Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Prison Facilities.

2.

asked the Minister for Justice if, in view of the recent death of a prisoner (details supplied) and the number of prisoners who have previously committed suicide in prison, he will appoint a medical director for the prison service as was recommended in the report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System published in July, 1985; and if he will undertake to improve conditions within Mountjoy Prison immediately to relieve overcrowding; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I want to preface the reply to this question with an expression of my sympathy to the family and friends of the person referred to in the question.

Regarding the appointment of a medical director for the Prison Service, the position is that efforts by the Civil Service Commission to recruit such an officer have so far proved unsuccessful. However, the chief medical officer for the Civil Service has found it possible to make time available to discharge a number of the more important functions which were envisaged as appropriate to the director. The chief medical officer has visited the prisons and has had consultations with the medical officers. While efforts to recruit a medical director will continue, I am satisfied that an adequate medical service is provided for prisoners and I shall refer further to this matter later in my reply.

In relation to pressure on prison accommodation, I accept that the prisons generally are having to cope with a greater number of prisoners than is desirable but the planned opening, from the middle of this year, of the new place of detention at Wheatfield will give some welcome relief in that regard. I do not accept that pressure on accommodation played any part in the recent tragic incident, particularly as steps are taken to ensure that the area in which this prisoner was accommodated does not become overcrowded.

An inquest on the death referred to in the question will take place in due course and as all matters relevant to the death will be inquired into on that occasion, I do not consider that it would be appropriate for me to comment on them here. I believe, too, that sensitivity to the feelings of the family and friends of the deceased at this time, so soon after the death, requires a considerable degree of reticence in that regard. I regret that others do not appear to consider that such sensitivity is called for and that this unfortunate death has been the occasion for instant critical statements in relation to the conditions in which certain offenders are detained in Mountjoy. I refer to these statements now only for the purpose of allaying public concern that may have been created by them.

The statements referred to a certain group of offenders who are held in the separation unit and base in Mountjoy Prison, and described these as punishment areas without natural light. I want to emphasise that this description is totally incorrect. Such segregation as is employed is in the interests of the offenders concerned and to facilitate the provision of appropriate medical attention for them.

An additional medical doctor has been appointed as medical officer to Mountjoy to attend exclusively to these offenders and he is available to such offenders every day. When the necessity arises, such offenders are transferred to appropriate hospitals outside the prison for tests and/or treatment. Such offenders also have available to them, within the prison, a wide range of other services, including psychiatric, psychological, welfare and chaplaincy. The fact that, of necessity, offenders are kept in secure or segregated conditions does not in any way interfere with the provision for them of all appropriate medical services of the highest quality.

I deem it necessary to point out these facts to counteract the inaccurate and unfair picture that has been given publicly.

I thank the Minister for his lengthy reply and share with him the sympathy that we all have for the relatives and friends of the prisoners. There is no question of trying to light on this case in order to make any particular point, apart from the points that we have made in this House on many occasions before and which, unfortunately, have been highlighted once again. Is it not true that the area in which these prisoners are kept — prisoners who have been tested for HIV virus and have been found to be positive — is the basement of the prison? Is it not true that the Whitaker report on the prison service declared that this area was dark and oppressive and suited, if at all, only as short stay accommodation? Obviously, it was they implied that it should be used as punishment accommodation.It is simply totally unsuitable for keeping those who are already ill or suffering from depression.

I was hoping for brevity, having regard to our obligation to try to dispose of the four questions. There are now only five minutes left.

I agree, a Cheann Comhairle, but the Minister has given a lengthy reply with much material in it. I should like to address some of the points.

I have no control over the Minister's reply, but I do have control over supplementary questions.

With regard to the thrust of the Deputy's supplementary question, I take an inference from it that the treatment facilities in Mountjoy Jail are inadequate.

It is a disgrace that people suffering from AIDS, sick people, be put in a basement area.

Let us hear the Minister, without interruption.

I reject that.

I am giving him a few straight facts.

Interruptions at this time are particularly unwelcome.

I have outlined in my reply to Deputy Colley the facilities available. The basic difficulty in treating those addicted to drugs, as those who are familiar with this area will know, is the lack of motivation of the addict. All those in prison who are addicted to drugs will have had extensive experience of treatment in community based facilities. It is a regrettable fact that those treatment efforts have not been successful, not due to any lack of effort or will on the part of those running the programmes but due to the behaviour of the addict. With regard to the new prison centre at Wheatfield, I shall be finalising that issue very shortly and shall be taking into account the difficulties we are experiencing in the prison system as a whole. The subject of people in ill-health will have to be given every consideration also in moves that I will be making shortly with regard to the new prison.

Question No. 3.

I wish to ask a very brief final supplementary.

I am sorry, I have called Question No. 3.

Could I be permitted on a priority question to ask a final supplementary?

I am sorry, Deputy Colley, I am calling Question No. 3.