Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Monday, 14 Dec 2020

Vol. 273 No. 8

Central Mental Hospital (Relocation) Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages


I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, line 18, to delete “shall be construed in accordance with section 4” and substitute “means 30 April 2021, or such other date as the Minister may fix by order”.

I second the amendment.

I was speaking about the general background to the particular situation we find ourselves in now. This amendment and the other amendments in my name and the name of Senator Boyhan are to try to put firm dates on the process of transfer.

I want to expand the point. The Minister of State recently visited Dundrum. She did not see the interior of the old building for various reasons. I went to visit it when I was Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. My purpose was to do effectively what the Minister of State was doing. It was to see the site and to see what could be done with it. At that time, the Minister for Health and Children and Tánaiste was Ms Mary Harney. She had gone to Dundrum and said it was worse inside than her worst nightmare. Things may have improved a little but the building was rather antiquated.

I want the House to know this for the record. When I arrived there, I was shown around the campus, in which there was a new section. As I was shown through the new section I saw a gym. Some of the psychiatric nurses were practising judo and all sorts of things in the gym. I went down a corridor. There was a series of modern cells. The thing that struck me about them was that there were rolled up mattresses on the beds and they were not occupied. Eventually, I got to the Victorian block. When I got to the Victorian block, I was greeted by the management of the Central Mental Hospital, given my tea and biscuits and asked to do a tour of the remainder of the premises, which I did. I agree with the Minister of State completely that the grounds are magnificent. In fact, the current director, Dr. Kennedy, says that the gardeners are artists. The grounds are magnificent. Yet, nothing prepared me for what was in the Victorian block. Even though it looks an impressive building from the outside, in fact it was configured by depressing cells with little windows 8 ft or 10 ft from the floor. There were no facilities whatsoever, not even a television. Having gone around the other prisons in the prison system, it struck me as extraordinary that inmates in Dundrum could not have access in their cells to television. As I was walking up and down the stairs I noticed that someone had helpfully and thoughtfully laid out a carpet of paint flakes that had been swept down from the ceilings of the premises to impress on me the decrepit state of the premises.

All of that is part of this process. The reason I went there that day and the reason the then Tánaiste, Mary Harney, went there was to see what we could do about all the critical reports from the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the Irish Penal Reform Trust.

The problem, as the Minister of State said, is that responsibility for mental illness in the criminal justice system is not, and cannot be, confined simply to one Department. If, however, my Cabinet colleague and I shared the ministerial responsibility, we would have a shared responsibility to make sure that something was done about it. It was in that context that the proposal was made to sell Shanganagh Castle in south Dublin. Part of it was sold for €9 million to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and part of it for €21 million to a private developer. That €30 million was eventually used to purchase the Thornton Hall lands. The House will probably recall that there was controversy about that because of the price that was paid, but the process was such that we had no compulsory purchase order rights. It was very difficult to get anybody to give us any property in the county of Dublin on which a jail could be erected. The plan was to redevelop the Mountjoy site, the plans for which were put in place. At that time, the management of Mountjoy indicated that it was not even possible economically to put toilets into cells there. It was in that context that the decision was made to have a new campus at Thornton Hall. It was anticipated at that time, and Professor Kennedy has acknowledged this, that his facility would be located at one end of that site, with its own entrance into it, but that it would be much closer to Dublin's main prison.

The economic crash took place in 2008 and 2009 and Thornton Hall was stalled. A review group was set up by the former Minister, Alan Shatter, as to what should happen with Thornton Hall. It comprised a number of people, including Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness, retired Supreme Court judge. They reported that the project at Thornton Hall should go ahead but, needless to say, in 2011 they said it should go ahead on a less ambitious basis than had previously been planned. We had believed, however, and the then Government had believed, that there would be at least €200 million or €250 million out of the sale of Mountjoy Prison and the hospital in Dundrum to finance a state-of-the-art set of prison institutions of varying degrees, from high security to low security, with prison grounds and remedial facilities attached to them. We had also believed that prisoners' mental health would be accommodated in this respect. The Minister of State has fairly conceded, as has Professor Kennedy, that the 170 places will probably fill up very soon when this is all dealt with, but it is not good enough just to say that, and I do not say this critically of the Minister of State. It is not good enough for the State to say it has reached 170 because of the figures Senator Bacik mentioned in respect of our shocking underinvestment in mental illness among the prison population compared with any other state in the EU. We invest a third or a quarter of the average. This has gone on for 30 years, since the term, "criminal lunatic asylum", was abolished. We have done it consistently.

