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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 18 Feb 1925

Vol. 10 No. 4


I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill. The necessity for this Bill arises from the fact that as a consequence of recent legislation it is not now possible to appoint, in accordance with statutory requirements, visiting committees for ordinary prisons or boards of visitors for convict prisons. Members of these bodies were required to be Justices of the Peace, and in the case of visiting committees the power of appointment lay (except in a few cases) with the grand juries who will not again be summoned to meet.

Before the passing of the General Prisons (Ireland) Act, 1877, the prisons in Ireland consisted of two distinct classes, i.e., (1) county and borough gaols in which prisoners awaiting trial or undergoing sentences of imprisonment were detained, and (2) convict prisons in which prisoners sentenced to penal servitude were detained. The county and borough goals were under the control of local boards of superintendence appointed by the grand juries except in the city of Dublin where the board of superintendence was appointed by the town council. The expenses of these local prisons were defrayed by presentments levied by the grand juries (or town council in Dublin). The Act of 1877 transferred the control of these prisons to the General Prisons Board, and the State took over the responsibility of providing money for their maintenance. The power of appointing visiting committees for such prisons was left with the grand juries (except in the case of Dublin city—and afterwards Waterford, Limerick and Cork, where a right of nomination was conferred on the town councils). Subsequently when many of the county prisons were closed, joint visiting committees were appointed by the grand juries of the countries served by each of the remaining prisons.

From time to time Orders in Council were made by the Lord Lieutenant determining the constitution of visiting committees, regard being had to the area served by each prison. Thus the visiting committee for Dundalk prison (which served County Louth and County Cavan) was composed of nine members, eight of whom were nominated by the grand jury for County Louth and one by the grand jury for County Cavan. The visiting committee for Mountjoy consisted of eighteen members, four of whom were nominated by the grand jury, County Dublin; one by the grand jury, County Kildare; two by the grand jury, County Meath; one by the grand jury, County Wicklow; two by the grand jury, County West-meath; and eight by the Dublin Borough Council. The Local Government Act, 1898, expressly reserved to grand juries their powers of nominating members of visiting committees.

As regards convict prisons (such as Portlaoighaise and Mountjoy convict prisons), no visiting committees could be appointed for them, and it was not until the year 1908 that statutory authority was given for the creation of boards of visitors for convict prisons in Ireland. The power of appointment rested with the Lord Lieutenant. The grand juries or borough council had no voice in the selection.

The present Bill proposes to repeal the existing statutory provisions for the appointment of visiting committees and boards of visitors, and to authorise the Minister for Justice (1) to appoint a visiting committee consisting of from six to twelve responsible persons for each prison (whether convict or non-convict); and (2) by rules to prescribe the powers and duties of such committees.

took the Chair at this stage.

I would like to express a view in regard to this Bill, and it is this: it is not intended to continue the idea embodied in the previous Acts relating to visiting committees, or visitors to prisons. The Minister is in the position of a prison governor, if you like, over all the prisons. It is in his charge the prisoners are, and the principle involved in this is that the prisoners themselves and their welfare should be, to some extent at least, safeguarded against possible wrongdoing by the Minister. Therefore, the practice in the past was to appoint representatives of the civil population outside the Minister, who is the chief gaoler. I say that without offence. Now the proposition is that the persons who are to act on behalf of the public to safeguard the interests of the prisoners against possible wrongdoing by the Minister or his subordinates are to be appointed by the person whose actions are to be checked, that is to say, the Minister. It seems to me it is a wrong principle, and that there ought to be embodied in some way the idea that the persons who are to be appointed as visitors should represent or be nominated by some authority, not a Government authority. The whole principle is one of checking possible malpractices on the part of the Minister or his servants, and, if anything of that kind is necessary, the persons nominated for that function should be nominated by some public authority outside the Ministry.

The Deputy has put a point of view. It is simply a question of whether it is at all accurate to regard the persons appointed to act as visitors to prisons as the emanations of the Minister. I certainly do not hold that view, or do not hold that the persons so appointed do not adequately represent the general public. It is not so much a question of representation for the prisoners or their relatives as representation for the general public, to see that the prison system is conducted humanely and as they would wish it. Persons have been appointed through the country to act as visitors to the authorised prisons and reports have been received from them which have been uniformly satisfactory. I cannot just appreciate the objection that there is to this process of responsible citizens, resident conveniently near to the prisons, being appointed by the Minister to act as visitors and to make such representations to him as they may think fit, from time to time, as the result of their visits and their observation on their visits. I doubt whether there is any serious objection that could reasonably be urged against such a course, and I simply put it to the Dáil that there is not much substance in the objection urged by the Deputy. If there is, we could consider the matter at a later stage.

Question—"That the Bill be now read a Second Time"—put and agreed to.
Committee stage ordered for Tuesday, 24th instant.