Development of New Prison in Cork City: Motion

The purpose of today's meeting is to discuss the motion re proposed approval by Dáil Eireann and Seanad Éireann of the development of a prison in the townland of Rathmore in the city of Cork. A briefing document has been circulated. The format of the meeting is that the Minister will brief the committee on the motion and then there will be a question and answer session. I invite the Minister to introduce the motion.

Thank you, Chairman. I am happy to introduce the motion. I thank the committee for delaying until 11 a.m. this morning as, unfortunately, I had a Cabinet meeting which took somewhat longer than anticipated.

The existing prison in Cork, whose main cell block dates from the early 19th century, is no longer fit for purpose. Conditions in the prison are particularly poor; the prison does not have in-cell sanitation, it lacks the basic infrastructure required of a modern prison system and suffers from chronic overcrowding - all of which have been strongly criticised by the inspector of prisons and places of detention and the council of europe committee for the prevention of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, CPT. The Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention is of the view that the maximum capacity of the prison should be 146 prisoners. However, the prison has typically accommodated 270 or more prisoners - 80% more than its design capacity.

Early in my appointment as Minister, I visited Cork Prison and saw at first hand the chronic levels of overcrowding and inadequate physical infrastructure. I subsequently instructed the director general of the Prison Service, Mr. Michael Donnellan, to come up with proposals to address these serious issues as a matter of urgency. A strategy entitled, Unlocking Community Alternatives - a Cork Approach, was submitted to me early in 2012, following which I announced that I would proceed with the implementation of the strategy to address overcrowding and accommodation issues in Cork Prison. The Prison Service was given approval to proceed to prepare detailed plans for a new prison in Cork city adjacent to the existing prison on Rathmore Road.

The main purpose of the new prison facility is to replace the substandard prison accommodation in Cork and, in particular, to provide a modern prison facility designed on the principle of rehabilitation and resettlement. The construction of a new, modern prison in Cork will eliminate the practice of prisoners having to slop out, provide adequate and suitable accommodation for all prisoners in accordance with our national and international obligations and will also provide the infrastructure necessary for the education and rehabilitation of prisoners thus enhancing public safety. Building on the site adjacent to the existing prison will also ensure value for money for the taxpayer. Deputies and Senators will be aware that the Cork Prison visiting committee recently expressed concern in its annual report for 2012, which I published, about the archaic and Dickensian conditions in some parts of Cork Prison and has welcomed the Government's commitment to a new prison in Cork.

The day-to-day design capacity for the new prison complex is approximately 275 spaces for prisoners based on double-cell occupancy. The prison will have a peak accommodation capacity for 310 prisoners but that will only be reached in emergency-type circumstances. All of the cells will be of a size acceptable to the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention for double occupancy and all will have integral toilets and showers. I am satisfied that the planned capacity of 275 prisoners is adequate for the needs of the prison's catchment area.

The development will consist of buildings of a floor area of approximately 15,000 sq. m on a site of approximately 2.64 hectares. The buildings will be one, two or three storeys in height. The secure facilities will be bounded by a standard height prison perimeter wall approximately 7.2 m in height. As can be seen from the illustration of the building it is effectively a H shape.

Development consent for the proposed new prison development in Cork is being sought under Part 4 of the Prisons Act 2007. Part 4 sets out a special procedure that may be applied for the purpose of determining whether consent should be granted to larger prison developments. The purpose of the 2007 Act was to provide a more open and transparent mechanism for major prison developments under which an environmental impact assessment meeting EU standards must be prepared and where the Houses of the Oireachtas make the decision whether to grant development consent. This is done in the form of a resolution, which we are discussing today, which must be then confirmed by an Act. The confirming legislation can only be published after the resolution has been passed because the dates of passing of the resolution must be included in the text of the Bill. The initial stages of the process have already been progressed. On 30 June 2012,1 issued a direction under section 18 of the Prisons Act 2007 that Part 4 of the Act is to apply to the proposed construction of a prison on a portion of the site used as Cork Prison.

The Director General of the Prison Service appointed the Sweett Group to carry out the environmental impact assessment. The assessment was laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas on 8 November 2012. On that date, public notice was given of the proposed prison development, the environmental impact assessment and visual representations of the proposed development were made available to the public and observations and submissions were invited. The Prisons Act 2007 provides for a six-week consultation period.

A rapporteur, Mr James Farrelly, was appointed to prepare a report identifying the main issues raised and summarising the submissions and observations received. His report has been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas and published. The purpose of the report of the rapporteur is to identify those who have made submissions, identify the main issues raised and to provide a summary of the submissions and observations received. There is no provision for the rapporteur to comment on the validity or otherwise of submissions made nor is there any provision for him to make any recommendations. Twelve submissions, including a detailed submission from Cork City Council, and several petitions were received as part of the public consultation process, which raised a number of issues and concerns about the proposed development.

