Other Questions

Prison Discipline

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

6. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the number of incidents of violence in Mountjoy Prison; the manner in which the violence is addressed by the prison authorities; and if there are adequate levels of staff to deal with said incidents of violence. [35381/14]

This question concerns the number of incidents of violence in Mountjoy Prison, how these are dealt with by prison authorities and whether there are adequate levels of staff to deal with these incidents.

No level of prison violence or assault is acceptable and every effort is made by prison staff and management to limit the scope for acts of violence. There were 141 incidents of violence in Mountjoy Prison in 2013. In 2012, the number was 111 and in 2011 the number was 177. Of the 141 incidents in 2013, some 107 constituted prisoner assaults on prisoners and 34 were prisoner assaults on staff.

No level of inter-prisoner violence is acceptable. However, no regime can completely eliminate the possibility of violent incidents happening in a prison setting where a large number of dangerous and violent offenders are being held. The figure of 141 in 2013 included a lot of minor incidents and gives an average of 2.7 incidents per week.

On foot of the report of the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention, the Prison Service has closed the separation unit, where some of the acts of violence took place. This process has been a demanding one for the prison authorities, because they have had to find places to hold difficult prisoners who present with complex issues. Independent inspections of our prisons have been very helpful and insightful and chart a way forward. Inspector Reilly has commented favourably on the improvements in Mountjoy Prison, the refurbishment of the main building, the structured activity and adequate out of cell time. The refurbishment is due to be finished shortly. We have seen improvements in the basic standards and this impacts on and helps to reduce levels of violence.

I visited Mountjoy Prison when under the management of the previous governor. The number of incidents of violence is alarming, particularly recent assaults on prison staff, including a prison nurse. The number of prisoner assaults on other prisoners is particularly alarming and we are aware of a significant number of deaths of prisoners in custody.

I ask the Minister to look at the reasons behind this and the situations where this happens. I believe one cause can be overcrowding. I acknowledge that the Minister moved quickly in regard to closure of the separation unit. We have 4,003 prisoners in this country, but fewer than 50% of them are in single cells and over 300 prisoners still have to slop out daily. I suggest this is a difficult situation for prisoners. We also have prisoners with known histories of violence. Is adequate attention being given to where these prisoners are being placed? Other prisoners are particularly vulnerable to violent attack, for example, those with mental health issues and addicts.

While we can have procedures and policies in place, staff training must be adequate. Is there adequate and continuous training for staff to help deal with incidents of violence?

Huge efforts are being made to ensure our prisons conform to the highest national and international standards in terms of physical accommodation and the regimes offered to prisoners in care. Many prisons have needed refurbishment and a capital programme is under way.

In regard to the work done with prisoners and efforts to deal with violence in prisons, this is a challenging task. I was in Wheatfield Prison on Saturday at the penal reform conference and was very impressed by the work being done there by the Irish Red Cross with prisoners on eliminating violence in prisons.

That is just one example of the initiatives that are under way in the prisons. Clearly, the role of prison officers is crucial. There have been a number of agreements, under the Haddington Road agreement, for example, in which the Irish Prison Service undertook to engage in a joint examination of all the tasks within the prison system in conjunction with the Prison Officers Association. It examines all the issues, including the organisational, structural and operational arrangements, so prisons such as Mountjoy can operate in the most effective and efficient manner.

The point the Deputy made on slopping out will be dealt with within a very short period because of the refurbishment and changes that have been made in Mountjoy. The changes are very significant.

There is a bigger picture concerning prisons. I attended the launch of a book containing a series of essays produced in conjunction with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. It raised some interesting and burning issues in regard to prisons generally and the use of prison sentences. My constituency provides so many of the inmates in Mountjoy Prison. It seems 60% of sentences are for six months or less, and those who receive such sentences are poor and often homeless. Prisoners in Ireland are 25 times more likely to come from and return to seriously deprived areas. Over 70% of prisoners are unemployed on acquittal. Homelessness is a major issue for prisoners on release. I accept that the prison authorities and NGOs are working with prisoners but I believe there is a need for a serious debate on the use of prison and the facts that there is a revolving door and prison is a right of passage or way of life for certain prisoners, as opposed to serving as any kind of deterrent.

