I should like to apologise to the House for my absence when the matter was first called; it came unexpectedly.
This short Bill proposes to extend, for three years, section 2 of the Prisons Act, 1972, which makes provision for the transfer of prisoners from the civil prisons to military custody and for related matters.
The 1972 Act was passed immediately after the riot which occurred in Mountjoy prison in May, 1972. The destruction caused in the riot so reduced prison accommodation that it was essential to transfer some prisoners and the only place they could be transferred to was military custody. Those transferred were persons requiring a high degree of security.
Since then however factors have existed in the overall situation which make it essential to continue the present arrangements. If we are to have a prison system geared to rehabilitation then there must be peace in our prisons; an absence of agitation and tension. This, in my opinion, can only be achieved by the careful segregation of prisoners into suitable categories or groups. It might be helpful to Senators if I were to give some details of prison accommodation available for male offenders and how the accommodation is being used.
The largest prison is Mountjoy, which can house about 450 male prisoners. It is the principle committal prison in the State and at the moment takes all what I might describe as ordinary long-term prisoners, together with all other prisoners from outside the areas served by Limerick and Cork prisons. It is an old building which requires radical adaptation and restructuring to make it well-serviced, with an increased emphasis on rehabilitation, and at the same time, secure. Although this long-term work has started, it will soon be necessary to reduce the population in Mountjoy considerably to enable the major part of the work to commence. This will be possible as soon as the new accommodation for the training of selected prisoners now nearing completion beside Mountjoy, and the renovated Arbour Hill prison are brought into operation. The new training unit will be able to accommodate 96 prisoners but, of course, it will be essential to build up its population very gradually so that a satisfactory regime may be established by stages to enable full value to be obtained from the very advanced educational and training facilities being provided in it. The renovated Arbour Hill prison will accommodate about 100 prisoners and will cater mainly for a category of prisoners who are likely to respond to the particular training in industrial skills which the prison will be specially equipped to provide. It will not be a high security prison and the prisoners sent there will not be of a kind that need high security.
Also in Dublin there is St. Patrick's Institution, which is a place of detention for young male adult offenders. I should say that St. Patrick's has at the moment a near capacity population.
Outside Dublin we have Limerick, Cork and Portlaoise prisons and three "open" institutions: Shanganagh Castle, Loughan House and Shelton Abbey. Limerick prison can accommodate about 100 male prisoners and is a committal prison for the South West. It works constantly to full capacity. It cannot be described as a highly secure prison and adequate educational and work facilities have yet to be provided in it.
Cork prison, which is the former military detention barracks, is being extensively renovated and added to. In effect it serves the counties of Cork and Waterford. The conditions there for its present population of about 65 are barely adequate. It may shortly be necessary to vacate the prison altogether to allow the reconstruction work to be completed. When completed early next year Cork will be a modern well-serviced prison for about 100 prisoners but it will not be a high security prison.
Portlaoise Prison is the only place where reasonable, but not ideal, conditions of security obtain and since last November it is being used to house offenders who are a homogeneous group of subversive criminals and have to be accommodated in a secure prison.
There are 32 prisoners in the Military Detention Barracks at the Curragh. I do not wish, for obvious reasons, to comment in any detail on the individual prisoners there. Suffice it to say that they are considered to represent a threat to the security and good order of the prisons. The difficulty with them is that when mixed with ordinary-type prisoners they can foment such disorder as to make the prison unworkable and make normal rehabilitative work impossible. They require a high degree of security.
Straightaway therefore Mountjoy, Limerick, Cork and Arbour Hill prisons, the "open" centres and the new accommodation near Mountjoy can be ruled out as suitable places for them. Portlaoise prison might be suitable but it is not possible to place them in Portlaoise in the company of the other group of high-risk prisoners without endangernig security there. Military custody is the only alternative.
I have decided in fact that the best long-term solution is to build a special unit to house prisoners of this type. This unit will be one of maximum security capable of housing up to 30 high risk prisoners and it will be located in the Portlaoise prison complex. Preliminary work has started on it but it may take up to three years to complete it. It may not be readily understood why a maximum security unit should take so long to complete. The fact is that a structure of this sort is completely different in nearly every possible way from structures of any other kind. Careful consideration has to be given to even the minutest details of lay-out and equipment and to the materials which are used. As well as that the new unit must be integrated into an ongoing prison complex, the security of which has to be maintained throughout and this in its own way does not make it any easier to get work done expeditiously. While it may be possible to dispense with military custody for civilians before then I am afraid that it is essential to provide for the possibility of military custody for that three years.
An alternative to military custody might seem to be the transfer of the Curragh Military Detention Barracks to civilian control to be operated as a civilian prison. I am satisfied that this is not possible. Apart from the basic objection to having a civilian controlled enclave in the heart of a military complex, there are not adequate staff resources in the prison service to run the Curragh Military Detention Barracks and at the same time meet current and prospective commitments in the civil prisons. The task of operating military custody must be an unwelcome burden to the Defence Forces at the present time and I regret that it should be necessary to prolong it. I shall do all I can to relieve them of it as quickly as possible. In the meantime I know the Defence Forces are doing everything possible to provide as good a regime as possible for prisoners in military custody. For example, in liaison with my Department educational classes are being provided in the Curragh Military Detention Barracks by two teachers made available by the County Kildare Vocational Educational Committee. Recreation facilities to the maximum feasible extent have been provided. The possibility of extending and augmenting these facilities is being kept under review.
I regret the necessity for this Bill. I also wish to apologise for the fact that the Bill has been introduced at this late stage. I was in fact considering whether the prisoners in question could be accommodated otherwise than in military custody and, as I have said, it is with reluctance that I have come to the conclusion that they cannot.
I will conclude by saying that I am fully satisfied that the security of our prison system makes the continuation of military custody essential, and I commend the Bill to the House.