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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 6 May 1980

Vol. 320 No. 5

Prisons Bill, 1980: Second Stage (Resumed).

Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "That" and substitute:—
"Dáil Éireann declines to give a Second Reading to the Prisons Bill, 1980 on the grounds that:
(a) the continuing existence of the Curragh Military Detention Centre, in which civilian prisoners are subject to military control, is unnecessary and inappropriate; and
(b) a form of custody originally designed as a short-term expedient should not be allowed to continue in existence after the factors which brought about its establishment have ceased to operate."
—(Deputy Bermingham.)

On the last evening I was not able to finish my reply. When the debate was adjourned I was dealing with the prison system and the fact that some people find it difficult to understand why a prison system which already accommodates 1,200 persons in custody cannot find space for the 27 or so who are now in the Curragh. I should like to stress that it is not a matter of space alone. If there were no risks involved in their returning to the civil prison system, the space could be found for them.

The problem is that these prisoners are known trouble-makers and disrupters. They have demonstrated in the past a capacity and a willingness to foment disorder among the general population of prisoners. Some of them have been involved in disturbances in the past even, I gather, as far back as 1972-73. They are not the only long-term prisoners in custody. Excluding Portlaoise, there are some 300 prisoners serving sentences of two years or more. What distinguishes those in the Curragh is that they are not prepared to serve their sentences in peace, or avail themselves of the normal facilities available to prisoners. On the contrary, they want to create as much trouble as they can and, if possible, prevent others from availing of those facilities.

The problem is to find accommodation in the civil prisons which is secure enough to hold the Curragh prisoners and, more important, which is so arranged that they are separated from the main body of prisoners. Separation is imperative if the opportunity of fomenting disorder is not to be given to these prisoners. I have looked at a number of possibilities and I should like to assure the House that there is no suitable arrangement which can be made to accommodate these prisoners within the present civil prisons system. That is why work is now going ahead, for the first time since 1972, on a new security prison which can accommodate them.

There have been many statements about the unsuitability of the Curragh for long term prisoners. I agree conditions there are not ideal, although I understand improvements are being made. Even now, the conditions there are much better than they are in some areas of the civil prison system. Mountjoy Prison, which has 150 long term prisoners, is not suitable for them in its present condition. Neither is St. Patrick's Institution suitable for juveniles, nor the existing women's prisons suitable for women.

Prisoners in the Curragh are eligible for parole just as prisoners elsewhere. The factors taken into account in deciding a prisoner's application for parole include his general behaviour, the likelihood of his returning to prison, and his likely behaviour while at liberty, as well as the safety of the public of course. Prisoners in the Curragh are less likely than most to qualify for parole on an evaluation of such factors and, accordingly, they do not benefit to the same extent as some other prisoners do.

During the course of the debate reference was made to the administration of drugs to prisoners in the Curragh. I understand that five of the 27 prisoners are on drugs prescribed by the consultant psychiatrist. The health care of persons in custody is in the hands of the professional medical officers, and I am quite satisfied to leave medical treatment in the hands of professionals. If they prescribe drugs for individuals, I accept that they are prescribed as part of a treatment programme. Indeed, Deputy Dr. Browne was told in reply to a Parliamentary Question in June 1978 that these drugs are prescribed for medical reasons, and not for the control of prisoners as suggested by him. That remains the position today.

Reference was made during the debate to alternatives to custody. At the moment the courts apply probation on an extensive scale. There are about 1,600 prisoners on probation, which is more than there are prisoners in custody. They are supervised in the community by the probation and welfare services of the Department of Justice. As I have already said, parole is operated on a very extensive scale and this is also an alternative to custody. Recently I increased the number of welfare officers in the probation and welfare service so that a scheme of intensive supervision in the community for selected prisoners could be introduced as an alternative to custody. By the end of May of this year there will be about 50 offenders under intensive supervision and the aim is to increase this number to about 150 by the end of the year.

The Department of Justice are examining the possibility of introducing legislation to empower the courts to impose community service orders as an alternative. This proposal, which is an alternative to custody, requires a very detailed analysis and it will take some time yet to formulate a final scheme.

Could this be done at the moment?

Mr. Collins

No. I understand that legislation is necessary. In dealing with the prisons generally it is fair to say that there are many groups of prisoners—I want this clearly understood—in civil prisons who have less congenial conditions than those in the Curragh. That is a fact.

That is no great credit to the prison system.

That is why the other evening in the Deputy's absence, through no fault of his own, I earnestly asked the support of all Members of all parties in the House for the programme of prison building which I am trying to implement and which I have finances to build, in particular at Wheatfield, Clondalkin, where I hope to provide a new women's prison and 150 places for young offenders under 21 years of age. It is no credit to any of us that the prison system is as it is. It was starved of capital by successive Governments for a long number of years and the Government the Deputy supported were the greatest offenders for the four-and-a-half years they were in office.

