The issue of overcrowding in prisons has been to the forefront of the media spotlight in recent weeks following the publication and release of 18 separate reports on conditions in Irish prisons, of which 14 had been commissioned by the Department and a further four were carried out by Judge Michael Reilly, Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention. The findings of the vast majority of the reports were highly critical of conditions in the prison system. I wonder why all of the reports were released simultaneously, in spite of the fact that they had been presented to the Minister on a staggered basis throughout the year, the earliest of which was in April.
In one of the most recent reports published in October Mountjoy Prison was branded as overcrowded, unsafe and unhygienic. It was acknowledged that inmates were being brought into prisons that were unsafe and grossly overcrowded. The prison review committee for 2009 found that there had been little change in 14 years in the regime employed there. Judge Reilly's report found that the prison was vermin infested and chronically overpopulated, with up to six prisoners sharing a cell at any one time and, in some cases, without beds. Judge Reilly was unequivocal in his findings that there was no clear policy on the use of special, time-out, padded and assessment cells. He pointed out that prisoners should not be denied their human rights.
In terms of international law, there are serious gaps in Ireland's commitment to human rights in this area. In October 2011 human rights commitments will be considered at the UN human rights council. The record of UN member states in this area, including Ireland, will be scrutinised and conditions in our prisons will be a key issue. Overcrowding and slopping out are leading to situations that are unsafe for prisoners and prison staff.
We are very quick to talk about the human rights of prisoners, which is appropriate. In listening to the Minister the other day I was struck by the contrast between the record of commitment to improvement recited by him and the criticisms made by a person such as Mr. John Lonergan, the former Governor of Mountjoy Prison. I was struck by the difference in the impact of what was being said by the Minister and Mr. Lonergan. I do not wish to be too pointed, but Mr. Lonergan was quite critical of the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, in that the Minister had not shown much interest, visited prisons or so on. Had the Minister attended today, I would have asked for his response. I do not take the criticism at face value, but it is odd that such an eminent and credible person in the Irish Prison Service should make such pointed criticisms of Government and the Minister. In some ways, it is only right that we ask the Minister for his opinion on the criticism of his and the Government's record.
While it is proper that we discuss human rights, I wonder whether there is a serious commitment to the concept of human dignity. If there was such a commitment, we would not tolerate for a moment longer the reality of people slopping out and going to the toilet in the presence of others. The fundamental issue in this debate is what we view as being the purpose of the prison system. By all means let part of the agenda be to punish but, unless the agenda is also to reform and rehabilitate, we will lose our way as a society. We are certainly not thinking smarter if we view our prison system purely in terms of its punitive dimension.
What else is there other than the punitive dimension if we humiliate people to such an extent that we do not acknowledge their basic human dignity? We store up all sorts of problems for the future when we send the message to prisoners that we want to treat them like dirt. It is one matter to punish people properly for crimes. I would be in favour of linking early release with willingness to comply with various prison programmes aimed at reform. Mr. Lonergan was critical of the way the Irish Prison Service handled the release of Mr. Larry Murphy a number of months ago. There may be no great sympathy for Mr. Murphy, but it is beyond dispute that the issue of release should involve incentivisation. A part of the problem in the Murphy case lay in the fact that he was released without having shown any commitment to engage in rehabilitative programmes. We need to incentivise prisoners by linking their early releases with their commitment to and participation in such programmes.
Reform of sentencing and penal correction is necessary. In the international context, Ireland is in the middle range, in that we incarcerate 90 prisoners per 100,000 people annually whereas Norway has approximately 60 prisoners per 100,000. In 2009, 90% of the nearly 11,000 persons sentenced to three months or less were convicted of non-violent crimes, such as the non-payment of fines. Of the more than 15,000 people committed in 2009, nearly 11,000 were sentenced, 12,000 had been committed more than once and more than 3,000 were committed while on remand and, thus, were only in the system for short periods.
The Minister made great play of the fact that only a small number of people were in prison for the non-payment of fines. He did this to rebut claims that prisons were overcrowded with non-violent offenders. People who are in prison for the non-payment of fines represent only a cohort of non-violent offenders. In this sense, the figure is not of much use. It has come to light that many of the people sentenced for the non-payment of fines were released upon arrival at prison. As such, they were not incarcerated. This further distorted our ability to consider properly what the Minister was saying. It was in this context that, a few days ago, I suggested ministerial speeches be circulated to Senators in advance in order that we might consider what we were about to hear and conduct research. There is no point in Government representatives attending the House to make speeches, the quality of which we cannot assess, or to make claims that are statistically truthful but have no real meaning when other facts are taken into consideration. The Seanad must examine this matter.
We must consider the heavy burden posed on public resources by the cost of imprisonment. Prison expenditure reached more than €300 million in 2003. In contrast, the total level of resource provision for the probation and welfare service was €40.7 million. The current cost of keeping an individual in custody is nearly €80,000 per annum. We should be thinking smarter, not harder, about what we can do to fund and develop alternatives to prison, particularly for non-violent offenders. The Minister mentioned a great deal in this respect last week, but he did not mention the concept of restorative justice, the idea that offenders would be confronted with the victims of their wrongdoing. There have been reports in this regard, so I was surprised it was not mentioned. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, will rectify this oversight if he has not already done so. Restorative justice is just one of the issues that should be at the top of our agenda.