Imprisoning humanity


As Minister for Justice Alan Shatter denounces the prison service for poor conditions, Yvanne Kennedy looks at whether a plan proposed by its Director General will do enough to safeguard prisoners’ rights and reduce re-offending.


Prisoners’ rights are not something a lot of us think about on a daily basis. One recent article on on temporary release saw a particular commenter say “if you want to commit a crime, do it in Ireland … You’ll be educated, fed and given room and board. Great little country!” Although it is true that many in our prison system have been found guilty of heinous acts, it is more often that they have committed minor crimes. Regardless, they are still deserving of their basic human rights. Their punishment is losing their freedom, not their dignity or an acceptable standard of living.

RTÉ has reported that Director General of the Irish Prison Service, Michael Donnellan is currently working on a three-year plan that he hopes will drastically ease prison overcrowding and help improve conditions. This comes in the wake of a recent report from the Inspector of Prisons in which graphic details were given of in-cell sanitation, prisoner numbers and other major problems in Limerick Prison. There are aims to work with the Minister and the judiciary to allow those serving sentences of twelve months or less to serve them in the community. It is hoped that this will allow proper community integration, which in turn will cut down on recidivism, which currently stands at sixty per cent within five years in Ireland.

Donnellan is seemingly a breath of fresh air for the Service and his presence at a recent seminar by the Irish Penal Reform Trust, the main Irish prisoner advocacy organisation, is a testament to his commitment. Actions like these speak much louder than words and so he must show true leadership in order to ensure this enthusiasm is matched by all those working with some of the most vulnerable in our society.

‘Slopping out’ is one of the single most degrading activities of prison life, and yet it is still practiced in the majority of Ireland’s fourteen institutions. This was highlighted by Judge Michael O’Reilly in the Limerick report and accompanied low-level intimidation of prisoners by some prison officers, overcrowding, filthy cells and broken windows. Minister Alan Shatter has said he was “disappointed and indeed shocked” at the findings, which have been classed as some of the worst in the system. According to the report, the continued incarceration of prisoners in certain wings that lack in cell sanitation and basic levels of cleanliness is “inhuman and degrading.”

That is not to say that this is entirely commonplace, however it still should not be occurring at all. The core aim of the Irish Prison Service is prisoner care and rehabilitation, but if conditions in any of our places of detention leave these men, women, and teenagers feeling less than any other citizen, how can we really demand full re-integration and adherence to codes imposed by people who didn’t care about them as long as they were locked up? A serious issue whenever people in prison are allowed access to novel and ostensibly “fun” initiatives is the public perception that they are being rewarded instead of punished.

Erwin James, a former inmate and author of A Life Inside, wrote in The Guardian recently that “for real change to happen, people in prison need to be challenged, helped, motivated and encouraged to believe that they can live a better way.” The article refers to studies completed in a young offenders’ prison in the UK that showed a reduction in recidivism in those who participated in some form of meaningful activity. Proposals have also been made for participants “to meet with victims of crime who would explain the impact that crime had on them and their families.” This is a novel idea, one that should absolutely be considered by our Prison Service. If rehabilitation and a ‘brighter future’ is what we are truly aiming for, we must let those in prison see this future and strive for it.

Expressions of shame, guilt, remorse and embarrassment are abundant amongst prisoners, as are good intentions for life after prison. Ninety-seven per cent of those who responded to a prisoner crime reduction survey carried out in 2010 expressed a desire to stop offending. But always in short supply has been the means to heal troubled and troublesome lives. Prison represents justice to many victims of crime, but it also has a duty to serve the potential victims of released prisoners. There must be a commitment on all sides to allow for reform and rehabilitation. One wrong turn in life does not mean that a person deserves to be punished for eternity. If prisoners aren’t shown basic humanity, we cannot expect them to change into the sort of people that everyone, including themselves, wants them to be.