To facilitate the Houses of the Oireachtas in their consideration of the matter, the Minister must lay before the Houses a document stating the location, purpose and size of the development, its land use requirements and an estimate of any residues and emissions expected; an environmental impact assessment, visual representations of the exterior of the development, and the report of the rapporteur. I took the opportunity to lay a document, in accordance with section 26(3) of the 2007 Act, setting out my observations on the environmental impact assessment and the rapporteur's report.

Moving from the background documentation to the proposed resolution, which is to be considered by the joint committee, the resolution is the consent required for the Cork Prison development to proceed. It is, in layperson's terms, the planning permission for the prison. It follows the format prescribed by section 26 of the Prisons Act 2007, including the requirement to list the main measures taken to avoid, reduce or off-set any possible significant adverse effects of the development on the environment. It also details an alteration to the original proposals that I have made in response to concerns expressed during the public consultation process and sets out the conditions that are to be complied with in the construction of the prison.

Before turning to the details of the issues being addressed, I repeat that while the resolution is the planning permission, it must still be confirmed by an Act of the Oireachtas before it takes effect. If the necessary resolution is passed, I will introduce a two-section Bill to confirm that resolution and give it statutory effect. A fundamental principle of the design and location of the prison has been to minimise and mitigate the impact of the development. The environmental impact assessment goes into considerable detail on the mitigation measures proposed to minimise adverse impact on local residents. The public consultation process and the rapporteur's report identified specific concerns on the part of local residents. In so far as is practicable, further measures are being taken to address these concerns.

Visually conditioned concrete with a light-coloured finish will be used on the sections of the perimeter wall most visible to the public.

In order to address a specific concern raised during the public consultation regarding the impact on residential property adjacent to the proposed development, I propose to alter the development, in accordance with section 25 of the Prisons Act 2007, by providing for the reduction of the height of the perimeter wall around the horticultural area at the northern end of the site to approximately 5.2 m. This alteration is set out in the resolution.

The Irish Prison Service will draw up a good neighbour policy which will provide a framework under which the concerns of local residents during the construction phase can be fully dealt with. The Irish Prison Service project manager will act as liaison officer and will set up a local consultation group to address any issues that arise during the construction period.

A construction environmental management plan will be drawn up by the principal contractor and approved by the Irish Prison Service and implemented in keeping with best practice. The implementation of a traffic management plan will form a key part of the construction environmental management plan. The contractor and the Irish Prison Service will liaise closely with the Garda Síochána, Cork City Council and other interested parties in preparing a traffic management plan that will minimise the impact of construction traffic on local residents and businesses. It is expected that there will be no increase in vehicular or pedestrian traffic once the new prison is operational.

As regards security issues, the existing prison is the only closed prison in the State that does not have a prison standard perimeter security wall. As the new prison will have such a wall and will also have an outer cordon sanitaire secured by a 2.5 m fence, security risks will be significantly reduced. I would like to emphasise that in the context of some concerns expressed by local residents. This will be a more secure prison in the context of the perimeter walls and the other constructions to take place than is the current prison. In saying that there has not been any major security issues, in practical terms, in recent years with the current prison. The need to prevent drugs or contraband being thrown into the prison from outside was also carefully considered in the design of the prison and informed the positioning of perimeter blocks, wall and building heights and distances of recreational yards from points outside the building.

With regard to privacy issues, the CCTV system will be restricted to ensure that it is not used in a manner that facilitates viewing into residential property. That is something about which local residents should not have concerns. In addition, obscured glazing will be used in all windows overlooking neighbouring residential property.

In order to mitigate noise pollution and dust during the construction of the prison, the perimeter wall will be constructed before construction of the prison building begins. Extensive noise, vibration and dust monitoring will be undertaken during construction. An extensive professional programme of vermin eradication will be undertaken on the site and its environs in the weeks immediately preceding the commencement of the works.

As regards local infrastructure and services, the Irish Prison Service and the selected contractor will engage fully in discussions on drainage and water supply with Cork City Council at detailed design stage. Sustainable urban drainage design system principles will be applied to the site.

As there is a need urgently to proceed with the project because of the chronic overcrowding and inadequate conditions in Cork prison, I am anxious for the resolution to be passed by both Houses before the summer recess so that tendering for the construction of the new prison can proceed.

