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Speech by Minister for Justice and Equality, Mr. Charles Flanagan, T.D. at the Annual Human Rights Conference 7th October 2017, organised by the Law Society's Human Rights Committee in partnership with the Probation Service and Law Society Professional Training


Members of the Law Society, Members of the Judiciary, Members of the Public & Distinguished Guests.


I would like to thank the Law Society Human Rights Committee for the invitation to speak at this the 15th Annual Human Rights Conference.  The conference places a valuable spotlight each year on human rights and confirms their relevance across Irish society. In particular, I would take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in protecting and promoting human rights in Ireland and for its tireless work and engagement in building a culture of respect and dignity to ensure continuing progress towards the fulfilment of human rights.  Today’s conference is co-hosted by the Irish Probation Service an agency that places human rights at the very core of its ethos.  I am highly appreciative of the work of the Committee in bringing together these key groups and partners today to consider themes that go to the root of human rights issues.  Our conversation today builds upon prior discussions of human rights in relation to health, domestic violence, criminal justice and economic, social and cultural rights.  These are areas which I’m sure you will agree are all of critical relevance to today’s theme.

This year’s focus on prisons goes to the heart of my remit as Minister for Justice and Equality.  The role of prisons, their impact on society, on offenders and the needs of victims are central questions in the age-old debates on crime, punishment, fairness & equity. It is, and always has been a central issue for the criminal justice system and for society as a whole.  These will be issues with which future generations will also need to grapple.

Over 10.2 million people worldwide woke up in a prison today. Prison populations are growing in all five continents. By contrast, Ireland has finally started to enter a more positive space, in that the numbers in prison have reduced significantly in the last six years.  We now imprison 88 people per 100,000 of our population. This compares favourably to our nearest neighbours.  England and have 148 prisoners per 100,000 of population, while Scotland has 147 and Northern Ireland has 101. When prison numbers are manageable, as they are now, it gives us space to increase our focus on strategically and holistically addressing, the broader social problems that are tied up with imprisonment.

Many people in prison are poor economically, but also poor emotionally, educationally, socially and in the context of their health status. Many have difficulty regulating their emotions. Typically, they are young men (18-35) who have fallen out of school, education, training or wider society and into prison.

Prisons are an integral part of our criminal justice system and our response to crime. However the extent to which prisons dominate that response is changing. In the broader historical context, imprisonment has had multiple aims including punishment, incapacitation, reparation, deterrence and rehabilitation. Depending on the societal context at any given point, each of these aims will have a different emphasis.  Punishment has been a core theme historically but our view of this has evolved in recent years to bring an increased focus on rehabilitation in particular.

While the courts effect punishment through incarceration, this course of action, of itself, does not always lead to rehabilitation, deter someone from future crime, or indeed make society as safe as possible. It does not address the underlying factors that will lead to future offending. And whilst the State can imprison, it also has to be conscious of the social harm to offenders, families and communities in doing so.  The decision to deprive someone of his or her liberty is not one to be taken lightly. I am a firm believer that prison should be reserved as a last resort and this approach must be complemented with providing viable alternatives to custody. Such alternatives focus on addressing offending behaviour in the community in a way that best meets the needs of society, offenders and victims.

When speaking about imprisonment as it resides in the broader context of the criminal justice system, it would be entirely remiss of me not to mention the victim.  This is a human rights conference, which by virtue of the universality of human rights, must consider the rights of all parties. That includes the rights of offenders, the rights of their families and the rights of their victims.  Conversations about human rights inevitably require a balancing of competing rights and interests, for example the right to liberty and the right to be protected by the laws of the State from unjust attack.

How do we strike this balance in the criminal justice system? We must continue to ensure that violent offenders and other serious offenders serve appropriate prison sentences while at the same time moving towards less costly non-custodial options for non-violent and less serious offenders. We need open discussions on the benefits of reducing prison numbers and the subsequent introduction of evidence based interventions that aim at promoting desistance, reducing recidivism and mitigating the impact of intergenerational offending.

Ensuring balance in our criminal justice is also about continuing to emphasise the importance of access to justice.  In this context inevitably, a core concern is the cost of such access.  Our legal aid structure provides for those without sufficient means in both the civil and criminal law spheres. I want to particularly mention the State’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.  My Department will spend not very much less than €60 million this year across the various components of criminal legal aid to ensure at all relevant stage of the process that fairness and justice applies in respect of  those brought before the courts.

Instrumental in securing this access are those highly professional and dedicated members of the legal professions – both solicitors and barristers – who represent accused persons in the preparation and presentation of their defence. I am aware that during our deep recession the legal profession like so many others endured difficult cut backs in fee rates. .  As we are slowly rectifying the public finances and, as a government, grappling with the monstrous legacy difficulties caused by that lost decade of recession, we are endeavouring to better fund schemes.  I must sound a note of caution and say that as Minister I am in the same boat as my colleagues – I will not be allocated the budget I would like.  But I am conscious of the commitment and service of those who work in the legal aid sphere and I am mindful of the difficulties lawyers in this field face.  I have been engaging with the Law Society in particular about this matter and I will continue to work constructively with the professional bodies to address these issues. 

