I wish to give some time to my colleague Senator Upton and also Senator Cosgrave if he is in the House. I would like to thank the Cathaoirleach for giving us this opportunity of having a debate on the Adjournment on this issue and I am delighted to see the Minister for Justice here.
I would like to offer my condolences to the family of Sharon Gregg, the first woman who has died in a prison in the history of the State and to remark on a very alarming increase in deaths in prison.
Any of the remarks I have to make I do not want the Minister to take them too closely to heart. He has been recently installed in his job. I hold successive Administrations collectively responsible for the extremely serious state of the prison system at the present time and there is no section of that prison system that is more appalling than the women's prison in Mountjoy.
At the outset, I must state categorically that I am calling for the closure of that prison today. I spent the morning and early afternoon in the women's prison in Mountjoy and what I saw there has convinced me that there is no alternative to the closure. I know the Minister has suggested that there are proposals for refurbishment, renovation, an updating of the prison but to my mind it is not possible to refurbish the women's prison in Mountjoy. It is simply not possible.
It is an ancient arcade, a 140-year old prison that is described by the women themselves and indeed a lot of others involved in the system, as a kip, if Senators will excuse the word. It is overcrowded. There are 22 cells. There are small cells where women are crowded together into a very close proximity. They are dreary. There is inadequate ventilation. There is a section for the women who are HIV positive, who have the virus. In all, you have got remand prisoners, convicted prisoners, young girls from the age of 15, 17 or 18, girls who would be otherwise detained in a juvenile institution if they were of the opposite sex, along with older prisoners. There are first offenders with multiple offenders and recidivists. I believe that we are in breach of the recently signed United Nations Convention on Civil and Political Rights in relation to the lack of segregation between remand prisoners and convicted prisoners. That is something the Minister should take on board. There is also a major problem of people in the prison for drug-related offences.
One of the serious aspects is that quite a number of women in the prison would have been on maintenance programmes in the communty but now they are refusing to continue on those maintenance programmes. For the relatively short time they are serving their sentences — the average sentence would be in the range of 12 months — they are in a continual state of withdrawal and are suffering from withdrawal symptoms. There is no valid reason that the doctor cannot continue the programme that was prescribed by a medical doctor outside prison. It is just not good enough. It can be done in the male section, but it is not done in the women's section. This gives rise to all sorts of harassment, stress and rows and leads to punishment and to very serious incidents involved in punishment.
One serious matter was described to me today by a couple of women there and I must ask the Minister to investigate it, there must be an inquiry into it, in the past month two girls were suffering from withdrawal symptoms, one of them lost her head, as she put it herself, and she was subject to punishment, one month's loss of remission and she was locked up for 20 days from 4.30 p.m. to 8 a.m. which is a period of 15½ hours. She said also that her hands were held behind her back by two male prison officers, that she was taken up to the punishment unit, which is known as the black hole where there is no natural light, and was stripped by male officers. This is what the girl alleged to me. Two other girls made allegations of the same nature. They also alleged that they had put in half sheets but had not been replied to. I have to ask the Minister to investigate those very serious complaints. There must be a question mark about the use of male prison officers in the female prison. Why is there a need for them there? The female prisoners perceive them as the "heavies" who are there in the event of an emotional scene taking place or any bit of trouble and they are always seen as a threatening presence. That was mentioned to me repeatedly while I visited there. We should think in terms of not having male prison officers there.
The question of boredom seems to be the most pervasive aspect of the prison system. Most complaints were about having nothing to do all day long. The sewing room is an absolute disgrace. Likewise the laundry where the women were huddled together around a stove for warmth. The prefabricated room used for education is totally inadequate. On a wet day the rain is coming through and classes have to be abandoned. There is always a waiting list for classes and on average a prisoner can attend for about half an hour a week. That is an absolute disgrace and something must be done about it.
Prisoners complained that they had not seen the visiting committee in months. It is the specific statutory function of the visiting committee to visit once a month. They have indicated that one or two individual members have come but as they have not seen the visiting committee as a body, to whom can they make complaints about conditions? One woman stated to me that she had been trying to get somebody from the Rape Crisis Centre to see her because of problems she was experiencing as a result of having been raped shortly before her conviction and that the Rape Crisis Centre had tried to get in but had been refused permission. That is another allegation that I would like to see investigated by the Minister.
The Minister must realise that all of these factors and matters relating to the conditions under which the women are detained accumulate; the boredom, the drugs, the hassle, the close proximity of one person to another, the small cells, the higgledy-piggledy nature of the prison where there is no segregation and no privacy. All of these combined lead to enormous pressures on people, and in such circumstances it is not difficult to perceive the situation where somebody does inflict self-injury and indeed would take her life. Self-injury seems almost to be a way of life in the prison. It is remarkable from what I have heard that there have not been more deaths because of the degree of self-injury that has been reported. I must ask the Minister, therefore, to close the prison rather than refurbish it. Thousands of pounds, or millions of pounds, spent on the women's prison in Mountjoy is not going to improve what I would regard as a place that has long outlived its usefulness.
Secondly, I suggest that the Minister look first at the training unit which is in the general complex and is a modern building, as a short-term, interim arrangement, because it was intended basically as a training unit. My information is that it operates to a lesser degree as a training unit than it should and that it is also a place where people are put whom the State generally does not accept should be in prison at all, for instance, student protesters, or farmers who are protesting or somebody like myself who was protesting on behalf of the street traders. I spent a week there in 1987 because I would not sign a bond to keep the peace and not to engage in that again. We are talking, in other words, about the acceptable face of the prison. This unit is a bright and modern area and that is where the women prisoners could be put in the interim. Then in the long term we should look closely at the recommendation of the Whitaker committee that there be alternative sanctions for most of the girls and women in prison, that there would be a type of open structure or of hostel structure for most of them who have families and that there would only be one small unit for those who are a real threat to the community. The Minister should look at that first and foremost as the way of going about it rather than his proposed measure to refurbish it. I hope he has not made that proposal with any great degree of seriousness because I do not think it is likely to be successful.
When we have a death of this nature it is not good enough for the Department of Justice or indeed the Minister for Justice, to say there is going to be an internal inquiry. We have had an internal inquiry for every single death that has taken place in recent years. We do not know what the outcome of those inquiries has been so how can we devise a programme unless there is a public inquiry and the information is made available? I have asked the Minister that in future we would have a public inquiry into matters of this nature so that the public can know what happened rather than the Department of Justice paying lip service to dealing with it and then getting off the hook by saying that an inquiry is being carried out.