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20th October, 2017
Good morning everyone and welcome to the launch of the Travellers in Prison Initiative - National Conference.
I was delighted to receive and accept an invitation to launch this initiative. I have had a deeply held interest in this area over the course of many years and I am acutely aware of the many challenges facing the Traveller Community today.
I chaired the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence & Equality when, in March 2014, it produced its report on the recognition of Traveller Ethnicity. Much later, in my role as Minister of State in the Department of Justice and Equality, I had the pleasure of seeing this issue through to a conclusion. By this I mean the Taoiseach’s statement in March this year announcing the Government’s recognition of Traveller ethnicity. I am sure you’ll agree with me that this was one of the most significant milestones for the Traveller community for many years.
The recognition of Traveller ethnicity is an important stepping stone and a marker in Ireland in having a more inclusive society. But on its own, it is not enough to bring about the change needed to help us to deal with the challenges facing the Traveller community. We need sustainable and achievable policies to address these challenges. So I am delighted to be here today to discuss this initiative, as it is focussed on real policies and initiatives that will bring about positive and better outcomes for the Traveller community.
The National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy, which was launched back in June, addresses issues focussed on the needs of the Traveller community and, I hope, will result in a real improvement in the overall quality of life for Travellers.
My Department has identified feuding as a pivotal issue that will be put centre-stage in the implementation of this Inclusion Strategy. The design of a culturally appropriate intervention, in conjunction with Traveller representatives and relevant public sector bodies, to address this is one of the key pillars of the new Inclusion Strategy.
To this end, a new sub-committee of the Inclusion Strategy’s Steering Group has been formed, with the focus of, ‘Mediation to bring Feuding in the Traveller community to an end, definitively.’ This sub-committee is made up of volunteers from Traveller representative groups as well as officials from relevant State agencies. The first meeting of this sub-committee took place on Monday of last week, and the discussion was mostly exploratory at this stage. I am hopeful that the work of this sub-committee will ultimately make a positive contribution to the future direction of conflict resolution and mediation services in the Traveller community.
The Travellers in Prison Initiative (TPI) developed as a response to the particular needs and circumstances of Travellers within the 13 prisons in the Republic of Ireland. These were highlighted in the Irish Penal Reform Trust’s 2014 publication, ‘Travellers in the Irish Prison System: A qualitative study’. Available at: http://www.iprt.ie/files/IPRT_Travellers_Report_web.pdf This research report captured some of the challenges and difficulties experienced by Travellers in Irish prisons.
There are no official statistics on the number of Travellers in prison but the Irish Prison Service acknowledges that Travellers are significantly overrepresented by comparison with other groups in our society. Although they account for approximately 0.6% of the overall population in the ROI, the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service anecdotally estimate that Travellers account for 22% of the female prison population and 10% of the male prison population. Over representation of minority ethnic communities features in other parts of the world. For example, Minister Flanagan is going to New Zealand next week where he will join President Higgins on his official visit there. Statistics on the issue of minorities in prisons in New Zealand, show that Māori people comprise approximately 14% of the general population, however they represent 50.8% of the prison population.
The overall aim of the TPI is to embed changes in policy and practice that have a positive impact on Travellers in prison, their families and communities. Through engagement with key stakeholders, a number of possibilities emerged with the potential for influencing change; and for developing initiatives in policy and practice that have the potential for sustainability. The following five key action areas have been identified:
Firstly, we need to build a knowledge base about Travellers in prison because, as I said earlier, we are operating on anecdotal evidence. Secondly, we need to expand and improve access to prison-based services for Travellers. Thirdly, we need to strengthen supports for families of Travellers in prison and after prison, using a multi-agency approach. Fourthly, we need to mainstream a peer-support model to reinforce self-advocacy and create a supportive environment for Travellers to self-identify in prison. Fifthly, and finally, we need to increase awareness and boost the capacity of Irish Prison and Probation Service staff through training and learning programmes.
Given that a tenth of the prison population is composed of members of the Traveller Community, it is self-evident that improvements in the lives of prisoners generally benefit the Traveller prison population as well. In this regard, I know that Michael Donnellan, the Director General of the Irish Prison Service and Vivian Geiran, Director of the Probation Service, will be speaking later and will elaborate on many of these key action areas. However, without seeking to steal their thunder, I would just like to welcome developments in these areas, as they are central to achieving better outcomes. I would also like to congratulate Michael and Vivian on the many reforms and improvements introduced into prisons and the Probation Service in Ireland in recent years, all of which have a direct and indirect positive effect on Travellers in Prison. These include initiatives such as the national roll out of the Community Return Programme, in conjunction with the Probation Service, which is an incentivised scheme for earned temporary release under which carefully selected offenders can be granted structured temporary release in return for supervised community service. In addition to this programme, Community Support Schemes have been set up for shorter sentences in Cork Prison, Mountjoy Campus, West Dublin Campus, Midlands and Limerick Prisons, the aim of which is to reduce recidivism rates by arranging for additional support structures and provide for a more structured form of temporary release.
