I wish to share time with Deputy Connolly.
Prisons Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I refer to section 31 which provides for the Minister to appoint a person as the inspector of prisons to provide regular inspections of prisons. In my contribution I draw from the Irish section of Amnesty International's action briefing document for mental health policy published in November of last year.
I congratulate Amnesty International on its work in raising concern and the need for a policy to establish a proper psychiatric service. Amnesty International recommended that the inspectorate of prisons which should be established on a statutory basis must be adequately empowered and resourced to fulfil its role. Provision should urgently be made for an independent and effective statutory complaints mechanism, either through empowering the statutory inspectorate or by constituting a separate statutory complaints authority such as a prison ombudsman. To a large extent the Bill responds to that recommendation from Amnesty International and I welcome that.
Although comprising only a tiny minority of people with mental health problems, some can needlessly end up in Garda custody, before the courts, and even in prison. A recent study by a team led by the clinical director of the Central Mental Hospital revealed that 60% of female prisoners and 35% of male prisoners have experienced a mental illness at some stage in their lives, and criticised the use of prisons as "psychiatric waiting rooms". Nearly one quarter of sentenced prisoners had a mental illness of some classification at that time. Based on the six-month prevalence of severe and enduring mental illness, 2.7% was found in male sentenced prisoners, and the team estimated there were approximately 79 with a severe mental illness who would require treatment in hospital additional to current provision. In the male remand population, it found that the six-month prevalence of psychosis was 7.6%, and 31.2% had a lifetime history of any mental illness, excluding substance misuse, adjustment disorder and personality disorder. The authors concluded that the high findings indicated a substantial unmet need for mental health services in Irish prisons. That prisoners have a high rate of mental health problems was also a finding of a 2000 report commissioned by the Government.
There also exists for some people a cycle of mental health problems, imprisonment and homelessness. A study published in 2005 by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Probation and Welfare Service found that "homeless people come into contact with the criminal justice system on a frequent basis, accumulating multiple offences and convictions for relatively minor offences". It found that a quarter of the prison sample was homeless on committal to prison and over half, 54%, had at least one previous experience of homelessness. Just over one third of those homeless on committal had a previous diagnosis of having a mental illness, two thirds of whom had been hospitalised in a mental health facility. Ireland does not have a formal system to divert people with mental health difficulties from the criminal justice system to mental health services and does not have adequate forensic mental health services and safe acute observation areas in inpatient units to treat these people. The report last year on the future of the mental health services, A Vision for Change, which was launched in January 2006, pointed out that court diversion schemes are available in a number of overseas jurisdictions but not in Ireland. These schemes aim to promote diversion as a means of ensuring that people with mental health problems who commit minor crimes do not get involved needlessly in the criminal justice system.
The 1978 Henchy report recommended that courts have powers to divert people accused of crimes to outpatient and community mental health services. Yet today as we introduce this Bill before the House, Irish courts lack the powers to formally organise mental health assessment of and appropriate services for accused or convicted persons who they believe have mental health problems, other than committing people who are unfit to plead or raise the defence of "insanity" to a "designated centre" under the Criminal Law (Insanity) Act. This involves committal to St. Patrick's Institution.
In circumstances where "fitness to plead" under this Act is not in question or insanity defences do not arise but the defendant appears to have a "mental disorder" during the course of the hearing or trial or before sentencing, there is no formal provision for ensuring that mental health assessment or treatment takes place. The Mental Health Commission had proposed that this Act "allow the judiciary a wider range of options and to ensure that the most appropriate intervention is offered to the Person". Proposals for diverting offenders with mental illness from the criminal justice to more appropriate services were put forward for consultation in the Government's Green Paper and White Paper on mental health legislation in 1992 and 1995 but never progressed in the Mental Health Act 2001, the details of which were introduced in November 2006. Legislation to facilitate the diversion of persons with mental illness from the criminal justice system, including the courts and the prisons, to alternative treatment, supervision and care was also advocated in the report of the group to review the structure and organisation of prison health care services. The report to which I previously referred, A Vision for Change, recommends that legislation be designed to facilitate the process of court diversion.
Ministers have told us repeatedly that they have accepted the recommendations of A Vision for Change. The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Tim O'Malley, is very loud in his statements that this is Government policy so it should be Government policy to facilitate the process of court diversion for those who suffer mental health problems.
