Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - St. Patrick's Institution (Dublin) Over-crowding.


asked the Minister for Justice if his attention has been drawn to the recent report that St. Patrick's Institution, Dublin is overcrowded, and, if so, the action he intends to take on the problem.

With the permission of the Ceann Comhairle, I propose to take Questions Nos. 19 and 20 together.

The release of offenders from the prisons and places of detention prior to their normal release dates is not a new phenomenon. It is an accepted fact that many offenders have a better chance of keeping out of conflict with the law on their return to the community if they have spent the later part of their sentence on temporary release under the supervision of a welfare officer. With this in mind, but of course with due regard to the wider public interest as well, an extensive scheme of temporary release is operated in all our institutions. Almost all long-term prisoners benefit from this with reasonably good results.

That apart, the practice has been not to permit prisons and places of detention to become so crowded as to create serious difficulties for staff and inmates. Thus, in order to maintain the population of St. Patrick's Institution at a manageable level, it has been necessary from time to time, in addition to the normal practice of releasing offenders under the supervision of the welfare service, to release some short-term offenders without supervision. These offenders have been chosen with due regard to a number of factors including the safety of the general public. This procedure has been necessary at various times over the years, certainly at various times since the early seventies.

The newspaper report of 16 April 1980, however, is inaccurate. The report refers specifically to the two-week period prior to the date of the report and says that 12 offenders from one North Dublin suburb were released prematurely in that period. In fact no young offender was released without supervision from St. Patricks in the period in question.

Lest the reference was intended to be to a two-month period I think I might mention that in the period 1 February to 1 April 1980, 43 offenders were released without supervision prior to their normal release dates. Of these, 12 were from the north side of Dublin City, 19 from the south side of Dublin City and the remainder were from widely scattered country areas. Of the offenders from the north city area, three came from each of two very large suburban areas. The remainder were from different suburban areas.

Moreover, in the period referred to no offender was released under supervision before the normal end of his sentence who would not have been released even if there had been no accommodation difficulties.

The alternatives to early release are doubling-up in cells or building new prisons. Doubling-up is common in many countries since the steep growth in crime and the length of time it takes to expand prison accommodation present major problems internationally. There, are, however, problems about doubling-up which make it something to be avoided for as long as we can. Some of them are as follows:—

(i) Single cells were designed to accommodate one person and it is undesirable to force two people to share the restricted space for more than a night or two;

(ii) Most prisoners are helped by having a certain amount of privacy and accommodation singly in cells meets this need;

(iii) Doubling-up obviously is designed to allow for an increase in the population of a prison and if it is adopted to any significant extent the sheer weight of numbers with attendant clamour, and demands on basic facilities, can make management and control very difficult; the burden falls mainly on the custodial staff;

(iv) Extra numbers strain facilities—visiting, work, recreation, education, work/training and also strain the welfare and medical services.

All this being said it is of course possible that, at some stage, we will have to follow the example of some other countries and accommodate more offenders than our institutions are intended to hold. The only real answer to the problem of the increase in the number of persons being committed to custody by the courts is the provision of additional prisons or places of detention. This, of course, is both very costly and slow. It is a long-term solution which does not give any immediate relief. Nevertheless, Deputies by now are well aware that I have accepted this challenge and have decided to proceed with the provision of some new institutions, among them two new places of detention to replace St. Patricks which between them will cater for over 200 young offenders.

Am I right in assuming that the Minister has to approve of all such early releases?

Yes, rightly so.

Has the Minister denied categorically the inference that an arbitrary decision was taken to release people willy-nilly simply because of over-crowding?

This is normal practice and I assure the Deputy that this is so. I have not designated the authority to anybody else. I do it myself. I approve what is being done under such circumstances.

I know that it is normal and there are precedents for it, but I wish to be assured that it is not simply a question of deciding on a certain day that you have 19 people too many and letting out the 19 who happen to be nearest the front door, for example, and that it is not as arbitrary as that.

No, it is not so.

Would the Minister consider a formal structure for such early releases which in themselves may, as he indicates rightly, be very helpful?

The Deputy raised this topic during the course of a debate on the extension of the Curragh Prison which we had last evening. I propose to reply in full to it when I am given the opportunity to conclude.

I do not wish to confuse the two issues or to imply that there is even an analogy. I am asking that the system which is used widely in prison systems in other countries of early release to the community, sometimes with supervision, part supervision, week-end or day release and so on, would be given more attention.

I am satisfied, rather than hopeful, that we will make more advances in this area. I do not want to make any announcement about it now, but I have been working on it for some time. I am satisfied that we will make progress here.

I hope that the Ceann Comhairle will bear with me on this point because it is on extreme humanitarian grounds that I raise it. Recently the Minister allowed the parole of a young man who could have murdered but he gave himself up again. He has always protested his innocence. Are there grounds for having another look at that young man's case?

That is a separate question.

The Deputy raises a case that I would not like to answer without being briefed fully on it. If the Deputy wants to, he is welcome to table a question to me. If he is in a hurry for his answer and I am not going to be reached for a few weeks, I will give him a written reply.

I would prefer to go to the Minister privately.

The Deputy is welcome.