In relation to the conditions of detention in prison, huge improvements have been made to prison conditions in recent years. The practise of slopping out has practically been eliminated. With the construction of a new prison in Cork that opened on 12 February 2016 and the complete refurbishment of all the wings in Mountjoy Prison, this has resulted in the elimination of the practice of slopping out in both of these prisons. At present, over 98% of prisoners across the prison estate have access to in-cell sanitation. The practice of slopping out will be completely eliminated through the implementation of the Irish Prison Service’s Capital Strategy 2016-2021, which outlines plans for the complete replacement of the remaining outdated accommodation for males in Limerick and Portlaoise prisons.
The development of a step down unit for female offenders which is being progressed and the planned modernisation & expansion of the female facilities in Limerick Prison, which includes a transition unit, will greatly improve the conditions within the Prison system and options for the successful reintegration of females into the community
In recent years, my Department, the Irish Prison Service & the Probation Service, with the support of other agencies and stakeholders, have introduced several strategies targeted specifically at stemming the growth of and reducing the prison population. The commencement of the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014 in 2016 should result in a large reduction in the number of committals to prisons on short sentences. Alternatives to custody such as the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011 were introduced which requires a sentencing judge to consider the imposition of community service where a custodial sentence of 12 months or less is being considered.
The initiatives aimed at reducing the prison population, provide the Irish Prison Service with the opportunity to focus more on rehabilitation and support services, which they are doing. The Irish Prison Service and Probation Service provide a wide range of rehabilitative programmes that include education, vocational training, healthcare, psychiatric, psychological, counselling, welfare and spiritual services. Michael and Vivian may elaborate more on these services and how to access them.
The Irish Prison Service is also committed in its Strategy statement to ensuring that prisoners are detained in accordance with the law, including international human rights law, and that prisoners are treated with dignity and respect. It is initiatives like this which strengthen supports for families of Travellers in prison, and after prison, using a multi-agency approach, which gives meaning to the concept of being treated with dignity and respect. Giving individuals in prison support, access to services, opportunities for education, health and welfare, are the real things, which can have a profound impact on not only prisoners, but also their families, friends, their communities and society as a whole.
Whilst imprisonment can be problematic in breaking the support ties & links of family, friends, employment & accommodation, it can also be an opportunity for a person who may have been marginalised by society, missed out on education, or got caught in a spiral of addiction and criminal activity, to address the causes of their offending behaviour.
In order to maintain and support familial links, the Irish Prison Service and Probation Service are working on promoting and sustaining strong partnerships with civil society in general who are dealing with the same complex issues. The presence of many of the groups here today is evidence of that. The active involvement of civil society in our prisons is essential to help the Prison Service achieve their strategic objectives. Groups such as yourselves play a key role in supporting prisoners and ex-prisoners to reintegrate into society, and with the Irish Prison Service engaging actively with you, brings a broad range of expertise, knowledge, resources and experience that may otherwise not be available to them.
I will finish by thanking the Traveller men involved in the process and in the delivery of this programme: three facilitators involved in delivering the programme are members of the Traveller community.
The involvement of Travellers in the programme was important as it provided an opportunity, and a space, to focus on Traveller identity and how conflict impacts on individual Travellers and on the community as a whole. It also enabled participants to gain an insight into the potential of peer mediation through the experience of other Traveller mediators.
We know that mediation works and is increasingly used as a tool for dispute resolution. I see mediation as an invaluable tool in addressing conflict within the Traveller community and helping to break through the barriers that have been built over years of fear, discrimination and hostility, keeping the Traveller Community on the fringes of the Irish society.
Traveller mediators are best placed to address this divide, as their first-hand understanding of the culture of their community, and an understanding of the potential impacts mediation can have in shaping the future, provides a unique opportunity to bring about real change.
I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference. There is a wealth of experience, knowledge and expertise here today. Unfortunately I have another appointment which I must attend, however I really look forward to hearing about the remainder of the conference and the valuable exchange of information, views & perspectives from everyone involved.