisons and to detect prohibited articles within prisons."A new staffing structure, including roster changes, is being implemented across the Prison Service under the implementation of the terms of the Public Service Agreements 2010 – 2016. It is envisaged that the vast majority of vacant staff posts in Work Training will be filled through the redeployment of clerks and the appointment of Work Training Officers from current panels.

The Minister acknowledged concerns regarding general appearance and maintenance, tuck shop prices and dealing with the terminal illness of patients in the Dóchás Centre and responded by saying that "concerns raised in terms of the general maintenance of the Dóchas Centre are being addressed. The post of Work Training Officer - Industrial Cleaning has been filled which should help alleviate some of the problems mentioned. I am advised by the Prison Service that a new pricing policy to charge the Recommended Retail Price (RRP) in all prison tuck shops was rolled out in February."

A range of services are offered in the Dóchás Centre to prisoners with terminal illness which involves a very holistic approach to patient care attending to physical, psychological and practical needs. The Prison Service has also accessed the services of Occupational Therapy to make recommendations about room lay-out, bed, chair and bathing aids. In addition, patients have daily access to pastoral care.

Minister Shatter went on to say that "The Prison Service is looking at innovative ways to reduce numbers in prisons in a planned, structured way and that is in the best interests of the prisoners concerned and also the community. A good example of this is the joint Prison Service and Probation Service women’s strategy which I published on 6th March, 2014. This joint strategy sets out how the two agencies will provide tailored interventions specifically for women with the aim to reduce offending and improve outcomes.

I also established a Working Group to conduct a Strategic Review of Penal Policy incorporating an examination and analysis of all aspects of penal policy including prevention, sentencing policies, alternatives to custody, accommodation and regimes, support for reintegration and rehabilitation and any special issues relating to female offenders and prisoners. I expect the group to submit their report to me shortly.

Finally, the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2013 completed its passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas on the 10 April and has now been signed by the President. This Act provides an appropriate response to the twin problems of the refusal or failure of some people to pay fines and the inappropriateness of imprisonment as the automatic response where this happens."The Reports along with previous Reports are available on the Department’s website: Visiting Committee Annual Report 2013

30 April, 2014