The point I wish to make is this: at present in Cloverhill Prison, a wing, D2, is being used effectively as a psychiatric ward for difficult prisoners. It is wholly unsuitable for that purpose, and prisoners who are detained in that wing are there under the management. I am not criticising any prison officer or staff at all. The prisoners are not there under decent clinical supervision. They are not being treated with a view to their overcoming their condition. They are being contained in that place.

I presume the Minister of State will agree that if a person suffering from psychosis, schizophrenia, massive addiction problems or other personality problems such as manic depression and the like is kept in an area with similar people in prison circumstances, the chances of giving that person decent remedial treatment are small. Professor Kennedy stated that this regime is ridiculous because if the person is given even anti-depressant tablets, Diazepam or another medication, on return to the cell the person is bullied into giving the medication to other prisoners who wish to use it to accommodate their own addiction problems and the like. What I am really saying is that what the Minister of State is doing through the Bill is good, but it is certainly not good enough.

If there is any doubt about that, I ask the House to consider the commission of investigation conducted by Grainne McMorrow, senior counsel, into the death of Gary Douch. I have the report before me. He was a prisoner in Mountjoy Prison. He was apprehensive about his security in the particular place he was in Mountjoy Prison and asked to be transferred out of it for his own safety. Horrifically, he was put into a communal cell in B base block in Mountjoy Prison with 12 other people who were being accommodated overnight there. They included several prisoners who had been transferred from Cloverhill Prison. Among them was a prisoner named Stephen Egan. It is all in the report, so I do not think I am doing any injustice by naming him. He was suffering major psychiatric illness, as the report states. What is horrific is that he had been suffering from very serious psychiatric illness and earlier that year was sent to the Central Mental Hospital but then certified fit to go back into the prison system. He was found to be too difficult to manage by the institutions to which he was sent back and there was a reluctance to have him. Eventually, in a moment of extreme carelessness, he was admitted to Mountjoy Prison without any of his drugs or charts being put into that room. In the course of the evening, he killed Gary Douch. He was eventually found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to imprisonment for life, which is a very severe punishment for that offence.

I really do recommend that report to all present. It did not receive significant publicity at the time. It details just how inadequate was the response to the crisis in this man's incarceration, treatment and mental illness. It is a very severe report in some respects because it actually lays a charge of personal responsibility at the then governors of Cloverhill and Mountjoy prisons, whom I will not name. They were named in the report as people bearing a significant responsibility for what happened on that occasion. This all happened in 2006. At the time, I was very conscious that Dermot Kinlen, the then Inspector of Prisons, had condemned the use of this cell facility in Mountjoy but his words were not heeded by the management of the prison. It was in those circumstances that the commission of investigation to which I refer was established.

All of this leads me to believe that prisoners who are suffering from a psychiatric illness or a mental illness must be treated in a radically different way from that in which they are treated now.

They must be given remedial accommodation and expert, full-time medical supervision. They cannot be ferried in and out of the prison system. The strange thing about the Stephen Egan case is that he had gone to the CMH suffering from acute disorders but had been certified by the CMH as being fit to go back to the prison system. The clinical director's certificate avers that a consultation took place and he was found to be "fit" to return to prison. What is really shocking is that shortly after he returned to Mountjoy, external solicitors for the prisoner engaged their own consultant psychiatrist. The report stated:

On 26th July 2006 however – three days before his transfer from Cloverhill to Mountjoy Prison – Mr Egan was seen by an external senior clinical psychologist at the request of Mr Egan’s solicitors. This senior consultant clinical psychologist had been asked to interview Mr Egan and to prepare a report in anticipation of a sentencing hearing on 27th July 2006. [Mr. Egan was due to be sentenced for another offence] He had no prior knowledge of Mr Egan’s history as a troublesome prisoner with a propensity for violence. Nor was he aware of Mr Egan’s history of mental health problems, or of his recent sojourn in the Central Mental Hospital. Mr Egan was brought down to a regular visiting area for this interview.

