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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 20 Mar 2007

Vol. 186 No. 12

Prisons Bill 2006 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil]: Report and Final Stages.

I welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Michael McDowell. This is a Seanad Bill that has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 103, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and is placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question "That the Bill be received for final consideration", the Minister may explain the purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil. This is looked upon as the report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. For Senators' convenience, I have arranged for the printing and circulation of the amendments. The Tánaiste will deal separately with the subject matter of each related group of amendments. I have also circulated the proposed groupings and Senators may contribute once on each grouping. The only matters that may be discussed are the amendments made by the Dáil. I call on the Tánaiste to speak on group No. 1.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be received for final consideration."

I accepted amendment No. 1 when it was proposed in the Dáil by the Labour Party. While it is not strictly necessary to the meaning, its inclusion means there can be no doubt the definition of "prison rules" refers to a rule in force at a particular time, even if the rule has been since repealed. Amendment No. 10 is a technical Government amendment and amendments Nos. 15 and 17 are also technical amendments.

On group No. 2, amendment No. 2 is an official drafting amendment clarifying that visits from health care professionals will not be included when prohibition of visits generally is imposed as a sanction on a prisoner for a breach of prison discipline under section 13. The amendment addresses concerns first raised in this House, namely, that the original wording might preclude persons visiting for the purpose of providing psychological treatment. It was not intended that a sanction prohibiting visits would preclude persons from providing, for example, dental or psychological services.

Regarding amendment No. 3, the principle was agreed on Committee Stage in the Dáil in response to a Labour Party amendment that public representatives would not be excluded from visiting prisoners on whom a sanction prohibiting visits generally had been imposed. This wording was subsequently tabled to address the issue.

Amendment No. 5 is on foot of amendments tabled by the Labour Party to include the United Nations Committee against Torture in a list of persons in section 13(1)(d)(ii) from whom visits are not prohibited, and to ensure prisoners would not be prevented from sending or receiving documentation in respect of postal voting.

I welcome the amendments, in particular amendment No. 2, which addresses a matter raised by me on Committee and Report Stages in this House, namely, a prisoner's right to see a doctor or other health care professionals if necessary. I am glad it has been accepted at this late stage. It was necessary to amend the Bill in this way in light of the reservations I expressed on Committee and Report Stages. I also welcome the other two amendments which were mentioned by the Minister.

The amendments in Group 3 relate to the report of the rapporteur and the Minister's observations on the development of prisons.

Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 were made to Part 4 of the Bill, which relates to planning provisions. Amendment No. 6 replaces the words "consider only" with the words "take account only of" in section 23(2) of the Bill. This new wording better reflects the role of the rapporteur, which is to receive written submissions and observations and to prepare a report for submission to the Minister, based on the submissions and observations received within the six-week timeframe that is specified in section 21E of the Bill.

Amendment No. 7 inserts an additional subsection in section 26 to provide that when a decision is made to proceed with the development, construction or extension of a prison under Part 4 of the Bill, the Minister shall, under section 26(1), move a draft resolution in both Houses of the Oireachtas seeking approval to proceed with the development. Section 26(2) requires the Minister to ensure that certain documents, which are set out in the legislation, are laid before the Oireachtas in advance of the moving of the draft resolution by him or her. Amendment No. 7 also provides that the Minister may lay a further document, containing his or her observations on any of the documents mentioned in section 26(2), before the Oireachtas before he or she moves the draft resolution. This provision should facilitate and assist the Members of the Oireachtas in their consideration of the draft resolution. It will also give the Minister the right to outline his or her views on the issues raised in the submissions made to the rapporteur.

I welcome these amendments, which will strengthen the Bill. I am glad this issue, which was raised in the House on Committee Stage, was addressed in an amendment that was proposed at the select committee and approved by the Government. I am glad these amendments, which we readily accept, were tabled.

Group 4, which includes amendments Nos. 8, 9 and 11 to 14, inclusive, relates to the functions of the Inspector of Prisons.