I am not satisfied about the conditions of any of these places. The extensive building programme that is under way shows that something is being done about that problem, and I earnestly request help there. Conditions in the Curragh are broadly the same as those in the civil prisons. The rules for the Government of Prisons, 1947, have their parallel in the Prisons Act, 1972, regulations. Thus, for example, allegations of misconduct by prisoners must be dealt with by the governor of the Curragh in precisely the same way as they are dealt with by governors of the civil prisons. The punishments which may be imposed by the governor of the Curragh are exactly the same as those which may be applied elsewhere.

The rules and regulations allow variations in regimes as between places to suit the sort of prisoners held in them. I am satisfied that the regime in the Curragh is as liberal as it can be, given that the maintenance of safe custody and control there demands an appropriate level of discipline from the prisoners. Decisions about the disposition of prisoners in the Curragh are taken by the Minister for Justice. Transfers of prisoners into and out of military custody, parole, early releases, and so on, are decided by the Minister for Justice. The day to day operation of the Curragh is a matter for the Minister for Defence. There is however continuous consultation about the treatment of prisoners in the Curragh in order to ensure consistency of treatment between military and civil custody. Officers of the Department of Justice have free access to the Curragh.

There was a suggestion about taking over the military detention barracks and operating it under civilian control. As I have said already, such a take-over would require a diversion of staff from the civil prisons, staff that cannot be spared at present. However, staffing is not the only problem. As Members know, the detention barracks is in the middle of an extensive military complex and the Army authorities have serious and understandable objections to the handing over of part of that military complex to civilian control.

During the course of his intervention, Deputy Browne painted a very emotional picture of prisoners being handed over to the military for the set purpose of being subjected to a harsh regime. Apart from being unfair to the personnel involved, that picture is fundamentally misconceived. These prisoners are in military custody simply because it is only in the Curragh that there are facilities for their containment and for their separation from other prisoners. I can say definitely that the Curragh will not be required for them when the new prison, on which work began on the 28th of last month, at Portlaoise is ready.

References were made to the legality and to the constitutionality of transferring civilian prisoners to military custody. The relevant Act has been in operation since 1972 and there is a basic presumption of its constitutionality unless the courts decide otherwise. I understand that at least one prisoner has failed in the courts in challenging the Act. The section of that Act under which prisoners are transferred to the Curragh is quite wide and covers fully the circumstances under which prisoners are so transferred now. There have been powers always regarding the transfer of prisoners from one prison to another and it is not correct to suggest that such transfers are an unwarranted interference in the jurisdiction of the courts.

During the course of the debate and again during Question Time the other day the suggestion was made that there might be a more formal structure for processing parole applications and indeed any form of early release. Our system of parole is operated on a very generous scale by international comparisons. In 1979, for example, parole was granted on 2,800 occasions and I am not satisfied that a more formal approach, such as the establishment of a parole board, would be seen by prisoners as an improvement; but there is a possibility that such a process would lead to a rigidity which would not be to the advantage of those in custody. Furthermore, it would inhibit the administration in responding quickly to the needs of prisoners and of the prison system. There may be an assumption that some prisoners who do not benefit now from parole would have a better chance in this regard if there were a parole board, but that is not necessarily the case. A parole board would have to establish criteria for the assessment of parole applications and those criteria would be unlikely to vary significantly from the criteria applied now.

In November last, during the debate on a Supplementary Estimate for my Department, I had occasion to refer to the philosophy of imprisonment and I detailed the many improvements made for the benefit of both staff and prisoners. The objective is to provide prisoners with decent, humane conditions and with assistance, first, to make their imprisonment as tolerable as possible; and, secondly, to help them make the best use of their time so that they may be better equipped to return to society. I stress again that I must deal with realities. The simple fact is that the civil prisons cannot function as they should function if a small group of prisoners cause disruption. I am satisfied that it is in the best interest of the vast majority of prisoners and of the continued smooth running of the civil prisons that the Curragh should continue to be available until a reasonable alternative is available and that alternative is the new high-security prison being built at Portlaoise.

In the course of my speech, I asked the following question as reported at column 343 of the Official Report of 30 April:

Can I take it that no jail was built, with work commencing in the Curragh Camp adjacent to the military detention camp on a new 400-cell high security prison?

The Minister's reply was:

No, that is completely incorrect.

The Minister will recall that in 1977 he asked a question in precisely the same terms of the then Minister for Defence, Deputy Flanagan, who replied that the prison was started in July, 1974 and was completed in 1976 at an approximate cost of £350,000. I am concerned with two points in this regard. The first is that, if the Minister is correct, I would appear to have been attempting to mislead the Dáil and if the Minister is not correct, that he was attempting to mislead the Dáil. I should like this matter to be cleared up.

I can assure the Deputy that I do not have any intention whatever of ever trying to mislead the House.

That is the general presumption, but can the Minister explain the point I have raised?