The consultant said that when he met this prisoner, he found him to be "manic", "completely deluded" and "very unwell". This was approximately five days before poor Mr. Douch was killed in that prison cell.

The Grainne McMorrow report quoted above details the completely dysfunctional relationship between the prison system at the time, the particular institutions in that system and the CMH. I am not here to point fingers or to hand out blame in retrospect. Although the McMorrow report was commissioned when I was Minister, it was not published until many years later.

I wish to put two points on the record. First, I strongly believe that we must build Thornton Hall because Mountjoy is not adequate as a prison and never will be. We have the site, we have done the ground work and we must build it. The review group which included Mrs. Justice McGuinness also came to the conclusion that the site should be used for a prison. That is not my point to justify all of that. Second, the Department of Health is exercising supervision over a small institution at Dundrum which has between 98 and 102 places and I am sure it is doing that very conscientiously. The Department of Justice is presiding over a prison system as best it can, where access to acute psychiatric treatment for ill prisoners is virtually non-existent. The Department of Justice cannot just put prisoners in a van, send them up to Dundrum, say that they have gone completely off the rails, need urgent inpatient treatment now and cannot be accommodated in the prison system. I hope the Minister of State does not mind me saying that today's Bill shows what happens when we govern in silos. We get a relocation of the CMH from Dundrum to Portrane and a significant but not adequate improvement in the resources that the CMH will have in future. However, looking systemically at how people in the Irish criminal justice system are dealt with, we find that there is practically nothing of significance being done by this legislation to deal with that situation. That said, I take the Minister of State's assurances that the Government is intent on doing this.

The Land Development Agency to which the Minister of State referred in her remarks is now going to deal with the OPW land and develop it.

I mentioned earlier that Shanganagh Castle was disposed of to finance the Thornton Hall site. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council sat on that land, or part of it, until very recently. I notice that in November the elected members of the council were asked to make a section 183 decision to vest the land in the Land Development Agency and a presentation was made to them for that purpose.

It is extraordinary that in the middle of a housing crisis it took 15 or 16 years for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to do anything with that land. The same could be said about Thornton Hall. It is sitting there and it is ready to be developed as a prison. Mountjoy needs to be developed. The Leas-Chathaoirleach might be interested to know the Mountjoy campus was extended by the acquisition of land to the side so it could be commercially redeveloped. Consultant architects were brought in with very elaborate plans for a major urban residential quarter to be built on the site. I fully accept the economic collapse of 2007 to 2009, inclusive, made this impossible but such projects are becoming possible again. The Dundrum, Shanganagh and Mountjoy sites are now available if the Government wants to be proactive in ensuring facilities are built.

I urge the House not to think we have solved all the problems with today's Bill and the relocation, good as it is, to the beautiful peninsula at Portmarnock. We have not. There is a massive problem out there that is not addressed, and it is how we deal with people who end up in prison. Professor Harry Kennedy, in one of his reports, indicated that people with mental illness end up in jail because they smash the window of a shop or pub in a psychotic moment. District judges find themselves in a position where they can hardly do anything with such people but send them to jail because if they let them out on the street they do not know what calamity might occur as soon as they leave the courthouse. It is jail or nothing. The hope is that something could be done for such people when they are put in prison. If a person smashes a window, wrecks a pub or throws a brick at somebody, he or she probably does not go to the Central Mental Hospital at all. It is not the normal route and only a small number of people end up there for such tiny matters.

I ask the Minister of State to ensure the committee she mentions, a cross-departmental committee on mental illness, would address the criminal justice system as a matter of absolute priority. There are many other concerns, such as residential accommodation in the community and different approaches to the treatment of people suffering mental disability and the like, but there is no chance of prison having any remedial effect if it is populated by untreated people suffering mental illness. People do not speak about being fair to prisoners that often but it is very unfair on a prisoner to have to share accommodation and food with people suffering serious untreated mental illness and liable to become violent or whatever. It is depressing for people suffering from no mental disorder to have to share the same facilities, corridors or open spaces within prisons with people who are clearly unsuited to being confined in those institutions.

It is a systemic matter. What we have not done has been roundly condemned by the committee for the prevention of torture internationally. The committee stated said the Portrane proposal is an improvement. It does not comprise unreasonable people.