I agree that there is a need for a debate. Perhaps we could start it here by discussing the recently published report on the penal policy review, which took over two years to produce and which I put into the public arena last week. There are 43 recommendations in the review document and I would like further discussion on them. My position is that serious and serial offenders should be in prison. We do not row back for one moment from that but we do need to debate re-offending. International evidence suggests that if we focus on reducing re-offending, we will keep the country safer and there will be fewer people in prison. This has to be a serious focus if we are not to have people simply coming out of prison through a revolving door, which was the case in the past. There should be a structured approach to prisoners, including prisoners on temporary release, for example. Certainly, prison is to deal with serious and serial offenders.

Many of the people the Deputy speaks about from her constituency are in prison because of fines. The recent legislation will ensure that this will now be dealt with in a different way.

Prisoner Rehabilitation Programmes

Bernard Durkan

Question:

7. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the extent to which prisoners continue to have access to ongoing education and rehabilitative training; the percentage of first-time offenders who are referred for such training in the first year of their sentences; the average number who do not have such access on an annual basis; the extent to which adequate procedures are in place to ensure that procedures within the Prison Service are geared to discourage repeat offending; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35375/14]

As a former inmate, I suppose, of Mountjoy, I could elaborate somewhat further on the conditions inside, but this question relates to the ongoing need to ensure the availability of rehabilitative training for first-time prisoners, in particular. I do not include those convicted for murder. It is important that there be a continuing programme that gives access to training to first-time offenders, in the first instance, rather than putting them on a long-term waiting list.

I know the Deputy has an interest in this area and he has been tracking it in a variety of ways through parliamentary questions in recent times. He is familiar with the fact that there is a wide range of rehabilitative programmes, including educational and vocational training programmes, available in prisons.

The records I have currently do not allow us to differentiate between first-time offenders and repeat offenders. The figures in the latest records available, which are right up to date, show that an overall total of 1,490 offenders participated in education activities at the time the figures were compiled. This represented 37% of the prisoner population at the time. An average of 1,052 prisoners engaged in vocational training activities each day in June, and this represents 27% of the average prison population in that month. A prisoner may participate in more than one activity.

The development of prisoner programmes forms a central part of the Irish Prison Service’s three-year strategic plan for the period 2012 to 2015. There is a clear commitment in the strategy to enhance sentence planning. It is important that we have much more sentence planning than heretofore. This includes the delivery of the services. When I launched the report of the Parole Board of Ireland the week before last, one of the points the chair and members of the board made to me was that if one wants to engage prisoners in rehabilitation within the prison setting and involve them in training and vocational courses, one needs to have discussions with them. They need to be aware of the courses and encouraged to participate in them. This would help reduce the level of violence. It would also mean that, with the approach we are taking to remission, involvement in the programmes would be helpful.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The guiding principles that underpin the prisons' work and training service are to make available work, work training and other purposeful activities to all those in custody. Training activities are chosen to give as much variety as possible and to give opportunities for those in prison to acquire practical skills which will help them secure employment on release.

One hundred and ten work training officers have recently been appointed and assigned to areas such as catering, laundry, industrial cleaning, industrial skills and gym. This brings the total number of work training officers in place to 308.5. In addition, there are also six full-time industrial managers with four acting industrial managers in the prison estate. This will allow the Prison Service to build on the opportunities available to prisoners in the work and training area for the years ahead.

The Deputy will be aware of the Government's commitment to capital investment in the prison estate, and that, despite the current economic difficulties, building work on a new prison in Cork is well under way, as well as the refurbishment and renovation of the D wing, Mountjoy Prison. In addition, a business case for the Limerick Prison project is currently being considered by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. When these projects are finalised, they will allow the Prison Service to provide further enhanced education opportunities for prisoners.

In addition to seeking to draw on best practice in adult and further education in the community, there has been a lot of curriculum development over the years that is specific to prison circumstances, such as courses on addiction, health issues and offending behaviour. Other areas where there has been significant progress in prison education are in physical education, the provision for higher education, the arts and preparing prisoners for release and supporting their transition to life, and often to education, on the outside. A top priority for the Prison Service is ensuring help for those with reading and writing problems, and peer mentoring programmes are currently active in all of our prisons.

The Prison Service has also been expanding the number of accredited courses and opportunities available to prisoners in work training in recent years. Enhanced partnership arrangements with accrediting bodies such as City & Guilds, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, SQA, and the Guild of Cleaners and Launderers and the centralising of co-ordination and quality assurance arrangements have enabled us to extend the number of available courses and activities with certification.

On committal, all prisoners are interviewed by the governor and are informed of the services available in the prison. At this point, prisoners may be referred to services or they can self-refer at a later date. Where governors consider, on the information available, that a prisoner needs a particular intervention, they will initiate a referral.