I accepted amendment No. 8 when it was proposed by Deputy Ó Snodaigh in the other House. It clarifies the meaning of the word "record", as used in this section of the Bill. I was advised that the amendment was not entirely necessary, but I decided to accept it because it provides consistency by reflecting the wording of section 10(3) of the Bill, which relates to access to records, documents, etc., by an officer who is appointed to monitor the performance of a contractor that is providing prisoner escort services.

Amendment No. 9, which was proposed in the other House by Deputy Ó Snodaigh, adds the words "arising out of an inspection" to this section of the Bill. It is a reasonable amendment.

Amendment No. 11 is a Government amendment which will oblige the Minister to lay both reports of the Inspector of Prisons made under this legislation before the Houses of the Oireachtas and to have them published. The Bill, as initiated, provided for the publication of the reports. When this section was amended during proceedings in this House to provide a timeframe for the laying of the report and its publication, the words "and to be published" were inadvertently omitted from the amended section. This amendment reintroduces the words and reconfirms that it is intended to provide for the publication of the reports.

Amendment No. 12 is a drafting amendment which improves the text of an amendment that was proposed during the debate in this House and which I accepted at the time. It provides that while the Inspector of Prisons may not examine or adjudicate on individual complaints from prisoners, he or she may examine the circumstances surrounding such a complaint.

Amendment No. 13 is a Government drafting amendment, which confirms the application of section 32(4) to the laying before the Houses of the Oireachtas and publication of the annual report of the Inspector of Prisons. Section 32(4) states that the provisions of sections 31(4) and 31(5), which relate to reports on inspections of individual prisons, will also apply to the annual report of the Inspector of Prisons.

Amendment No. 14, which is another drafting amendment, ensures that the Minister will be obliged to lay both of the annual reports of the inspector before the Oireachtas and to have them published.

During the debate in this House and the other House, Members asked about the status of the current Inspector of Prisons, whose term in office will end on 23 April next. I am examining my options in relation to the appointment of an inspector on a statutory basis under this legislation if it is operational by that time. I intend to commence this Bill with effect from 1 May 2007, and the appointment of an Inspector of Prisons will take place shortly thereafter. I have previously indicated my appreciation of the work of Mr. Justice Kinlen. I hope he will serve a further period in office.

I welcome these amendments, which relate to issues which were discussed at length in this House. I also welcome the Minister's statement that he will ask Mr. Justice Kinlen, who is doing an excellent job as Inspector of Prisons, to continue in that position. I hope Mr. Justice Kinlen will accept the position that will be offered to him in May.

The amendment in Group 5 prohibits the unauthorised possession or use of mobile telecommunications devices by prisoners.

A person who, without the permission of the governor, possesses or uses a mobile telecommunications device, or a person who supplies such a device to a prisoner without such permission, is to be made guilty of an offence. He or she will be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding €5,000, or a prison term not exceeding 12 months. He or she will be liable on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €10,000, or a prison term not exceeding five years, or both. The provision being introduced in this way, which will prohibit the use and possession by prisoners of mobile telephones and prohibit the supply or attempted supply by persons of those telephones, is seriously needed.

Over the weekend, Senators will have read, as I did, about the seizure of a huge number of mobile telephones in a prison. I do not want to talk about the arrests which were made in that context recently. I have to be careful in what I say. It struck me that people who breach the prison rules by facilitating the unlawful transmission of messages in and out of prisons should be given serious penalties. Therefore, I introduced this amendment to ensure the possession or use by a prisoner of a mobile telephone without permission, or the supply of such a telephone, shall be an arrestable offence, and that a person found guilty of such an offence shall be punishable. It is obvious that we have to provide for certain exceptions — the governor could, in some circumstance, give permission for the use of a mobile telephone. I can envisage that it might be intelligent in a particular case for an officer to bring a mobile telephone to a prisoner in order that he or she can speak to somebody as a matter of urgency. Subject to such exceptions, it is my intention to prohibit and prevent the use of mobile telephones in prisons. The Department is working on a programme that will lead to the use of suppression devices throughout the Prisons Service. It is not simply a matter of making it a criminal offence — it is also a matter of making the use of mobile telephones within prisons impossible.