We know from the figures that Senator Bacik has mentioned that we are only doing a tiny fraction of what we should be doing and this will have consequences, as in the case of Gary Douch and Stephen Egan. These situations have consequences that may not be as horrific as in that particular case but they impinge on the well-being of everybody whom we send to prison. It is time for the Government to grasp the nettle, get on with doing what the group, including Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness, recommended, and that is building decent prison facilities and getting out of Mountjoy Prison.

I want to make another point in case what I have said appears to be critical of Mountjoy Prison. The then governor was personally attached with responsibility for what happened but since then there have been good governors there who deserve our absolute praise for what they have done. Senator Bacik referred to the fact that the prison is immensely better than what it used to be. Governors Whelan, Mullen and Murphy have done immense work to transform Mountjoy Prison in difficult circumstances. If the Central Mental Hospital Dundrum, built in 1854, is unsuitable for mentally ill patients, Mountjoy Prison is ten times more unsuitable for the imprisonment of people if we have any intention of bringing them back into society improved, with a different attitude or with different prospects. Drugs are rife in these places and we must deal with the prison system in its entirety.

I wanted to get all of that off my chest because it has to be said. I congratulate the Minister of State for being the person who brings this Bill, which is an improvement, forward. I hope I am not being negative or throwing cold water on that if I say that if this is the collective response of Ireland and if we pat ourselves on the back and say that this is the day we really did something to improve psychiatric services, etc., in the criminal justice system in Ireland, we are seriously deluding ourselves. We are only dealing with 5% to 10% of the problem that exists.

I thank the Minister of State for her response on Second Stage, particularly to my question about the relocation of the Central Mental Hospital, albeit that the first half of 2021 is still unclear. From what she said - and I appreciate she is just being realistic - it seems it could be as late of June of next year. Given the urgency with which this Bill is being taken through, to which we do not object, it seems unfortunate that it will take so long to have the relocation carried out. Senator McDowell's amendment specifies a nearer date, which would be welcome.

The Senator raised a number of important points about prison conditions more generally. Like him, I pay tribute to Grainne McMorrow on her report into the dreadful murder of Gary Douch and what it showed us about the appalling conditions in Mountjoy Prison at the time, including the overcrowding and the lack of facilities for people with mental and psychiatric illness in the prison.

Without rehashing that debate there were a number of problems with the Thornton Hall project as originally envisaged. At the time, the Irish Penal Reform Trust raised concerns about the scale of that prison development. Some 2,200 places were proposed and it was being described as a supermax prison or an Irish equivalent of that. There was a lot of concern about cost and there was concern about the proposed location of the Central Mental Hospital on the same campus. I am conscious that, as Senator Boyhan rightly said, the hospital is a hospital and not a prison. The Portrane site is infinitely preferable because it is a hospital site, which is important. It is hard to believe that the McGuinness report to which Senator McDowell referred was back in 2011.

It is a long time ago. Her report said the site at Thornton Hall should be built upon for a new prison but at a dramatically scaled-down size. That expert group did not agree with the 2,200 proposal and, indeed, I believe its proposal was for a much smaller prison built along more therapeutic and rehabilitative lines to house no more than 500 people in one facility and 200 in another. It is extraordinary that nine years after that report, we still do not have any facility there. I would agree; I was a regular visitor to Mountjoy Prison over many years and saw first-hand the improvements that were carried out on site. It is still, however, a prison that dates back to 1850 in which the cells are woefully inadequate for modern conditions.

To return to the matter of relocation, which is the subject of this welcome Bill, the point about capacity we spoke about earlier ties in with the timeframe in this amendment. While we have all acknowledged that the increase to 170 places is welcome, we have also acknowledged that it is not enough. Like many of my fellow members of a previous Oireachtas justice committee, I believe we should be reducing the numbers in our prisons and relying more on community-based sanctions, particularly for non-violent minor offences. At the same time, we need to see an increase in forensic beds and psychiatric places to enable us to deal with the waiting list which I have described and to which Professor Harry Kennedy and the director general of the Irish Prison Service have referred. At any one time, 20 to 30 persons per week are waiting to get admission to the Central Mental Hospital.

