I thank the Chairman and the Deputies. I welcome the opportunity to speak to the committee today and I am heartened that it has identified penal reform as a priority for 2017. Today I would like to focus on the need to reduce the amount of people in prison and to improve prison conditions, with an emphasis on young adults. As part of my submission to the Committee I included our report Developing Inside: Transforming Prison for Young Adults – A New Approach to the Unique Needs of Young Adults (aged 18–24) in Prison. We all have a tendency, a desire even, to produce more and more reports and we are also at fault in this regard. It shows action and outputs. We do not, however, sufficiently measure the outcomes we have achieved from these. Ways to reduce the amount of people in prison are already known. Two reports produced by this Committee - which I have included in my submission - provide blueprints for radical penal reform. These reports are the report of the Sub-Committee on Crime and Punishment of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights entitled Alternatives to Fines and the Uses of Prison from March 2000 and the report by Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality's entitled Report on Penal Reform from March 2013. These were cross party, non-partisan publications. There were no minority reports, so everyone was in agreement. Why is pressure not put on the Minister to implement all the recommendations of these reports?
In March 2000 the report Alternatives to Fines and the Uses of Prison determined that the balance of resources is skewed heavily towards prison and that punishment in the community should be the norm. In 2000, when the report was written, we had 2,948 people in prison. Today we have 3,722 people in prison. Given the skewed resources, we fail to address some of the underlying reasons why people commit crime, such as poverty, deprivation, social exclusion, educational failure, unemployment, homelessness, mental health and drug addiction. Some 13 years later the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality came up with the Report on Penal Reform, March 2013, which was more explicit, and recommended a decarceration strategy and called for the prison population to be reduced by one third. This target would mean around 2,900 people would be in prison by 2022, which will be some achievement, being a further reduction of 800 on today’s figures. If we look at the aspirations in the 2000 report, however, this would still be too high. Worryingly, the current figures suggest that progress in reducing prison numbers may have stalled. The number of people in prison last week was 3,784. This is higher than the average daily prison population in 2015. The 2000 report highlighted that the size of the prison estate and by extension the number of people we have in prison, is to a large extent a political calculation that "despite popular belief to the contrary, imprisonment rates have a very small impact on crime rates and can be lowered significantly without exposing the public to serious risk". I can refer the committee to several reports that attempt to forecast prison numbers in Ireland, but all these reports fail to realise that it is ultimately a political decision and can be as large as those numbers as we have seen in the US, or numbers as small as those seen in Scandinavian countries.
I will now turn to the issue of women in prisons. While the numbers of people in prison on any given day has reduced significantly in recent years, the numbers of people being sent to prison continues to increase. This is particularly so for women. The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice is concerned about the dramatic increase in the daily population of women in prison and numbers of women being sent to prison annually. Proposed solutions to reducing the number of women in prison – by providing a step-down unit – reflects the failed institutionalised approaches of the past. Large hostel style accommodation post-release or part of a step-down programme will not dramatically break the cycle of homelessness or poverty. The approach taken within the housing organisations such as the Housing First approach is required.
We would have a number of recommendations about prison numbers. A renewed commitment to the recommendations of the two Justice Committee Reports should be placed on record. A decision should be made - maybe not today - around what number of prison places we should have in Ireland and ultimately a cap placed on prison numbers. We recommend a Housing First approach as an alternative to the step-down facility for women exiting prison.
With regard to conditions the 2000 committee report highlighted that many prisoners are held in conditions which are unnecessarily secure. It said that a “one size fits all philosophy is not appropriate. There is a need for different mixes of restriction and supervision [and that for the future] prisons constructed should be flexible, arranged around self-contained units. Regimes should be programme-driven and open to the possibilities of individual change". This was also echoed in the 2013 report which called for a greater use of open prisons.
Unfortunately, for the most part our prison estate is a one-size model. Since 2000 we have continued to increase prison sizes and we still rely on closed prisons, which still dominate, with limited access to self-management. New builds since 2000 including the Midlands Prison and Cork Prison - and also in Castlerea Prison - did not look to innovate in how we detain people. The Midlands Prison accommodates 870 people which, along with Cork Prison, mimics prison design from the 19th century. To put this in context, prisons with a maximum capacity for 300 persons are seen as best practice. The 1985 Whitaker report recommended 100 as maximum capacity. Prisons seen as progressive such as Shanganagh Castle and Fort Mitchel were closed in the early 2000s.
