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.