I want to refer to one key issue. There has been an increase in the number of people seeking treatment, but there has also been an increase in the amount of time people spend in detention in the Central Mental Hospital. Clearly, that is a huge factor to be built into the timeframe for relocation. Looking at the figures, much of this is to do with an increase in verdicts of not guilty by reason of insanity. Professor Kennedy told the justice committee that ten years ago, two persons per annum might have been brought into the Central Mental Hospital by virtue of one of those verdicts, but it is now up to approximately ten per annum. He said that the average stay is approximately seven years for somebody who has been found not guilty by reason of insanity. That has increased the average stay of a person in the CMH currently to 4.4 years from 2.1 years on average in 2008. He is quoted as saying that when he started in the Central Mental Hospital, persons might have been in for a few months, received treatment and then were moved on. As I have said, the average length of stay is now more than four years. I was quite shocked to see that figure. It must also be built in that this is clearly a big factor in the decreased room for manoeuvre and the decreased facility for referring persons in from the Prison Service. We come then to this situation, to which Senator McDowell referred, where people within the Prison Service should be getting inpatient treatment in a hospital setting instead. I wanted to put those issues on the record. Again, however, I welcome the Bill.

I will make my point rather quickly and not hold up the discussion. I have known since I met the Minister of State as an Oireachtas Member in 2016 that she is committed to change. I welcome the fact she is here and I know she will move things on as quickly as she can.

I suppose we are always used to Senator McDowell being fluent and eloquent. I believe, however, the way he has expressed his opinion today is most important and easy to understand. He has expressed a strong view on where we are with mental health and people with mental health issues ending up in prisons, and he has set out that we are way behind in this country in terms of how we move forward with this issue.

I raised a number of cases recently during a Commencement debate in the Seanad on the media coverage of shocking, appalling cases of prisoners being left in prisons in deplorable situations because there were waiting lists at the Central Mental Hospital.

I served on the board of Cloverhill Prison for two years, around 2003 and 2004. People talk about the visiting boards of prisons as being nice little numbers to get but for me it was one of the most challenging things I ever did in public life. When most people who have a heart and a conscience go on such committees they really become involved in the heartbreak. The one thing people must do, as Senator McDowell knows, when they agree to go on one of these boards is to sign to represent the prisoners. This is the one commitment people have to give. In that situation, we meet all sorts of heartbreaking situations and I will certainly never forget some of them. Even at that time, 15 or 16 years ago, the one thing that stuck out in my mind in some of the prison cases, which were not cases of murder or manslaughter, although there was one rather serious case but not at that end of the scale, was the number of people at the time who were saying to me they were suffering from deep depression and prison was not doing anything for them, despite the best efforts of excellent staff in most of the situations. As part the committee's work, we visited Mountjoy and other jails. What has been said about Mountjoy is right. I accept that quite a lot of improvements have been made but still, in the times we are in, we really need to have a completely new plan and a new Mountjoy, wherever it is.

This brings us back to mental health. Everybody in the Chamber knows the challenges. We meet them every day with people and families with mental health issues. Throughout the country, judges find themselves reluctantly having to send people with mental health issues to prison. I have to vote with the Government today. I do not know what we are doing with amendments and I will be supporting the Government. This is why I very much concur with Senators McDowell, Bacik and Boyhan. We really have to take a new approach to all of this. What is being done here today is really good and I know the Minister of State is totally committed. As we go forward, we need a new era and a new vision. We need to act speedily.

I listened with great interest to Senator Murphy and his experience with Cloverhill Prison. I want to comment on what Senator McDowell said. I do not necessarily subscribe to the view that Thornton Hall was a mistake and I certainly do not subscribe to the view that it should have been scaled back. There was potential there for a centre of excellence where we would have had as many supports as possible on the one campus. Just because we are speaking about scaling up does not mean scaling in a bad way.

It is correct that this is not even 5% of what we need to be doing but it is still an incremental positive step and, in fairness, Senator McDowell acknowledged this. The statistic that has been quoted, that the average stay of a person in the Central Mental Hospital is four years, is troubling and worrying. We have a situation where judges have no choice but to commit people with mental illness to jail and it is not acceptable. This is why we need to scale up. This is why Portrane is a significant improvement.