I thank the Minister for her very comprehensive reply. I very much appreciate it. It would be helpful if it were possible to provide a breakdown of the number of times first-time offenders have applied for rehabilitative training and have not been successful. In my previous pursuit of this particular subject, I came to the conclusion that access was monopolised to some extent by repeat offenders, for want of a better description. Could a special effort be made to make it possible for first-time offenders who have never run afoul of the law before to be diverted into a programme of rehabilitation as a matter of urgency, rather than giving them a PhD in criminal activity?

When one speaks about first-time offenders, one should note that many of them, particularly those in prison for not paying fines, go to prison for a very short period. This factor must be built into the question asked. Many prisoners go to prison for a very short period, perhaps 24 or 48 hours, for not paying a fine, and this is why we have stopped using imprisonment as a means of dealing with the issue of fines. However, I will try to get the statistics on first-time prisoners with longer custodial sentences. The point made by the Deputy is very relevant, namely, that if one can interrupt the cycle of offending, one will keep people safe in the longer term and reduce the risk of re-offending.

The Minister has referred to a sensitive area. Consider the cases of those who are now called drug mules, or individuals who were involved as carriers, who may have a ten- or 12-year sentence for committing a serious offence for the first time. It is crucial that they be diverted from becoming professional criminals because they will not re-offend. Almost in all cases, they have given an indication to that effect. Is it possible to examine their cases with a view to ensuring they get the required training?

The point is well made by the Deputy that we need to differentiate between first-time offenders with long sentences - the Deputy mentioned drugs offenders, in particular – and the others. With regard to the former, we should be trying to engage them early in their sentences rather than later. I will endeavour to obtain the requested information for the Deputy.

Direct Provision System

Thomas Pringle

Question:

8. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the position regarding the working group to review the direct provision system, including membership; when it is due to report; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35407/14]

This question concerns the working group on direct provision whose establishment has been announced. What will its make-up be? When is it due to report to the Minister? Direct provision has been raised in a couple of questions in the past but, unfortunately, due to meetings I had to attend, I was not able to be here. I hope there will not be too much repetition.

I thank Deputy Pringle. The Government announced in its Statement of Government Priorities 2014-2016 that there would be an independent working group established to report to it on improvements to the protection process, including direct provision, and supports for asylum seekers. I hope to be in a position very shortly to announce a chairman for the group. The Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, and I have asked the working group to report very shortly. This is not a long-term working group. We would like to have a report from it within three to four months.

When I met representatives of the non-governmental organisations, NGOs, last week, we made the point that we want a focus on recommendations that can improve the system in the short, medium and longer term. That will be in parallel with the process of working on the legislation to introduce the single procedure. The terms of reference are to consider what improvements can be made in the system, and the working group will comprise NGOs and representatives of Departments. There will be a mixture of NGOs and statutory bodies. We held the round-table discussion last week with a view to discussing and informing the terms of reference of that working group and seeing what the NGOs, in particular, felt should be the terms of reference. Within a matter of two or three weeks we will name the chairperson and announce the terms of reference of the working group. I expect it will report towards the end of this year or the early part of next year. It is a three to four month project and it is not something we want to take years.

This is about focusing on the direct experience of NGOs, their suggestions for direct provision and what steps can reasonably be taken to improve the conditions under which people are living, while at the same time being realistic, as I have been today. I am warning about unrealistically high expectations about changing the system overnight. This is about accommodation for 4,500 people and the direct provision centres were originally put in place because of a homeless crisis, with 9,500 people arriving in the country with no place for them to stay.

I thank the Minister for her response. It is vital that the NGOs are represented on the working group and I welcome that they will be present. It is very important that the group's composition should not be biased against non-governmental organisations and weighted towards Departments. I am a bit worried that the terms of reference are to consider how the system can be improved, as the system cannot be improved, so the working group should be considering alternatives to the direct provision system. At the very least, the report should indicate how to achieve the alternative. There is no doubt that the system has not worked and it is causing very serious harm to a very large number of people.

I have worked with asylum seekers in direct provision since they came to Donegal town in 2000. I am thankful the centre there closed in the past couple of years, and I would like to see all the centres across the country close because it would be the only fair and reasonable outcome from any review. We should not only consider improvements and we should examine alternatives. I ask the Minister to consider including that in the terms of reference for the working group.

