Prison Reform in Ireland: what should it look like?

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), established in 1994, is Ireland’s leading non-governmental organisation advocating for penal reform and has begun a project known as Progress in the Penal System (PIPS). PIPS aims at creating and setting a clear vision for the Irish penal system. The PIPS project released a comprehensive report in 2017 called A Framework for Penal Reform, which looks at the fact that Ireland should be exceeding international human rights standards in order to achieve a world-class penal system, not merely one that meets the minimum requirements. The penal system has seen numerous reforms since the establishment of the IPRT, including the reduction in the number of prisoners, and the introduction of many innovative schemes and progressive legislation. Despite these new measures, a number of aspects are still in need of serious reform. Prisoner Population figures in 2017 show that overcrowding is still a major problem, with a number of prisons operating above the Inspector of Prisons’ recommended capacity. Another serious issue is that of restricted regimes, with the PIPS report outlining that approximately 11% of the prison population are locked up for more than 19 hours a day. A report by the Inspector of Prisons in 2016 also illustrate certain healthcare deficiencies that are prevalent in a number of prisons, and the PIPS report also outlined mental illness and drug dependency as issues which must also be addressed. According to the IPRT, it is widely recognised that prison conditions should reflect basic living conditions in the outside world. Some areas affecting the daily lives of prisoners still needing considerable work include access to legal representations, tuckshop prices and diet and nutrition. The report itself outlines certain important reforms which could improve the conditions of prisons. While there have been a number of penal policy commitments in the past number of years, the report recognises the need to “ensure these commitments are being monitored, fully implemented and monitored.” A further recommendation is the increase in the amount of smaller prisons, as they increase the likelihood of the prisoners’ safety by reducing the likelihood of violence and help create a better relationship between the prison staff and the inmates. The report outlines the recommendations of criminologist Michael Tonry, who recommends the maximum number of inmates to be 300. Currently 5 Irish prisons have populations above this figure, including Mountjoy with a population of 755 inmates. Peter McVerry argues that the greater the loss that is suffered by a person going to prison, in terms of job or status, the greater the punishment, but the reality in Ireland is that “the majority of people who go to prison… have little or nothing to lose. Punishment is not an appropriate response: they have already been punished all their lives.” Whether one or agrees or disagrees with this point of view, it is clear that the reality in Ireland is that prison exists, and we should always work towards having a system that should be characterised as effective and humane.