It is hard to know the timeline for getting this right. A visit by the Oireachtas committees on health and justice to Portrane in the first quarter of 2021 to see what is being done is something the Minister of State and her officials might facilitate.

Members who have an interest in the issue but who are not on either committee should be afforded the opportunity to come along.

Having listened to Senator McDowell's comments about what he did in this regard while in government, I have great admiration for him. His record speaks for itself. He was correct to put on the record what he said about the report into the murder of Mr. Gary Douch in particular. These are important issues and need to be aired, heard and acted upon. Like Senator Murphy, I am unsure of the amendment's status. I hope that it will flag that this issue needs more consideration in the House. I am unsure as to whether the amendment will be pressed, but it has given the issue an airing. The issue should get further airings.

Senator Bacik is right about the penal reform report. Its recommendations were groundbreaking. Many reports by Oireachtas committees make good proposals, but do the committees or their successors in subsequent terms ever follow up on them and carry out critical analyses of what was achieved as a result of the reports, the investment of time, effort and taxpayers' resources that went into compiling them and whether they made any real difference? At the time, this particular report got a significant airing in the media and was welcomed by stakeholders, those with an interest in the matter and even the then Government. The evolving implementation of the recommendations, which were welcomed and lauded, needs to be scoped out. Perhaps a body like the Seanad Public Consultation Committee could examine some of these critical reports and whether we achieved our aims.

The Minister of State is listening. I do not doubt her commitment to this issue. If the House is discussing this matter again in 2023 or 2024 after the Minister of State and her team have had a good run at it for 36 or 48 months, I believe we will have seen a difference. I am confident of that, based on what she did while in opposition and what she has done since 1 July.

I second the amendment, which is also in my name. Like Senator Conway, I would like to hear the Minister of State, so I will not rabbit on. I wish to afford her an opportunity to deal with some of the points raised.

I thank my colleague, Senator McDowell, for setting the record straight, refreshing our memories - as Senator Bacik stated, it was a long time ago - and reminding us of his and the then Government's vision for the Thornton Hall project. Substantial public moneys were spent on Thornton Hall. The site has been acquired and is in State ownership. When I raised a number of questions with the then Minister for Justice and Equality, he indicated to me that it was his view that there was a requirement to retain Thornton Hall under the remit of his Department and that there were plans. As such, the Department has not agreed to relinquish these lands to the Land Development Agency or anyone else.

Sometimes, one must have courage. It was courageous to take on this project. As Senator Bacik mentioned, there was a recommendation in the McGuinness report to modify it. We now have a facility that has the capacity and potential to provide a place of detention. It should be utilised. It would be a travesty and waste if that asset was squandered and left abandoned. We should revisit this matter collectively, given our responsibility to the taxpayer. We also have a responsibility in terms of the detention of people in our prison system. If the facilities are not fit for purpose, we must do something about them. We have acquired the Thornton Hall site. There is a vision, there is a plan, although the plan may need to be modified or tweaked.

I again thank the Minister of State.

I have never doubted her absolute commitment in the area of mental health. Perhaps she will address two simple things. The Psychiatric Nurses Association has expressed and put on record its concerns over a proactive recruitment drive. It is suggested by the association that an additional 200 staff will be needed. We need to focus on that now because there is a long lead-in time to get people with the necessary expertise. The new hospital in Portrane is going to offer a whole new range of services, as the Minister of State has set out well. We need support, assistance and expertise on the ground for this facility.

The Minister of State might also address the issue of the cost to fit the place out. She has acknowledged in her contribution that there needs to be a fit-out and there is a cost involved here. Hopefully, we will have all this done in the next few months, but it would be an ambitious target to get this place up and running in three months, although it would be great if it happens. That is important.

I thank the Minister of State. I also thank Senator McDowell for setting out a comprehensive view of matters. He was involved in the decision about Thornton Hall. He was on the ground and clearly active in his portfolio as the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. We have all had the benefit of his views here today. I again thank the Minister of State for giving us her time.

I thank Senators for their contributions. I think Senator Boyhan has summed it up. The Central Mental Hospital is a hospital, first and foremost, and a prison second.

That is a point on which we must remain focused.