I understand that Plunkett Barracks was an old building, that it was reconstructed by the military authorities as a type of prison but that it is not a prison that would be up to standard in the provision of the security that is required for high-risk prisoners. These buildings are not the cell-type barracks but a dormitory type and I am not sure that the moneys spent on the reconstruction work were spent to the best advantage if they were meant to improve the prison situation. I am advised that Plunkett Barracks were built by the Army and planned by them and certainly not by those whose job it is to advise on prisons for the Department of Justice. Those buildings are of no great value to us in the present problem.

I want to establish that such a building with such an amount of accommodation exists. Deputy Flanagan, as Minister for Defence, in reply to a question from Deputy Collins as to whether a high-security prison had been built, replied in the affirmative.

I can only say that my interpretation of a high-security prison differs greatly from the interpretation of such as held by Deputy Flanagan when he was Minister for Defence. The prison in question is a dormitory-type prison. One would not keep infants in it. If a prisoner in that prison wished to go to the loo during the night everybody else would have to move to let him through. I would disagree entirely with Deputy Flanagan's interpretation of what is a high-security prison, but if Deputy Browne wishes to pursue the matter further I suggest that he table questions to the Minister for Defence who has responsibility in that area.

Substantially, my claim was correct, that was, that the prison was started in 1974, completed in 1976 at a cost of £350,000 and that it was designed as a high-security prison.

It is not regarded as a high-security prison. I might add that it has never been used as a prison. I think it will be a relic to Deputy Flanagan for a long time to come.

My case is that this legislation is designed to make it possible to use that prison to incarcerate up to 400 people.

That is wrong. I understand it could take about 100. I think there are four or five dormitories each capable of taking about 20, and no more. It could not have been envisaged by anybody as being a high security prison. It has never been used. Instead of calling it Plunkett Barracks, I could think of other people whose names I could use. I could call it Flanagan's Folly.

I will not rise to the provocation of supporting my colleagues; I am afraid they are not here to answer for themselves. Would the Minister be good enough to answer the question I specifically asked in the initial debate relating to the medication for inmates in the Curragh?

I answered that very carefully and at length in my reply. The Deputy was in the House talking to Deputy Fitzpatrick.

Amendment put.
The Dáil divided: Tá, 64; Níl, 11.

  • Ahern, Bertie.
  • Ahern, Kit.
  • Allen, Lorcan.
  • Andrews, David.
  • Andrews, Niall.
  • Aylward, Liam.
  • Barrett, Sylvester.
  • Brady, Gerard.
  • Brady, Vincent.
  • Briscoe, Ben.
  • Browne, Seán.
  • Burke, Raphael P.
  • Callanan, John.
  • Calleary, Seán.
  • Cogan, Barry.
  • Colley, George.
  • Collins, Gerard.
  • Conaghan, Hugh.
  • Connolly, Gerard.
  • Cowen, Bernard.
  • Crinion, Brendan.
  • Farrell, Joe.
  • Faulkner, Pádraig.
  • Filgate, Eddie.
  • Fitzpatrick, Tom (Dublin South Central).
  • Fitzsimons, James N.
  • Flynn, Pádraig.
  • Fox, Christopher J.
  • French, Seán.
  • Geoghegan-Quinn, Máire.
  • Gibbons, Jim.
  • Haughey, Charles J.
  • Herbert, Michael.
  • Hussey, Thomas.
  • Keegan, Seán.
  • Kenneally, William.
  • Killeen, Tim.
  • Lawlor, Liam.
  • Lemass, Eileen.
  • Leonard, Jimmy.
  • Leonard, Tom.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • Lynch, Jack.
  • McEllistrim, Thomas.
  • Meaney, Tom.
  • Molloy, Robert.
  • Moore, Seán.
  • Morley, P.J.
  • Murphy, Ciarán P.
  • Noonan, Michael.
  • O'Connor, Timothy C.
  • O'Donoghue, Martin.
  • O'Hanlon, Rory.
  • O'Kennedy, Michael.
  • O'Leary, John.
  • Power, Paddy.
  • Reynolds, Albert.
  • Smith, Michael.
  • Tunney, Jim.
  • Walsh, Joe.
  • Walsh, Seán.
  • Wilson, John P.
  • Woods, Michael J.
  • Wyse, Pearse.


  • Bermingham, Joseph.
  • Browne, Noel.
  • Corish, Brendan.
  • Desmond, Barry.
  • Horgan, John.
  • Kavanagh, Liam.
  • Lipper, Mick.
  • O'Leary, Michael.
  • Pattison, Séamus.
  • Quinn, Ruairí.
  • Tully, James.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Moore and Briscoe; Níl, Deputies B. Desmond and Horgan.
Question declared carried.

Since it has been decided that the words proposed to be deleted stand part of the question, in accordance with Standing Orders, the Bill is forthwith declared to have been read a Second Time. When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?


Agreed to take Committee Stage today.