Different countries in Europe take a variety of approaches to asylum seekers arriving on their shores and accommodation varies considerably, as the Deputy knows. In some countries, there are detention centres and in other countries, people are allowed to look after themselves without having any financial support, which is very difficult. That is the case in a number of countries. In Ireland, we provide full accommodation or "direct provision", as it is called. An alternative to that scheme would have enormous resource implications.

The working group will report to the Government on improvements to the protection process, including direct provision and supports for asylum seekers. I have no doubt that comments will be made similar to those of the Deputy and they will be examined. These may consider whether there are realistic alternatives. I know the Immigrant Council of Ireland, for example, has made a point about people who have been identified as trafficked. Amnesty International has identified people in the direct provision system who have been tortured and we should begin to examine those particular categories of people to see if there are alternatives from housing associations or elsewhere. We have housing difficulties in this country and there are 4,500 people living in direct provision centres. I want to make the conditions as humane as possible but this is a large number of people, with 40% arriving now.

We provide shelter and food for prisoners as well and, in effect, the direct provision system is one of open prisons. It is detrimental to anybody who must live in it, and as a society, we should be able to absorb the 4,500 people living in it. I know these people all want to contribute to our society, with many of them very highly qualified and capable. One person has been trying to enrol in a doctorate course for a number of years but he has not succeeded because of his status. Such people can make a major contribution, which we should recognise. The review should take that into account.

I agree with the Deputy that on a personal level, we want to give people as much opportunity as possible while living in direct provision so they can avail of whatever services they can. That is why it is important that children, in particular, are able to go to primary or secondary school. The length of time is the real issue, and it makes things difficult for so many people. If we can deal with applications more quickly, there could be quite a difference. I assure the Deputy we will certainly examine any other initiatives that we can take and act on as many of the recommendations as we can to improve people's current position.

I recognise the potential contribution of these people and I would like to see people being given an opportunity to make that contribution while they are in the direct provision system. Perhaps we can examine some training opportunities or involvement in local communities that could begin to meet some of what the Deputy has described.

Prison Accommodation Provision

Niall Collins

Question:

9. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if she is concerned at the current limited capacity of the Irish Prison Service; if she will provide, in tabular form, the number of prisoners currently on temporary release broken down by prison; the type of offence of which the prisoner was convicted; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35370/14]

What is the view of the Minister and the Government on the current limited capacity available to the Irish Prison Service? We can bear in mind that last July, capacity was reached and exceeded in the prisons at Mountjoy, Cloverhill, Cork, Limerick and Arbour Hill. Will the Minister comment on the policy of affording prisoners temporary release to deal with the capacity issue.

I can advise the Deputy that on 22 September 2014, the bed capacity of the Irish Prison Service was 4,120, with the number of people in custody at 3,797, representing 92% of capacity. There are 601 people on temporary release but on the same date in 2011, there were 718 prisoners on temporary release, with 4,319 in custody. There has been a 16.3% reduction from that date to the present date for those on temporary release. The numbers of people on temporary release have been falling substantially.

The Government is clearly committed to capital investment in the prison estate and building work on a new prison in Cork is well under way. As I have mentioned, D wing in Mountjoy is being refurbished. These will provide further accommodation options for prisoners. The inspector has focused particularly on the Dóchas women's centre and indicated that there is potential and actual overcrowding there, with an open centre needed for women prisoners. We are working on that.

I have mentioned the Strategic Review of Penal Policy report, which I launched last week. It recommends very strongly the development of appropriate non-custodial alternatives to imprisonment and a greater focus on step-down facilities and supported accommodation. It also recommends the use of more community-based open conditions for female offenders. That is important. A business case for the Limerick prison project is currently being considered by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. There is work to be done in Limerick and when that project is complete, there will be additional spaces for the female prisoner population.

Will the Minister be a little more exact about the extra capacity which will flow from the example of the Limerick prison just cited, the refurbishment of the D wing in Mountjoy and the redevelopment of the Cork prison?

Does the Minister have any figures for the level of re-offending while prisoners are on temporary release? This is an important issue. I accept that there has to be a limit to the capacity to be made available and that numbers go up and down. People are concerned that some re-offending occurs while people are on temporary release, some of it very serious.

The bed capacity within the Irish Prison Service estate is 4,120. The Inspector of Prisons has recommended that the bed capacity be 3,976. The occupancy levels generally are between 92% and 95%. It is intended to align the capacity of our prisons with the guidelines laid down by the inspector of prisons. There have to be enough prison spaces to be compatible with public safety and the integrity of the criminal justice system because the prisons must accept those referred to them. The programme for Government outlines the commitment of Government to finding alternatives to custody. If I have time, I will comment on the Deputy’s point about temporary release.

