I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the House. I take the point he made yesterday about the withdrawal of the Prisons Bill 2005, a limited Bill, and welcome the introduction of this new legislation.
I have visited Mountjoy Prison twice and I was struck by the poor conditions of the buildings. The purchase of a new site at Thornton Hall for a new prison to replace Mountjoy is a welcome development.
The Prisons Bill 2005 dealt with video conferencing and the closure of Mountjoy Prison but this Bill is more comprehensive. The overtime question, which it addresses, has always been of great importance to the prison service. The Minister has made arrangements to allow for greater flexibility and efficiency that will make the State's prisons easier to operate. The additional hours to replace overtime are welcome.
Many speakers referred to drugs in prisons. The Minister has published a strategy on drugs for the prison service, which is a welcome development.
The planning provisions for the construction of new prisons and extensions to existing prisons are also included in the Bill. This is relevant following the announcement in the news about the prisons in Cork. When it was proposed some years ago that a prison be built in the west, there was interest in the idea. Castlerea was chosen but many other towns were keen to be the site of the prison. It would generate employment and a prison would ensure people did not have concerns about security. The prison in Castlerea has proven its worth.
The Minister mentioned the possibility of prison escort services being contracted out. This is an area where progress has been made and I hope to see further developments. There were many problems, although some of the stories were exaggerated. It was said that prisoners from the west were often sent to Dublin but then sent home again and that people were left unattended at stops during the journey. I do not know how true those stories are but sometimes people who had committed minor offences went missing. I hope when the question of escort services is addressed, a robust and secure system will be in place.
The Office of Inspector of Prisons is an interesting idea. I am familiar with the inspection regime for psychiatric hospitals because there have been numerous reports published on the subject. We must bear in mind that some prisons, like Mountjoy, are out of date. When the Minister talks about a new prison, we are comparing it with very old institutions and inspectors do not often realise this. The same is true of hospitals, particularly psychiatric hospitals, and very old buildings are compared with very new buildings. I presume that will be taken into account with inspections, which I hope will be carried out in a very thorough manner.
Prison discipline is mentioned in the Bill, and I know prison visiting committees have been perhaps much maligned. I have spoken to people on such committees and they were able to keep in contact with prisoners and discuss issues which affected them. This may have prevented some of the disciplinary sanctions that might have been imposed. It is important that prisoners are given as much information as possible relating to prison rules or inquiries that have to be made, and if a sanction is put in place by the governor it should be thoroughly explained.
I have spoken to many governors through the years and I find them very humane. To give an example, prisoners serving a short sentence can be helped through the family occasions of a baby being christened or a first communion. I welcome this and I hope it always would be the case.
I have read through the Bill and have nothing but the height of praise for it. There is a reference to a live television link with regard to certain applications to court. Perhaps the Minister could explain this in more detail in his reply. I spoke earlier about video conferencing, which I have noticed is done fairly frequently in the health services. I noticed recently on a trip to the Aran Islands that if a doctor is not available, one can sometimes have a link from an island to the main hospital in Galway to discuss an ailment. How would that work in this case? It is an interesting technology which has been used by health services for some time.
I welcome the Bill and hope it receives a quick passage through the Houses. I hope there will be more definite action on prison buildings as we have fallen behind on prisons we know are in very bad condition. We aspire to have all buildings like our more modern prison facilities.