To go back to the specific issue of the prison population, in recent years, my Department, the Irish Prison & Probation Services, with the support of other agencies and stakeholders, has introduced several strategies targeted specifically at reducing the prison population.   The resulting decrease in the prison population has been an important part of addressing the problem of overcrowding.

In February, 2011 the number in custody reached a peak of 4,621.  As of 27th September 2017, there were 1,033 fewer prisoners in custody, an overall decrease of 22%. In 2016, there were 12,163 persons committed under sentence to Irish prisons, which marked a decrease of 13% on the previous year’s figure. However, 90.4% of all committals under sentence in 2016 were for sentences of less than 12 months. Moreover, committals for the non-payment of a court ordered fine accounted for 8,439 of these committals. We must critically examine the use and effectiveness of imprisonment for short sentences and 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.

There are alternatives to custody. For example, the Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) Act 2011 which requires a  sentencing judge to consider the imposition of community service where a custodial sentence of 12 months or less is being considered.

In conjunction with the Probation Service, the Irish Prison Service has continued the national roll out of the Community Return Programme, 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 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 serious cases and where it has been determined that a custodial sentence is the most appropriate sanction, the principles of normalisation and rehabilitation apply.

In relation to the former, the Irish Prison Service is 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. Prisoners are deprived of their fundamental right to liberty through incarceration but should retain the full complement of their remaining rights.

Much work has been undertaken recently to improve the conditions of detention in Irish prisons. The construction of a new prison in Cork which opened on 12 February 2016 and the complete refurbishment of all the wings in Mountjoy Prison has resulted in the elimination of the practice of slopping out in both those prisons. Now over 98% of prisoners across the prison estate have access to in-cell sanitation.

The Irish Prison Service’s Capital Strategy 2016-2021 outlines plans for the complete replacement of the outdated accommodation in Limerick and Portlaoise prisons as well as improvements across a number of other prisons. On completion of the Limerick and Portlaoise projects, “slopping out” will be completely eliminated across the prisons estate.

In addition to developing a step down unit for female offenders, the Irish Prison Service are developing plans to address the female accommodation situation within the prison estate. This will be achieved by the modernisation & expansion of facilities in Limerick Prison, which will include the provision of high quality prison accommodation & services for female prisoners with a capacity of approximately 50 individual cells and 8 transition units. 

The men and women who work in our prisons are integral to creating an environment where inmates can flourish, balancing their traditional security focussed role with a renewed emphasis on supporting and facilitating the rehabilitative focus. Those at the ‘coalface’ play a key part in ensuring our prisons are more secure, safer and more effective; and founded on a respect for decency and humanity. The Irish Prison Service places a major emphasis on the training of prison service staff in the area of human rights and appropriate behaviour towards prisoners. By maintaining and promoting positive relationships with prisoners and their colleagues, by supporting an environment that promotes the dignity of everyone in the prison community, prison staff are a central influence and key driver of the reform agenda.

Prison provides an opportunity for a person who may have been marginalised by society, missed out on education, or caught in a spiral of addiction and criminal activity, to address the causes of their offending behaviour. It is the State’s responsibility through their staff, partners both statutory and non-statutory, to provide those opportunities through the provision of services such as education, work training, healthcare services and drug treatment. In turn, this enhances the capacity and commitment of prisoners to make a more positive contribution in their local communities upon release.  The Irish Prison Service provides a wide range of rehabilitative programmes that include education, vocational training, healthcare, psychiatric, psychological, counselling, welfare and spiritual services.

The closure of St Patrick’s Institution in April this year by my predecessor the Tánaiste, Frances Fitzgerald marked a significant and progressive step forward in the treatment of children and fulfilled a long-standing Government commitment. St Patrick’s Institution was the subject of much criticism by various bodies and persons involved in the area of human rights and children’s rights.  Children are now committed by the Courts to the Children’s Detention Centre at Oberstown, and no children remain in the adult prison system. 

Ireland is an active participant in the International Human Rights agenda where there has been much emphasis on the human rights of prisoners of late.  Our engagement on human rights at international level enables us to reaffirm our commitment to the universality, indivisibility and interrelatedness of all human rights, to accountability for human rights violations and abuses, and to the protection of those who are most vulnerable and marginalised. Our participation in UN human rights mechanisms in terms of examining on our own human rights record and in looking at conditions of detention in other states provides an invaluable framework for international collaboration and reflection.

Indeed the UN Expert Committee’s (UNCAT) concluding observations on the second periodic report of Ireland, following Ireland’s recent appearance before the Committee on 27 & 28 July. Minister David Stanton who led Ireland’s delegation acknowledged the principal subjects of concern and the Committee’s recommendations and noted that Ireland is making steady progress in addressing many of the human rights issues raised.