A Vision for Change also recommends that forensic mental health services be expanded to incorporate diversion schemes and build strong links with the Garda Síochána, which is the agency most likely to come into contact through domestic disturbance, minor offences or homelessness with people whose needs would be more appropriately served by being diverted from the criminal justice system to the mental health services. Gardaí still have no formal module on mental health in their training or in-service curricula. I believe and the report states that training in mental health is essential for gardaí. The report says this training should be put in place without delay. In addition, it advises that each major Garda division should have a senior garda specially trained to act as mental health resource and liaison officer for the purposes of advising and educating gardaí on the management of routine mental health issues and working closely with local mental health and specialised forensic mental health services personnel.
In respect of the report to which I referred earlier, Amnesty International voiced its concern at the inadequate provision of mental health services for prisoners in Ireland. While the chief purpose of prison is punishment and rehabilitation and the provision of primary health care in such a secure environment places difficulties and constraints on prison officers and health care staff, prisoners have the right to be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the person. Prisoners have the right to mental health care and at least an equivalence of mental health care with the rest of the population. Rule 22(2) of the UN standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners provides that "prisoners who require specialist treatment shall be transferred to specialised institutions or to civil hospitals". The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which had just completed its fourth periodic visit to Ireland's places of detention at the time the report was published last November, has repeatedly identified the absence of an independent statutory authority with powers to receive, investigate and take action on prisoners' complaints as one of the critical deficiencies in Ireland's safeguarding of the human rights of persons in detention.
I am pleased that the Bill before the House goes some way towards providing a statutory basis for the inspection of prisons. The Bill expressly provides that it is not a function of the inspector to investigate or adjudicate on a complaint from an individual prisoner so the need for an independent complaints authority, as is introduced in this Bill, is important. An independent, effective and well-resourced inspectorate is essential if actual or potential breaches of prisoners' basic human rights, including the right to adequate mental health services, are to be uncovered and addressed.
Amnesty International clearly recommends that the Garda Síochána adopt procedures and policies for dealing with people with mental health problems and appropriate regimes on mental health. It recommended that the Garda Síochána appoint mental health resource and liaison officers and ensure they are adequately trained and supported. Amnesty International also recommends that legislation be published to facilitate the process of diverting people with mental health problems from the criminal justice system and that courts be provided with a range of non-custodial options.
If a person has a serious physical illness such as cancer, breaks his or her hand or has a heart attack, he or she is rightly transferred to a general hospital. If the person has a breakdown or mental health problem or suffers serious depression, he or she is not transferred to the appropriate treatment. If a person in prison is suicidal and in danger of taking his or her life because of his or her crisis, he or she is often stripped naked, put in solitary confinement and inspected every 15 minutes to see if he or she is still alive.
Normally, I like to feel I have done a considerable amount of research before I speak on a Bill. However, this evening, I could not lay my hands on either of the two experts in the Independent group who have first-hand knowledge of the system, Deputy Gregory, who spent four weeks in prison, and Deputy Joe Higgins, who spent two weeks in prison. I would have expected them to have insider knowledge. They would have felt they were prisoners of conscience who had committed no crime. At times, I feel that neither of them has adequately recovered from their experience.
Deputy Neville referred extensively to the link between people with psychiatric histories and prisons but the same link will not be established between Mahon and prisons. Deputy Neville correctly referred to the number of people with psychiatric problems who are improperly placed in prisons. I am concerned about the over representation of such prisoners in our prisons. While they may have committed a crime, their illness was probably a factor but the difficulty is they cannot afford fancy lawyers. They must take what they get and they may not even be fit to present their case to a lawyer so that he can work on it, which is a major difficulty. It would be more suitable if such prisoners were placed in a regional secure unit in a psychiatric setting where the focus would be on treating their illnesses and they would be closer to home and have the support of their families. They should also be looked after by staff with experience in the provision of psychiatric services. People with mild mental handicaps should not be held in prisons, as they are the subject of regular abuse. Prison is not the appropriate place for them.