I would appreciate if the Minister could reply to my question on temporary release.

What is the progress of the business case for Limerick Prison? What is the procedure from now and how long will it take to assess the business case and roll out the development plan?

The Minister alluded to the Dóchas centre and the recommendation in the prison review report on an open prison centre for female prisoners. This is very important. Shelton Abbey is a step-down facility for male prisoners. While the regime in Dóchas is not as authoritarian or rigid as that in Mountjoy or other centres there are none the less long-term prisoners there who should be rehabilitated outside that centre. There are also young drug offenders who would be more appropriately placed in centres such as Tiglin. I would like to hear a more definitive commitment to a step-down prison centre for female prisoners.

I am involved in budgetary discussions in regard to Limerick Prison. In the initial phase several million euro would need to be allocated to further the project. I will keep the Deputy informed about that. It is important to make progress on improving and developing the facilities and further capital investment would be needed to do that. I hope we will be in a position to do so in the not too distant future.

On temporary release, it does not follow that a prisoner will receive temporary release even if that is recommended. Each application for temporary release has to be examined very closely on its merits and public safety is a key consideration. Reviewable temporary release, coupled with a requirement to do community service work, is being developed in the community return programme. The evidence from the research to date shows that those who get involved with community return schemes during their temporary release run far less risk of re-offending and being readmitted to prison. These are very worthwhile, tested projects as opposed to a revolving door.

In response to Deputy Timmins, I am committed to ensuring that there is a step-down centre, an open prison for women and a group within the Irish Prison Service has started to examine that. I hope we can make progress on it very quickly. The type of centre needed would not have to be very large. The numbers would be relatively small. There is overcrowding in the women’s prison, which was established in 1999. That does need to be dealt with and I agree with the Deputy that many of the women there could be better helped and facilitated in dealing with drug addiction and various other issues in such a setting.

Questions Nos. 10 and 11 replied to with Written Answers.

Penalty Points System Investigation

Bernard Durkan

Question:

12. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the extent to which she is satisfied that the procedures put in place in respect of the imposition of penalty points and any subsequent deletions are sufficiently robust; if she is satisfied that the oversight procedures continue to be fit for purpose and that recent revelations by the whistle blower are transparently investigated and resolved; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35374/14]

This relates to the obvious need to clarify the recent allegations that penalty points continue to be a problem and that penalty points were allegedly written off on a basis that was not too clear. I want to ensure that the issue is dealt with quickly and adequately.

We have discussed this already but it is important to wait until we have the results of the inquiries before we draw any conclusions. The starting point is that the new policy is in place. It has been designed in keeping with the inspectorate’s recommendations, which were intended to restore confidence in the system, and it includes important safeguards to that end. There is an inter-departmental group working on this. I have attended one of its meetings along with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. That group will continue to monitor the implementation of the recommendations from the inspectorate’s reports.

There is centralisation of decision-making in regard to penalty points. The number of people who can give and erase penalty points has been significantly reduced to three. That changes the system dramatically. The present situation is different, there is centralised decision-making, a need for supporting documentation as well as much greater clarity about what would amount to exceptional circumstances. We said earlier that there will of course be circumstances, whether for members of the public or for the gardaí, in which emergency services are called and which may lead to a fixed notice charge being issued. There is clarity about those exceptional circumstances that warrant cancellation. Regular audit is a central part of the system. The inspectorate will review it again next year.

Some allegations were forwarded to me via the acting Garda Commissioner. They are being investigated, not just by the internal and external audit in the Garda Síochána but by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC. I will get a report on those allegations.

Since June new procedures have been in place and I want to examine how they are working. If it is shown that any garda has abused the system there will be serious consequences.

I thank the Minister for the comprehensive reply. To restore full confidence in the system, will the Minister at the end of the inquiry or review of the system, issue a clear statement to the effect that the system is foolproof and only in exceptional circumstances will some discretion be allowed to those with the power to erase penalty points?

I have made a commitment to transparency in the handling of this issue. The acting Garda Commissioner has said the same. We want the public to have confidence in the system and to ensure that the law is applied equally to all citizens and that, if decisions are being taken to cancel penalty points, there are clear reasons outlined for that, that there is a fair and open system in place subject to regular audit and monitoring. That is what we want to see in place. When one changes from one system to another there is a transition. The statistics are not available because the new system has been operating for such a short time but statistical analysis will be available and will be made public.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.