In June this year I made a Statutory Instrument entitled “Prison (Amendment) Rules 2017 (No. 276 of 2017) which takes into account the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners - known as the ‘Nelson Mandela Rules’ in respect of the issue of solitary confinement.  This will ensure that all prisoners will spend a minimum period of two hours out of their cell or room with an opportunity during that time for meaningful human contact.

The Irish Prison Service is focussed on helping to support children and families as well as providing supports to the people in their care, to desist from criminal behaviour upon their release. A pilot project in Limerick prison supported by the University of Limerick is currently underway to support this and aims to involve families and children in the lived experience of prisoners.  By keeping families involved, through close contact visits, involving them in their children’s school work, daily activities and decision making, while other agencies are working with the child and the family, the Prison Service aims to support prisoners and their families to maintain relationships; a difficult thing to do in a prison environment.

In order to maintain and support familial links, the Irish Prison Service are working  promoting and sustaining strong partnerships with civil society in general who are dealing with the same complex issues such as drug abuse and crime that undermine the fabric of Irish society. The active involvement of civil society in our prisons is essential to help the prison service achieve their strategic objectives. These groups also play a key role in supporting prisoners and ex-prisoners to reintegrate into society and engaging actively with them brings a broad range of expertise, knowledge, resources and experience that may otherwise not be available.

I strongly feel that prisons need to move from being closed entities into institutions in the public domain. Society should have an interest in their prisons and in how effective they are at reducing potential harm in their communities.  After all, 98% of prisoners return to their community. By improving the prison system, we can help prisoners change their lives.  We can better protect prisoners and those who work in prison.  We can work to break the cycle of reoffending, yielding benefits for communities.

There simply cannot be an effective prison service without an effective probation service. The Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service are working together under a joint strategy to address cycles of sustained offending behaviour through approaches that tackle the complex range of needs and problems rather than focussing on single issues in isolation. Achieving our strategic objectives would not be possible without the professionalism of the Probation Service, and I’m sure that Vivian Geiran the Director of the Probation Service will elaborate further in his address on their role and the valuable work they do.  

Our duty is not just to the people in custody today; it is also to those who are going to come into prison after them. We know that a significant percentage of boys who have a parent in prison will go to jail themselves. We can see this inter-generational drift into imprisonment. We can clearly see the profound effects that the imprisonment of a parent can have on children. We need to keep this aspect of imprisonment, and the effect that it might have on a child’s life, at the forefront of our minds.

Improving accommodation and regimes, ensuring dignity and respect, providing  meaningful programmes, supporting people to mend their ways, providing an opportunity for people to re-educate and re-skill themselves, in preparation for their return to their community, is what the Irish Prison Service strives to do. This is a significant challenge in a custodial environment, especially when considering the effect that imprisonment has on factors known to promote desistance from crime such as maintaining a stable relationship or marriage; having stable employment; moving away from same-age, same-gender peers; having a sense of responsibility and showing a concern for others, especially caring for one’s children.

I share those goals and support the Irish Prison Service in striving to achieve them. Prison must be built on the principles of normalisation, progression and re-integration. I believe that one of the biggest challenges that the Irish prison service faces and which they are very much focussed on, is mitigating the pains of imprisonment and supporting prisoners’ rehabilitation, while simultaneously working to prevent the next generation from ending up in prison.

These are not just the Irish Prison Service’s challenges, they are society’s challenges. By helping and supporting the people in our care, I am certain that we can make society safer. By doing so, we will have fewer victims and less crime.

Seventy years ago, the Commission on Human Rights began the process of drafting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  Next year, we will celebrate the seventh anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration by the UN General Assembly.  The Declaration is as relevant today as it was, seventy years ago, when it gave hope of a better future to a world that had experienced war and barbarity.  Over the intervening decades, our understanding has grown of the areas of human experience where an individual’s human rights can be infringed.  Equally, our public institutions have gained expertise in defending human rights.  Indeed the positive duty which requires all public bodies to have due regard to respect for equality and human rights has constituted a crucial step change in our institutional capacity to promote and protect human rights.  I would like to acknowledge IHREC’s work to guide public bodies in the performance of that duty. 

Respect for human rights has to be embedded in the DNA of our public institutions.  Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, whom I had the honour to host in Ireland last June, reminds us that human rights and healthy public institutions are fundamentally interlinked.  As he says ‘When the fundamental principles of human rights are not protected, the centre of our institution no longer holds.’  Today’s conference confirms the truth of his observation.  Ensuring respect for human rights principles make our criminal justice and penal systems all the stronger. 

After all, it is in everyone’s interests to convince more individuals that their contribution to Irish life need not be as prisoners but rather as valued members of our society.   


Thank you very much.