This is a major development in the context of our Prison Service in providing a new modern, fit for purpose prison to meet our needs in this area. I am pleased that I have available to me the funding required for this project to proceed. I thank my Government colleagues for their support with regard to this particular project at a time when we know that money is scarce, but it is of huge importance if we are to deal with the issues of offending and reoffending, meet our international obligations, ensure that people are treated in prison in a humane way and that we are in a position within the Prison Service to do what is necessary in providing supports, and ensuring that those who are returned to the community from prison are less likely to reoffend than has been the case in the past. It is important that we have this type of new modern prison facility, which I hope would receive the full support of members of the committee.

I thank the Minister. For his information, a number of the committee members visited Cork Prison last year and we were struck by the need, as the Minister has suggested, for major changes to be made. A 19th century building does not lend itself to any major redevelopment and therefore I personally believe what the Minister is doing is correct. We saw the overcrowding and the conditions in the prison and it is urgent that this be done. I am fully behind this proposal.

I am also interested in Unlocking Community Alternatives - a Cork Approach, which links in with one of the reports the committee sent to the Minister on penal reform earlier in the year. We are anxious that the review the Minister has undertaken would progress. It is very welcome that this is happening and as a committee we are glad to be able to feed into that and assist in any way possible. Deputy Mac Lochlainn is on his own. Does he want to ask any questions?

I was one of the members of the delegation that visited the prison and in fairness to the governor, from the outset he made it clear that the conditions are unacceptable. We desperately need a new prison and therefore we are very enthusiastic about this proposal.

In fairness I note the Minister has gone some way to addressing the planning concerns. I presume that is the reason the Act was introduced in 2007 because where a prison is built is always a contentious issue. We had an opportunity to see the new site and to get a flavour of some of the challenges. A number of the issues are outlined in the summary from the rapporteur including proximity of houses to what will be huge walls and so on. I note the Minister has gone some way towards addressing those concerns.

We support the motion. We must move as quickly as possible to the construction of a new prison and also to meet our responsibilities to rehabilitation and adhere to international best standards. I do not know if it is possible to determine if there is more we can do to address the residents' concerns about noise during construction stages. Some of them spoke about the possibility of window replacements in the houses. I urge that we do all we can to address the residents' concerns but it is in the public interest for us to proceed. With the caveat of the Minister doing what he can to address residents' legitimate concerns in the area, I support the motion.

I thank the Chairman and Deputy Mac Lochlainn for their comments. I very much value members of this committee visiting our prisons. At this stage I think I have visited all the prisons in the State and done so quietly without any media palaver. I thought it was important that I meet all our governors and have an opportunity to see conditions. I took the opportunity to talk to some prisoners when I visited the prisons and many of those working in the Prison Service.

Without a doubt we had to do something about Cork Prison. It is a great pity that at a time when the State was more flathulach with money this development did not occur at least ten years ago but, nevertheless, I very much value the support of the committee in what we are doing. We are very conscious of concerns of residents. That is the reason we have responded in the way we have and the reason we will have in place a senior official to engage in liaison with the residents if issues arise during the construction phase. The purpose of building the outer perimeter first is to ensure that once it is constructed, the internal construction works have as little impact on local residents as is possible. I am happy to say to the committee, and particularly to Deputy Mac Lochlainn who raised the issue, that we will maintain that liaison and try to maintain good relations. I am conscious that when a new building of this nature is being constructed there is always some local concern. The reality is that this will be a much better facility than the current one. It will provide greater security as opposed to lesser security.

In the context of the region generally and Cork in particular, the provision of such new facilities, the other work we are doing within the Prison Service such as the community based measures for dealing with offenders in Cork, and the pilot scheme we have running are all designed to try to ensure we reduce reoffending and that, where possible, people can be rehabilitated within our prisons while at the same time properly serving the sentences imposed by the courts.

People are imprisoned for very serious offences and the general community must understand the State will play a role in deterring people from offending. However, having played that role, it must do what is necessary and in the public interest to try to ensure people do not re-offend. This is all part of what is necessary and I greatly welcome the joint committee's support in this regard. When the project is complete, I am sure members of the joint committee will wish to visit and have a look at what is there. There will be two phases in that the construction phase must be completed, after which there will be the fitting-out phase. At present, the projected time for opening the prison is in or about the spring of 2016. Were we able to achieve that quicker, I would be very happy for us to so do and I reiterate I appreciate the joint committee's support for what we are doing.

I thank the Minister. Are there plans for the old complex?

That is an issue to which we must give further consideration, as once we move into the new complex, a large, old and unfit for purpose building will remain. Clearly, it cannot be used for what it has been used for in the past. As to whether it can be used for some other purpose or something in the public interest or whether what I expect would need to be some fairly dramatic internal change within the building could result in it being available for some alternative use are matters we can consider in the future. However, we are a couple of years away from being obliged to make decisions in that regard.

I thank the Minister and his officials for their attendance.