On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality who cannot be here today, I am pleased to present the Prison Development (Confirmation of Resolutions) Bill 2013 to this House. The Minister is taking Private Members' business in the other Chamber.
The existing prison in Cork, the main cell block of which dates from the early 19th century, is no longer fit for purpose. The prison does not have in-cell sanitation and lacks the basic infrastructure required of a modern prison. The poor conditions have been strongly criticised by the Inspector of Prisons and the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Inspector of Prisons is of the view that the maximum capacity of the prison should be 146 prisoners. However, the prison regularly accommodates more than 200 prisoners and has at times accommodated more than 270 prisoners.
The main purpose of the proposed new prison development in Cork is to replace the substandard prison accommodation in the existing prison and provide a modern prison facility designed on the principle of rehabilitation and resettlement.
The new prison will be situated adjacent to the existing prison on Rathmore Road. The investment being made in the development of a modern prison facility in Cork is a significant commitment by the Government given the current economic pressures. The new prison, including cells with full in-cell sanitation and showering facilities, will end the practice of slopping out and also provide a vastly better infrastructure necessary for the education and rehabilitation of prisoners, thus enhancing public safety.
Building on the site adjacent to the existing prison will also ensure value for money for the taxpayer. The new prison in Cork will have 170 cells which will house 275 prisoners and have a maximum capacity of 310 prisoners. All cells in the new facility will be approximately 12 sq. m in size with full in-cell sanitation and showering facilities and will be fully compliant with the standards for double occupancy set down by the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention. Of the 170 cells in the new development, it is intended that approximately 30 will be designated exclusively for single occupancy. The planned capacity of 275 prisoners will be adequate for the needs of the prison's catchment area. The Cork Prison development will radically improve conditions for prisoners in the State's most overcrowded prison, where, on occasion, three prisoners have been required to share a cell which is 8 sq. m in size, with two prisoners in bunk beds and one on a mattress on the floor.
Development consent for the proposed new prison development in Cork is being sought under Part 4 of the Prisons Act 2007. Part 4 sets out a special procedure that may be applied for the purpose of determining whether consent should be granted to larger prison developments. The purpose of the 2007 Act was to provide a more open and transparent mechanism for major prison developments under which an environmental impact assessment meeting EU standards must be prepared and the Houses of the Oireachtas make the decision about whether to grant development consent. This is done in the form of a resolution approved by both Houses, which must be then confirmed by an Act.
In June 2012, the Minister for Justice and Equality issued a direction under section 18 of the Prisons Act 2007 that Part 4 of the Act is to apply to the proposed construction of a prison on a portion of the site used as Cork Prison. In November 2012, public notice was given of the proposed prison development and observations and submissions were invited. A rapporteur, Mr James Farrelly, was appointed to prepare a report identifying the main issues raised and summarising the submissions and observations received. Twelve submissions, including a detailed submission from Cork City Council, and several petitions were received. There is no provision under the legislation for the rapporteur to comment on the validity, or otherwise, of submissions made, nor is there any provision for him to make recommendations.
The documents required by the legislation have been laid before the Houses. These include the environmental impact assessment, visual representations of the exterior of the development and the rapporteur's report. In addition, a document was laid before the Houses setting out the observations of the Minister for Justice and Equality on the environmental impact assessment and the rapporteur's report. The resolution approved by the Dáil and Seanad on Tuesday, 18 June is the consent required for the Cork Prison development to proceed. It is, in layperson's terms, the planning permission for the prison. It follows the format prescribed by section 26 of the Prisons Act 2007 and lists the main measures taken to avoid, reduce or offset any possible significant adverse effects of the development on the environment, as well as setting out the conditions to be complied with in the construction of the prison. It also details an alteration to the original proposals that has been made in response to concerns expressed during the public consultation process.
A fundamental principle of the design and location of the prison has been to minimise the impact of the development on the environment and the local community. The public consultation process and the rapporteur's report identified specific concerns on the part of local residents. In so far as is practicable, further measures are being taken to address these concerns.
The Irish Prison Service will draw up a good neighbour policy which will provide a framework under which the concerns of local residents during the construction phase can be fully dealt with. The Irish Prison Service project manager will act as liaison officer and will set up a local consultation group to address any issues that arise during the construction period. The Irish Prison Service and the principal contractor will liaise closely with an Garda Síochána, Cork City Council and other interested parties in preparing a traffic management plan to minimise the impact of construction traffic on local residents and businesses.