I welcome the Minister's comments on mobile telephones. I raised this matter on Committee Stage after I listened to a radio programme. I thought it was most unusual that a prisoner was able to use his mobile telephone to make a call to that programme. I am pleased steps are being taken to suppress the use of mobile telephones. We agree that prisons should be drug-free. I am glad the Minister is talking about making prisons mobile-free, other than in exceptional circumstances.

I understand the need for this provision. There is anecdotal evidence of prisoners being able to conduct the business of their crime gangs from within the prison walls, which is unacceptable. It has been reported that prisoners can obtain mobile telephones for €1,000 on the inside, which is not very satisfactory. I agree with the provisions of the amendments which are being made in this regard. Is a distinction made if a prisoner gets a mobile telephone from somebody, conceals it and uses it to keep in touch with family, for example? A person who is incarcerated may feel the need to make contact with family members. He or she may not use it for reasons which relate to criminal intent. The sentences which will apply to this offence are very severe. I can understand the reason the sentences and penalties that will apply to this offence must be severe, particularly where hardened criminals generate considerable criminal activity from using their mobile telephones. I compare such an offender to an individual who finds himself or herself in prison, which can be a difficult regime if the individual is not a hardened criminal, and uses a mobile telephone for what he or she considers reasonable needs. Perhaps judicial discretion takes account of this matter.

Did the Minister have discussions with prison governors on how they might ensure the implementation of this provision? Are they of the view it is likely it to be enforced?

Senator Jim Walsh made the point that not every prisoner who would use a mobile phone would use it for malicious or criminal reasons. Many of us believe we cannot survive without a mobile phone, although that is not the case.

It is important that the Minister provides the necessary facilities and resources in prisons to ensure prisoners have opportunities to participate in education, workshops and so on. The Minister mentioned the inspector of prisons and I welcome the statement made. However, the inspector usually raises the issue of the need to provide facilities and resources for prisoners to participate in classes and training to ensure that on their release there is a better chance they will not reoffend.

Prisoners who are not in close confinement are given access to telephones, which are monitored, to make domestic telephone calls on an agreed basis within prison. It is not a matter of people being unnecessarily held incommunicado in prison. I do not want to elaborate more at this stage other than to say I have every reason to believe that serious criminals have used mobile telephones clandestinely to operate and direct criminal activities outside prisons. That is a fact, which is deeply regrettable.

Senator Tuffy asked how this provision will be enforced. The first step is to ensure telephones are not brought into prisons and the second step is to have detection and suppression equipment within prisons, which is currently being rolled out across the prison service. Probably the best means of stopping the abuse of these telephones is to make them useless inside prison areas, which is what we are attempting to do.

However, the ingenuity of people knows no bounds. Therefore, it is a purpose of this section to ban people from bringing into prison any kind of telecommunications device and to make it illegal for a prisoner to have any such device in a prison. As long as there is one charged mobile telephone in a prison, prisoners can use their individual SIM cards which are compatible with that telephone. Once that is the case, as everybody is aware, such cards can be easily concealed in virtually any place on the body, in a cell or anywhere else in a prison. The key step is to get the handsets and to have in place a counter technology to prevent the use of these telephones within prisons by people who are directing crime.

Senator Tuffy raised the question of rehabilitation and education in prisons. It is my strong view that the rehabilitative side of Irish prisons must be dramatically developed and I intend to do that. The first step I had to take was to stabilise the economic situation in our prisons, as the prison budget was being cannibalised by overtime expenses. We have done that now and have brought to bear rationality. The second step is to bring the physical facilities in prisons up to a decent standard. Far more sophisticated education, training, skills and courses can be provided if there is security within a prison. However, if prisons are old, antiquated and crime-ridden, that is another matter.

