28 July 2011

Report on Thornton Hall Prison Project Published

Alan Shatter TD, Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, today published the Thornton Hall Review Group Report.  The Minister confirmed that on Tuesday the Government approved in principle the Report’s recommendations.

Minister Shatter said "I very much welcome the Government’s decision to accept, in principle, the recommendations detailed in the Report.  The timeframe for the Thornton Hall and Kilworth Prisons projects as outlined in the Report will be discussed in the Autumn in the context of the Government’s discussions on capital spending priorities for 2012."

The Review Group’s view is that decisive action is required on several fronts to address the problem of overcrowding and poor physical conditions, particularly in Mountjoy and Cork Prisons.  It stresses the need to improve prison regimes and conditions and to provide in-cell sanitation. It recommends: [1] that a new prison with 300 cells capable of accommodating 500 prisoners be developed at Thornton Hall, and [2] that Cork Prison be closed at the earliest possible opportunity and a new prison developed at Kilworth, Co Cork, with 200 cells capable of accommodating up to 350 prisoners. The Report also recommends that each site should have secure, step-down accommodation inside the prison walls effectively providing an open centre regime within a secure perimeter. Thornton Hall should have 20 step-down facilities capable of accommodating up to 200 prisoners, and Kilworth should have 15 step-down facilities capable of accommodating up to 150 prisoners. The Minister stated: "Taking this step would enable prison authorities to give greater operational effect to the ‘principle of progression’ in the penal system. This objective requires managing safely and purposefully the transition of offenders from committal to a prison cell to eventual release into the community. The proposed prison complexes will allow the prison authorities to create incentivised prison regimes to allow offenders progress through the system in a way that helps their eventual reintegration into society. This recognises in a practical way that reintegration of offenders into society is one of the core functions of the prison system."

While acknowledging the difficult economic and financial constraints facing the country, the Minister said that he was acutely conscious that in recent years prisoner numbers and the numbers on temporary release have increased dramatically. On Friday 22 July 2011, a total of 5,479 prisoners were in the prison system, and the number of prisoners on temporary release owing to cell incapacity was 612.  The Minister said: "Although overcrowding cannot be resolved overnight, it is imperative that we take reasonable and practical steps to alleviate the pressures on capacity within our prison system." 

The Minister agrees with the Review Group’s view that prison overcrowding cannot be solved solely by building more prisons and that further steps are required to reduce the prisoner population.  The Report recommends a combination of front-door and back-door strategies to reduce the prison population. The front-door strategy would involve giving the courts the power to impose a wider range of non-custodial sanctions. The back-door strategy would involve an incentivised scheme for early temporary release coupled with a requirement to do community service under supervision in order to "pay back" the community.  Another recommendation includes the introduction of a home detention system in appropriate cases. 

The Minister strongly welcomed the Group's recommendations on non-custodial sanctions, stating that: ‘The Government has already achieved much progress in this area. The greater use of community service involves, for example, the development of a pilot scheme under which offenders may be offered earned, earlier release in return for community service. This should come on stream in the autumn. The Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) (No 2) Bill has completed its passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas and will shortly become law. The Bill requires judges to consider community service as an option where a sentence of up to 12 months is being considered. The Fines Act 2010 also introduced measures to prevent the automatic imprisonment of fine defaulters. Measures which will allow the recovery of fines by means of attachment of earnings orders are currently being prepared.’

The Review Group also recommends a strategic review of all aspects of penal policy, the establishment of an inter-departmental group to examine the issue of people with mental illness who have been sentenced by the courts and transitional arrangements for the management of 16 and 17 year olds in St Patrick’s Institution pending the construction of new juvenile detention facilities in Oberstown.

Thanking the Review Group for providing its comprehensive report within a very short time, the Minister said, ‘The recommendations detailed in this Report will, in the years ahead, make a positive contribution to the development of penal policy in this country.’

The Thornton Hall Report is available on the Department of Justice and Equality website at  http://www.justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/ThorntonHallReviewRpt

Independent oversight of the prison system is strengthened; the Prisons Authority (Interim) Board is abolished

The Minister also announced that, on Tuesday 26th July, the Government decided to abolish the Prisons Authority (Interim) Board, which was set up in 1998. The Board, which has a membership of 12 people, was set up by a previous administration to advise on and guide the management of the prison system pending the creation of an independent statutory Prisons Board. But no statutory Board was ever established.

The Board made a valuable contribution to the creation of the Irish Prison Service as a separate agency. On foot of its commitment to ‘More Effective Financial Scrutiny’ in the Programme for National Recovery, the Government’s policy is to abolish agency boards where appropriate and to make agency managers directly accountable to Ministers. In line with this policy, the Government can see no case for keeping the board in existence. The Minister points out that the Irish Prison Service, under its Director General, is already directly accountable to him. The decision to abolish the Board will save more than €100,000 per year. The Minister said; ‘The Government is grateful to the members of the Board and its chairperson, Mr Brian McCarthy, for their valued, dedicated and solidly constructive public service over the years.’

The Minister proposes to put a stronger spine of independence into the oversight of the prison system. The Prisons Act 2007 provides for an independent Inspector of Prisons. The Minister stated: ‘The Inspector of Prisons has independently and robustly tackled the issue of poor conditions in our older prisons. This has involved inspecting prisons, a retrospective exercise in each case. But his role has a vital prospective component: he has produced human-rights-based statements of principle that define the requirements of a safe, decent and effective custodial system. In other words, he is addressing himself not only to what is being done but also to what should be done and this proposal to expand the Inspector’s role will enhance his independent oversight of the prison system.’

The Minister says that two things in particular need noting: [1] Under the proposed arrangements, Visiting Committees will submit their Annual Reports to the Inspector of Prisons who will publish them. At present the Annual Prison Visiting Committee Reports are submitted to the Minister. Visiting Committees will report every two months to the Inspector on any issue that they wish to bring to his attention. They will be able to report any urgent or major issue to him at any time. [2] Visiting Committees will continue their role of visiting prisons. They will continue to meet with prisoners and liaise on their behalf with prison authorities. But they will be more effective: each Visiting Committee will comprise no more than six members, and only suitable people with appropriate qualifications and a genuine interest in prison issues will be appointed. The Inspector will have independent oversight of their work.


Note for Editors:

Financial information that is commercially sensitive has been redacted from the published version of the Thornton Hall Report.

The members of the Review Group were:-

· Mr Brendan Murtagh, Chairperson, - a Partner in LHM Casey McGrath Chartered Certified Accountants;
· Ms Catherine McGuinness – former Judge of the Supreme Court, and former President of the Law Reform Commission.
· Mr Brian Purcell, Director General, Irish Prison Service; and
· Mr Tom Cooney - Special Adviser to the Minister;