As regards security issues, the existing prison is the only closed prison in the State that does not have a prison-standard perimeter security wall. As the new prison will have such a wall and an outer cordon sanitaire secured by a 2.5 m fence, security risks will be significantly reduced. The need to prevent drugs or contraband being thrown into the prison from outside has been carefully considered in the prison design. To reduce the visual impact of the perimeter wall, concrete with a light-coloured finish will be used on the sections of the wall most visible to the public. To address a specific concern about the impact on residential property adjacent to the site, the height of the wall around the horticultural area at the northern end of the site will be reduced to approximately 5.2 m.
As regards privacy issues, the CCTV system will be restricted to prevent viewing into neighbouring residential property and obscured glazing will be used in all windows overlooking such property. To mitigate noise pollution and dust during the construction of the prison, the perimeter wall will be constructed before construction of the prison buildings begins.
This short Bill, to confirm the resolutions passed by the Dáil and the Seanad on 18 June, is a requirement of section 26 of the Prisons Act 2007. Before the Cork Prison development can proceed, an Act of the Oireachtas confirming those resolutions is required. This Bill is the final stage in the development approval process. The Bill contains only two sections. Section 1 confirms the resolutions under section 26 of the Prisons Act 2007 that were passed by the Dáil and Seanad on 18 June. Section 2 provides the Short Title.
Returning to the issue of the capacity of the new prison, I am aware of the concerns of the Irish Penal Reform Trust and Fr. Peter McVerry regarding the intention to provide for double occupancy of cells in the new prison. This issue was also raised by Deputies during the debates in the other House on the resolution and this Bill. Given the current number of prisoners in custody - approximately 4,200 on any given day - the Irish Prison Service is not in a position to provide single-cell accommodation to all prisoners. Single-cell occupancy across the system would result in a bed capacity of approximately 3,000 and would not be possible to achieve without releasing sizeable numbers of prisoners considered to represent a threat to public safety or, alternatively, by constructing another 1,000 cells and all of the ancillary support infrastructure that they would require. In the current economic environment, such an ambitious building programme is not a realistic option.
In addition, it should be borne in mind that in some cases prisoners are housed together for reasons other than lack of capacity. Family members, friends and co-accused prisoners often request to be assigned a shared cell. Shared-cell accommodation can be very beneficial from a management point of view, particularly for those who are vulnerable and at risk of self-harm. There will always be a need for certain prisoners to be accommodated together. As outlined in the Irish Prison Service three-year strategic plan, it is intended to align the capacity of our prisons with the guidelines laid down by the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention by 2014, in so far as this is compatible with public safety and the integrity of the criminal justice system.
In 2012 and in the first quarter of this year, priority has been given to reducing the chronic overcrowding in Mountjoy, Cork and Limerick Prisons and the Dóchas Centre. Senators will be aware that the Minister for Justice and Equality has announced a number of initiatives to alleviate overcrowding in the prison system. The community return programme is an incentivised scheme for earned temporary release under which offenders who pose no threat to the community are offered early temporary release in return for supervised community service. This programme has been a positive development and, as well as allowing prisoners to complete their sentences by way of performing service to the community, it has helped these prisoners to successfully resettle in their communities.
As regards the situation in Cork, the unlocking community alternatives scheme, UCAS, initiative was set up with the aims of reducing overcrowding problems in Cork Prison and addressing recidivism levels.
The primary aim of the scheme is to reduce the current recidivism rates by arranging additional support structures for prisoners, helping with issues such as housing, medical care, substance abuse and training needs and providing a more structured form of temporary release. It is hoped that increasing support for prisoners prior to their release from prison, on their release and then for a period after their release will help to break the cycle of reoffending. This is a pilot scheme which will be reviewed in 12 months to assess its impact on reoffending rates.
I am aware that another important matter of concern is the provision of family-friendly visiting facilities in the new Cork Prison. The Irish Prison Service recognises the importance for those in prison of maintaining and developing their relationships with their children and families. It is committed to assisting in any way it can with achieving these objectives. Seeking to accomplish this raises a wide range of sensitivities and challenges which require an appropriate balance between security requirements and conditions appropriate for family visits. The proposed new prison in Cork will have a modern visiting facility centred on the need to provide an environment for visits that is welcoming and comfortable, in so far as that is possible in a prison setting.
Construction of the new Cork Prison is expected to commence later this year and be completed in early 2016. As action is urgently required to address the chronic overcrowding and inadequate conditions in Cork Prison, the Minister and I hope this Bill will be passed by this House before the summer recess in order that tendering for the construction of the new prison can proceed.
On behalf of the Minister, I commend the Bill to the House.