I have heard a lot of talk about Thornton Hall and Mountjoy. Those matters were a little before my time in national politics although I was always involved at local level. I do not doubt for one minute the bona fides of Senator McDowell, a former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, nor do I doubt the passion with which he has spoken about the challenges in the justice system, especially for those suffering from mental health issues. I take on board everything he has said.

I believe the Portrane hospital will be a significant improvement. We are increasing capacity by approximately 70%, if we agree the capacity of the current hospital is 100 because there are 93 patients there currently and there were 102 last year. That capacity will rise to 170. For the fist time, there will be a 20-bed female unit. That is significant. There will also be a ten-bed child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, unit for forensic mental health. That is important in our country.

I believe the welfare and quality of care that will be available here will be an improvement because of the surroundings in which patients will be living. The inpatient units are centred around a series of courtyards with secure perimeter gardens. The courtyard arrangements facilitate collective activities, therapies and direct access to fresh air for patients from each ward. Each unit has internal gardens, exercise facilities and shared communal spaces for patients. Glass is used internally to create space and improve access to sunlight. There are domestic-scale buildings of a single storey and each unit has a front door. The hospital is laid out in a series of pavilion buildings around a village green or village centre. That really impressed me. The village centre includes primary healthcare facilities, sporting and exercise facilities, educational and vocational facilities, including art and woodwork rooms, and a concert hall. There are also social facilities such as a café, shop and library. There is a landscape village green area where we hope patients will be able to sit out with their families and visitors when visiting is facilitated. There is also a large horticultural area, including polytunnels and animal pens, where patients can become involved in gardening and looking after the animals. I know that 85% of all patients currently in the facility in Dundrum have come through the judicial system but we must remember that patients have ill mental health and need mental health supports.

I will return to the situation around the project. It was due to be handed over from the builder to the HSE on 18 December. That is not going to happen. A phased opening of the campus was envisaged for around mid-March 2021, following the completion of the equipping and commissioning stages. The latest update from the HSE indicates that the builder handover will occur in the first quarter of 2021 - late January or early February - with the opening pushed to the second quarter of the year, assuming no further delays.

The proposed amendment seeks to change the definition of the closure date set out in section 4. As we have said, the Bill is technical in nature and while its aims are straightforward, it is legislatively complex to achieve them.

The hospital must operate without interruption during the period of its relocation. A continued lawful basis for the detention of people currently based there must be maintained throughout. The new Central Mental Hospital is at an advanced stage of construction but it has not been handed over yet. When the campus is handed over from the builder, a period of equipping, as I have said, will need to take place. Staff training must also be completed.

Relocating the Central Mental Hospital and its patients is a huge logistical operation with multiple strands. It is further complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has impacted many aspects of the project. Having legislation in place in good time provides some certainty in planning for the move. The legislation grants the Minister the flexibility to set the relocation date by order and to set a closure date not less than three months after that date by order, which is important for practical reasons. It allows for the relocation day and closure day to be carefully aligned with progress of the project. This is crucial, given the logistics of a move on this scale. It allows for a carefully timed and orderly transition from the old facility to the new, controlling for any external factors that might impact on the planning dates. For these reasons, I cannot accept the amendment.

I will not press the amendment. As the Minister of State can appreciate, the reason Senator Boyhan and I put down the amendment was so there could be a more discursive debate on the subject than would have happened if we simply had a Second Stage debate, which would have petered out after short contributions. In that context, I thank the Leader of the House for agreeing to an extension of the time for debate because it is useful that we discuss on the record the wider implications of what we are and are not doing and how these things can be achieved.

When it comes to Thornton Hall, I do not believe in the "lock 'em up" approach. It is usually younger men rather than women who go to prison, but I regard any person who is sent to prison as a personal tragedy, especially in our present prison system. Despite all the efforts of the prison officers and Prison Service staff, it is very difficult to turn somebody out from a prison in a better condition than when he or she went in. There are many reasons that the reverse often takes place.

In respect of what Senator Bacik said, I have always taken the view that prison must be a measure of last resort. I always believed that there should be, in statute form, a clear indication that a district judge who sentences somebody to six months in jail should set out in writing the reasons that no other approach is appropriate. If it had to be in their own handwriting, it might give judges 20 minutes to reflect on whether they are doing something good for the young man - it is usually a man - or for society. What will be the net result?