The legislation proposes a radical rejigging of the Prison Service, encompassing the closure of Mountjoy Prison and the construction of new prisons and extensions. Mountjoy Prison is past its sell by date. The legislation also provides for the contracting out or privatising of prisoner escort services, which is a radical departure for the Prison Service. It is not clear whether private security firms, more commonly used in the provision of security for the transport of large sums of cash, will readily adapt to the transfer of prisoners. We have had numerous examples of security vans being intercepted and robbed and it is likely that dangerous, high profile prisoners could be sprung. If criminals can take millions in cash, I am sure they take a high profile prisoner. However, it is doubtful if the farming out of such services will result in a saving for the Department. I often wonder why a courtroom cannot be built adjacent to or within a prison, as that would be eminently sensible. It would also be safer, cost effective and more convenient for everyone involved. In the natural progression of things, the Prison Service must change with the times and I hope this will result in a modern, humane and forward-looking service.
Prison rehabilitative strategies are specifically designed to reform the defendant's character and they would bear most fruit among the younger element of the prison population. Prisoners in their later teens and early twenties are at an important formative and developmental stage in their lives. The VEC provides a valuable and crucial educational service, as does St. Patrick's Institution, which is very much educationally focused. The closures of Shanganagh Castle and Fort Mitchel detention centres do not reflect a significant commitment to the rehabilitation of young offenders on the part of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. A total of 200 prisoners in St. Patrick's Institution are aged between 18 and 20 while one third of the prison population is under 18. These prisoners are at an impressionable age where professionals could work with them to reform their behaviour, particularly if they have fallen foul of the law only once. Such initiatives should be examined to stop criminality in its tracks.
Criminal offenders largely spring from social structures, reflecting individual family circumstances or psychiatric or psychological influences. Different rehabilitative programmes related to individual counselling, education and training and family intervention are used and such a humane approach should be adopted.
I refer to the imprisonment of people for the non-payment of petty fines, which is a waste of prison resources. A number of people have an attitude problem in that they would rather do time than pay their car tax or whatever. However, community service should be used as an alternative to prison for fines offences. Prison spaces are valuable and these people who are not hardened criminals should not be imprisoned. Recently, people deliberately committed crimes so that they would be imprisoned.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. My contribution will deal more with the importance of politicians discussing prisons in general rather than the detail of the Bill. It is important that Members be very careful about the current debate on prisoners and crime. It is possible, for example, to be fair to the rights of victims and to do a great deal more than has been done so far in providing consideration for what they suffer but, at the same time, to sustain, reform and extend the rights of prisoners. It is not an either/or choice and it is cheap populism to suggest that one set of rights can only be advanced at the expense of the other.
One of the reasons I am interested in the legislation is that I taught the first courses on the island on sociology of deviant behaviour and sociology of law and crime in the 1960s having returned from Manchester University. In addition, I was one of a group that made early attempts to establish an institute of criminology but we were unable to do so because the then Department of Justice refused to permit its employees to attend our meetings and join an institute over which it would not have control. I also served as a member of the MacBride Commission, which heard evidence from people who had been imprisoned for different periods. One of the great tragedies of our hearings in the period between 1977 and 1998 was that people did not want to us to make an official formal complaint about their suffering. This is covered in the Irish Penal Commission report, Crime and Punishment, edited and published by Sean MacBride in 1982.
One of the findings we made during those hearings, which were held over a number of weekends, remains with me. We heard evidence from a chief school attendance officer in Dublin who, with tears in his eyes, said that, having retired, he realised the tragic price that had been paid because of the lack of communication between the Department of Education's school attendance system and the Department of Justice. He referred to the number of young people who were in difficulty regarding school attendance. They came from areas where they had little hope and from families who had experienced multi-generational poverty. He could identify the people who would come before the Children's Court and during his retirement, he often attended the court as a character witness for the children he knew.
We also heard evidence from people who had been detained in Daingean, Letterfrack and other institutions, which later entered to the public realm by way of inquiry. I asked a number of them at different times whether they wished us to hand over their evidence to the police authorities but they were unwilling at that stage. Our report, which was published in 1980, was succeeded by the Whitaker report, which made substantial proposals on the reform of prisons. I regret that it is difficult for one to speak about improving conditions and the rights of prisoners because it will be presented that one is soft on crime or insensitive to the rights of victims in some way or another, which is a travesty. However, it is important for us to realise that we are tested regarding our human rights internationally by the manner in which we speak of prisons.
The history of prisons is interesting and the great 19th century reports were summarised, for example, in Michael Ignatieff's study,A Just Measure of Pain.