I wish to record my concern for the safety of prisoners. One of the issues about which I am most concerned is that many prisoners are brutalised, bullied, stabbed or threatened with the carrying out of such actions on a fairly routine basis. I was in Savannah in Georgia for St. Patrick's Day and while there I visited a local county prison in Chatam County. I noticed that all prisoners there are frequently required to go through scanners to facilitate the detection of metal objects and the like. This is considered to be part of a safety regime in prisons there. The use of such scanners should also be part of our safety regime. That prisoners can have knives, iron bars and other weapons imperils other prisoners and increases the likelihood of violence in a prison context.

On the proportionality issue, one of the problems is that, for example, if a person is convicted of a serious gangland crime and if that person is able to direct violence on other people outside prison or able to make arrangements via a mobile telephone to corrupt or threaten people within the prison or to demand that contraband goods be sent into the prison, all such activities tend to compromise the security and authority of the prison regime. It would be a serious matter if a member of staff was compromised and participated in breaking the rules in these circumstances. The system relies on the majority of the prison officers being decent, law abiding and loyal members of staff who would not dream of breaking the rules. However, if there is a small minority who are breaking the rules, they must be rooted out very effectively.

Prison inspectors in the United Kingdom gave a high percentage for the number of prison officers whom they believe are regularly involved in compromising the security of prisons by conspiring with prisoners to smuggle in items and the like. I hope, and would like to believe, the number here is a much smaller fraction of that percentage. One matter is certain, we must have a regime in prisons in which prison officers, who are well paid and trusted, have every incentive to believe that upholding the high standards that are expected of them is the right course to take and that any of their colleagues who break those rules take the consequences for doing so.

Question put and agreed to.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass".

I thank Senators for the debate on this Bill and for the helpful amendments brought forward in this House. The Senators will realise that not only did I accept amendments in the House but I also indicated that I would accept amendments brought forward in the other House based on remarks made by Senators in this House. The Bill was published last November and it has been moved through both Houses quickly, for which I am grateful. I am grateful to my officials for the way in which they transformed the earlier Bill which was abandoned in favour of this Bill.

As I previously stated, this legislation is a significant step forward in the modernisation of our prison service and I intend to commence the Act at the earliest possible date; 1 May is my target date. The provisions dealing with planning and the new inspector of prisons will be commenced shortly. The provisions dealing with a new appeal regime and with miscellaneous matters, including the conducting of hearings by videolink, will need a short lead-in time to put the necessary structures in place but should be commenced in the coming months. I am confident that the provisions of the Bill will result in significant improvement and reform in our prisons. I am grateful to Members of the House for their constructive input to this legislation.

I thank the Minister for accepting several amendments from this side of the House during the discussion on the passage of the Bill through the House.

I compliment the Minister's officials who have done a tremendous job of work on this Bill. I hope that when enacted, the Bill will realise the wish of the House to have in place an excellent prison service in which the punishment fits the crime and is seen to do so.

The Minister referred to the subject of rehabilitation within prison and this is badly needed. I have spoken on this topic in my contributions on the Stages of the Bill. There must be proper rehabilitation within the service and until this is in place, the other measures will not be successful. The carrot and stick method must be used. I urge the Minister to ensure rehabilitative measures are put in place and improved upon.

I thank the Minister and his officials and I thank him for accepting some of the amendments tabled by the Opposition, including those tabled by my party, and for making amendments on foot of some of the issues raised on this side of the House.

I too wish to compliment the Minister and his staff on the introduction of this Bill which will have a beneficial effect on the administration of the prison service. I compliment the manner in which the Minister attends debates, gives them his full attention and is prepared to accept sensible amendments which strengthen legislation. This is a hallmark of the Minister. While crime gets such publicity in the media, it is a pity this is not balanced by the reporting of some of the debates in the House which focus on various aspects of the Garda Síochána or the prison service.

This Bill will allow for significant reforms. The Minister has acknowledged in the debate the importance of the rehabilitation of prisoners which will be a fundamental aspect of his programme. It was stated on Second Stage that prison should be a penalty of last resort. I refer also to the Criminal Justice Bill which contains a number of innovative proposals which will give confidence to the public that fundamental steps are being taken for major reform. This has not been highlighted to the desired extent. It may act as a deterrent to people from going the criminal route.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 3.55 p.m. and resumed at 4 p.m.