Adjournment Debate. - Rehabilitation of Offenders.

In 1992 about 51 per cent of those committed to prison or other detention centres had already served at least one prison sentence. Unless we address the issue of rehabilitation seriously we will continue releasing offenders into the community in the knowledge that they will re-offend. Our prison system will have failed both the offenders and society.

The issue of rehabilitation is just one aspect of the comprehensive penal reform package which is necessary in order to bring our prison system into the 21st century. Any discussion of penal reform must address the central question of the purpose of prison. At present prison is an effective means not just of punishment but of removing offenders from society for a specified period of time, but that is all it is. Rehabilitation is not central to our prison system and the result can be seen in our high rate of re-offending.

I am aware of the proposals contained in the Justice Department's policy document "The Management of Offenders — a Five Year Plan" published last June. Unfortunately, that document is still largely aspirational. The present situation is that prisoners who have completed their sentences are simply thrown back into the community. This debate is timely in the light of the other two debates we had here this week.

The only specialised rehabilitation programme here is the sex offenders' programme in Arbour Hill, a programme which is still in the pilot stage and which to date has treated just nine offenders at a cost of £250,000. Other prisoners must depend on an overstretched, understaffed and under-resourced probation and welfare service. I am aware that the Minister has taken on board the concerns of the probation service. I welcome her recent comments in this regard and her commitment to the requirement of additional staff which is long overdue. However, the probation and welfare service was never intended to provide rehabilitation facilities as such. Until recently their remit was to supervise offenders in the community, to provide a welfare and counselling service to those in the community and their families, and to supervise offenders on early release. That remit was further developed in the policy document published last June but it still does not encompass all the elements of an effective rehabilitation programme.

Prison officers and members of the Probation and Welfare Service must be central to any rehabilitation programme but they cannot be expected to carry out such a function in the absence of centralised guidelines, appropriate and ongoing training, adequate resources and an expanded mandate. I am well aware there are two participants in any rehabilitation programme. As well as ensuring that prison officers are appropriately trained, each prisoner should be assessed before they start their sentence. Various options for their stay, especially the education options, should be discussed with them at the outset and the implementation of these options should be monitored on a regular basis.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the current crime rate is the high rate of repeat offending. Our prison service as presently constituted does little to address this problem. The prime aim of any rehabilitation service must be to enable prisoners to update their skills with a view to obtaining employment upon their release. The education facilities offered in prison are scatty and largely unco-ordinated. Academic and life skills education is not integrated with vocational education. Some prisons lack the necessary facilities and in many cases prisoners are unable to obtain the vocational qualifications necessary to take up employment. While the library service has improved in recent years some prison libraries remain closed because of staff shortages. These are the problems prisoners face while serving their sentence. They are often magnified upon their release.

The State's responsibility to prisoners does not end when they complete their sentence. Despite the efforts of the prison and welfare services, released prisoners are often left to find their feet in the community with little or no help. The effect, especially on long term prisoners, can be devastating and hence the cycle of repeat offending. To be effective rehabilitation must continue after a prisoner is released. In this regard further links should be established between the prison service and community services such as the housing office and health board services.

The possibility of establishing a prison board to manage the day-to-day running of prisons with a parole board to manage the discharge of prisoners is mooted in the programme,A Government of Renewal. I understand the Minister is examining the options in this regard. I look forward to the presentation of her conclusions which should be worth listening to. I hope before she presents her proposals she consults with the various bodies concerned. If we are serious about tackling this issue we need to address the question of repeat offending.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter which is timely. I accept that one of the primary purposes of the prison system, with deterrence and protection of the public, is the rehabilitation of offenders. The five year plan for the management of offenders sets out a comprehensive programme for the development of services for offenders in order to enable them maintain a more constructive and productive life-style in the community following release.

These proposals include an increase in the number of work and training places and a general improvement in the procedures for the selection and assessment of offenders for individual courses-activities. The prison education service will place added emphasis on the delivery of a relevant and up-to-date programme. It is intended to increase the involvement of outside institutions in the delivery of specific courses and to constantly review curricula in order to cater for the specific ongoing needs of offenders. It is also intended to combine the work-training and education programme with an element of positive sentence management in order to encourage offenders to avail of the available facilities and services.

Recreational, medical, psychiatric and psychological services are also vital components in the rehabilitative process. There is a commitment in particular to providing those with a background of drug-alcohol abuse with the appropriate treatment in order to enable them to tackle their addiction, which in many cases is the root cause of their involvement in crime.

The probation and welfare service, which is charged with the overall responsibility nationally for guiding offenders, both in prison and in the community, towards a non-offending life-style, is to be bolstered by the recruitment of additional staff and the allocation of extra resources. This will enable it to provide the necessary backup services both in the prisons and in the community, to encourage and assist offenders towards meaningful rehabilitation.

That is not to say that this is all in the future. On the contrary, rehabilitation programmes are already in operation throughout the system. For example, in this context, Cork Prison which is in the Deputy's constituency, has taken something of a lead in terms of rehabilitative programmes for offenders. The prison is currently running a programme in conjunction with a number of outside agencies which aims to exert a positive rehabilitative influence on offenders both during their time in custody but, more important, on their release into society. This programme involves the joint participation of both the offender and his partner.

Cork Prison has also taken the initiative in introducing a unique programme which is aimed at juveniles in the 13-15 age brackets who are considered by the Garda to be at risk of becoming involved in crime. The youth encounter scheme, as it is known, given the youths a glimpse of the less glamourous aspects of prison life in the hope that it will deter them from future involvement in crime. One could say that the scheme operates on the principle that prevention is better than cure.