How people experience prison conditions is heavily influenced by how much time a person spends in their room or cell. Lock-up times have not changed in over 30 years despite constant recommendations for change. The overwhelming majority of people are in closed prisons where the regime is 16 to 17 hours per day in the cell. The 1985 Whitaker report recommended a minimum of 12 hours out-of-cell time.
The principle of normalisation has been spoken about for decades, including within Irish Prison Service documentation, in order to make prison life more like that of life in the community. The current daily routine could not, in any way, be considered normal. Our recommendations around prison conditions and sizes are to reduce prison sizes and provide accommodation based on security need, avoiding the one-size fits all model, and at least 12 hours out-of-cell time with meaningful activity.
The issue of young adults in prisons is of particular interest to the centre. We have produced a report that was distributed to the members. I also have hard copies with me today. Imprisonment is inherently a destructive experience for everyone, but particularly for young people, no matter how good the facilities within the prison. A young person’s growth and development is linked to decision-making; young people grow by learning from both the positive and negative decisions they make. In prison, however, a person is not allowed to make any decisions, except the decision to keep your head down and cause no trouble. Prison is an environment which strips people of their responsibilities, stunts opportunities for development, makes them feel unsafe and restricts their opportunities for integration into adult society.
As highlighted within our report, Developing Inside: Transforming Prison for Young Adults, emotionally and psychologically they are more like adolescents than adults. The 18–24 years age group is a period of what is called extended adolescence. They are more likely to be impulsive and less able to control aggression and risk-taking than adults. Their impulsiveness and reduced ability to control aggression makes them seem unco-operative and therefore more liable to punishment within the prison system. The prison system treats them as if they were fully mature adults when in fact we should be treating them as a distinct group and more like children.
Contained within our report are ten recommendations to transform prison for young adults. I will touch upon a few of these. We recommend that young adults in prison be recognised as a distinct group by making them the responsibility of the Irish youth justice system. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs should become a champion for young adults in prison. Currently, young adults are recognised within the Department of Children and Youth Affairs strategy, Better Outcomes Brighter Futures, as being a distinct group separate from the adult population. However, there is a demarcation when it comes to young adults in detention who are ignored in this document. This needs to change.
We also recommend ending the use of extended lock-up, also referred to as the restricted regime, which in many cases is a form of solitary confinement or solitary confinement itself. We recommend the abolition of the basic regime standard for all young adults and that all young adults should be placed on the enhanced accommodation standard on entry to prison.
It would appear that there is no mitigation for the characteristic behaviours of young adults, some of which I have described, and they are over-represented in solitary confinement and on restricted regime, which we detail in our report. We welcome Deputy Clare Daly's draft legislation on solitary confinement and would recommend that legislation prohibit the use of solitary confinement for young adults.
The infographic in our report highlights the fact that young adults are more likely to be on basic level than the general adult population. Basic level means less access to family visits and telephone calls, single cells and less out of cell time, all contrary to how we should respond to the needs of young adults. We also highlight the need to reduce significantly the number of young adults imprisoned and provide separate, young adult detention facilities with specially trained staff.
Politically, if we wished to be a European leader in having a low young adult prison population, this would require a 50% reduction in prison places for this group. Much of this could be achieved through, perhaps, an expansion of the Garda youth diversion programme, which today deals with older children, 16 and 17 year olds, than those it dealt with when it was originally formed. It would also, in effect, end the use of prison for young women, which we detail within our report.
Dedicated facilities, similar to those found in other jurisdictions, including Northern Ireland - and I have visited Hydebank Wood College - should now be provided. Historically, we provided specific facilities for young adults with mixed results. St. Patrick's Institution was condemned as far back as the Whitaker committee but Shanganagh Castle and Fort Mitchel were both seen as having a positive impact on the lives of young adults. Any future facility should be campus style with varying levels of security and should be as open as possible to provide maximum freedom. It must be emphasised that young adults are sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment. The daily routine should provide meaningful access to education, work and training beyond equivalence to that available in the community. The last point is an important one. Third level institutions and further education colleges should be paired with each young adult detention centre. Young adults should spend a minimum of 14 hours unlocked from their rooms. Accommodation should be provided in houses with single room occupancy, communal dining and access to food preparation areas.