It is often the case that a district judge imposes a sentence to teach a lesson in the knowledge that a Circuit Court judge to whom an appeal will almost certainly be made will suspend the sentence. A judge may frighten the bejaysus out of somebody in those circumstances but there are people who, for whatever reason, do not get to appeal. They go into the system and are spat out in a worse condition than they went into it. Governors of prisons do their best through temporary release and so on. The Prison Service does its best to look after prisoners by allocating them to different kinds of institutions but, in the end, that is the situation.

Returning to Senator Bacik's point, our population is growing. I foolishly said at one stage that Dublin gangland was nearly finished because it was the sting of the dying wasp.

The Senator famously said that.

I infamously said that. That was false optimism on my part. We have to have places for serious criminals for whom preventative detention is important, such as gangland figures.

We have already increased the remission for good behaviour from one quarter to one third, and all of this has been done by regulation, etc., but we should not be under any illusion that we will be able to reduce significantly the number of people in Irish prisons. We do not have a very high imprisonment rate in comparison with most places in Europe, and for all our faults, we are not one of the great imprisoning societies of the world, and we are good on that.

Going back to Senator Murphy's point, I would not like to be taken as disregarding his point by failing to mention it. On different occasions, Senators Murphy and Boyhan have served on prison visiting committees, and I know, from private conversations, that they both took their functions very seriously. There was a time when it was thought that this was a gravy train that the Minister for Justice used as a kind of informal honours system to get cronies into various places. Even if that did happen to some extent, I found that those who served on prison visiting committees suddenly had their eyes opened. Indeed, as Senator Murphy said, whatever their motives were in volunteering to serve, they performed a very valuable function and they humanised a system which needed it. In those circumstances, I will withdraw this amendment, and I will not be moving my other amendment.

I thank the Senator for withdrawing his amendments and for the constructive way he has spoken here today.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 1 agreed to.
Sections 2 to 7, inclusive, agreed to.
Amendment No. 2 not moved.
Section 8 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment.

When is it proposed to take the next Stage?

Bill received for final consideration.

When is it proposed to take the next Stage?

Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I thank Senators for contributing to today’s debate and their interest in this important legislation. It is heartening to see the strong Oireachtas tradition of working together on matters of mental health endures across both Houses. This is never more important than when those affected are some of the most vulnerable people in our mental health and judicial systems.

For a long time now, the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum has been unfit for purpose. While efforts have been made to refurbish and maintain the buildings, the permanent solution can only be a move to the new, purpose-built campus. Moving to a premises that is fit for purpose will make a huge difference to the welfare of those who are being treated in the hospital, both in practical terms and in quality of care. More broadly, it will allow for a world-class service to be provided by skilled staff to those with the most complex mental health needs. The service will be delivered to the highest international standards of quality and excellence and to greater numbers.

I recently visited both the current and future Central Mental Hospital, and I am hugely impressed and optimistic for the future of forensic mental health services in this country, notwithstanding all the comments that were made here today, which I take on board.

I thank the people who helped to bring forward this legislation, including the HSE and the Mental Health Commission, and the Seanad Office for its support in scheduling the Bill in a timely way. I thank the officials in the Departments of Health and Justice for their hard work on the legislation. In particular, I thank Lynn Sullivan and Evelyn Robinson of the Office of the Attorney General for their contribution over recent months, and Ms Orla Kenneally, sitting beside me in the Chamber, who has steered me through this for the past few weeks.

The mental health programme of work continues to be busy and has become more so during this pandemic. The effects of the pandemic on mental health are significant and will last for some time to come. I thank all Senators for their interest in, and commitment to, working with me on mental health matters and look forward to continued engagement and collaboration with them on these issues. I have been in this House many times over the past five to six months. I thank all Senators for the respect I am always afforded when I come to the House and for the constructive debate that always ensues. It is great on a Monday afternoon to hear such interest in the Central Mental Hospital and I am delighted it is the first legislation I have successfully passed since being appointed Minister of State on 1 July.

Question put and agreed to.

I thank the Minister of State for her commitment to this House. She has always made herself available. I congratulate her on her success in bringing her first Bill through the House.

The sitting is now suspended for 15 minutes, in accordance with the order of the House of 9 December.

Sitting suspended at 3.57 p.m. and resumed at 4.15 p.m.