In the new State after 1922 we did not study prisons again until the 1930s when the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Labour Party appointed a commission, the secretary of which was a young Jim Larkin, which reported on the state of the prisons. The next report on prisons was the MacBride commission, of which I was a member in the 1970s, and then we had the Whittaker report leading up to the present time.
The Minister referred to the fact that progress is under way on consideration of the elimination of slopping out. I have visited prisons in Ireland and abroad and I have studied the reform movements in some of the Scandinavian countries. Slopping out is the last thing to be changed in any prison reform system I have examined. The reason for that is it is such a symbolic act of loss of discretion. One can reduce the argument to very simple principles. Prison is about the absence of discretion — over time, space and one's own body. It is interesting in the history of reform that even in the many states which have been willing to reform in regard to discretion over time, for example, in allowing people out of prison, or discretion in regard to space by having more open regimes, the last thing they have relinquished is slopping out. It is barbarism, it is outrageous and it is in contravention of international law. It is a point that has been made against Ireland at the human rights hearings in Geneva. It is not good enough to say one has its elimination under consideration.
I do not have time to go into what I feel and it is something I find difficult to speak about, namely, the beating to death of a prisoner in the basement of Mountjoy — Gary Douche. I do not understand how an individual can be asked to share a room with six other people, be beaten to death and be found in the morning with excrement on his head. Irrespective of whoever is in charge of justice in a state, this is an appalling indictment of prison systems.
Under what circumstances should one send people to prison? I spoke about many reports, including the Whittaker report, which was published in 1982. If there is one finding that screams from the pages of this and other reports, it is that one should use all the non-custodial options that are available. If, for example, Whittaker could notice an increase in crime against property, but also, in addition, that a large number of people were going to prison for the non-payment of fines, logic would dictate the benefits of getting people off the conveyor belt that was prison rather than putting people into a culture where they would learn about criminality.
The way the system works is rather like this — I say this as a sociologist. One begins with the base of a pyramid of deviant behaviour, for example, some of which is never detected, and one moves up to near the top of one pyramid, where it is turned into criminal actions against which there is a sanction. Then one moves over to the other pyramid and one has a process by which one has detection, confrontation, bringing a suspect before the courts and so forth. At each of these stages there is a self-defining activity going on in regard to how the person views himself or herself. Evidence is available from abroad in every jurisdiction that the more people one enables to escape from each stage of the labelling process, the better chance people have of rehabilitating themselves, becoming part of the community and participating in it.
We must question ourselves about the way we run prisons. We run them appallingly. The visiting committees have been a joke. I remember, for example, going to Limerick Prison at one stage and gathering some information from there in regard to the women's prison. Our proposals at that time were very much focused on trying to secure that the prison rules would be on display in the prisons themselves. There were other informal rules that were not contained in the prison rules on display. Examples in the women's prison related to the number of times one could change one's underwear, the kind of hairstyle one was allowed and whether one was allowed to wear make-up or jewellery. They were cruel and terrible impositions outside the law.
I speak about this because I feel we are in a vacuum where no one will be free in the present atmosphere that is being whipped up both in regard to the volume of crime and the response to it. I understand just as much as anybody in this House the effect of attacks on the elderly, the appalling trauma one suffers after the invasion of one's space in one's home or body, but one can do everything for the victims of crime without interfering or taking from the minimum we allow in regard to rights of prisoners. It is so clear to us that we are running the prisons in a primitive way.
I have another interesting point in regard to the conveyor belt that is pushing people into prisons. There is a huge distinction between those factors which affect the rates of crime in the different categories and the incidence of crime. Usually, for example, socio-economic factors will explain fluctuations in the crime rate but one needs to do case studies to know what it is that delivers a person through incidences to becoming a person who commits a crime. It is a very subtle notion also in regard to excitation and excitement, particularly in regard to crimes involving motor car abuse at present. A volume of work requires to be done in this regard.
Currently, eight people are in Mountjoy waiting to go to the Central Mental Hospital. If one is on methadone when one goes into Mountjoy, one can continue with methadone treatment, but if one wants, for example, to get off drugs and go on methadone while in Mountjoy, one cannot do so. One cannot begin treatment there. Is it reasonable for one to get a megaphone and start blasting messages to the public about what one is going to do about the number of prison places when at the same time one is not providing a psychiatric service for those who need it who happen to be in prison? In every place where there has been good prison reform, the health service is looking after the health of prisoners. That is not a prison function. It should be separated from prison administration and be handled by the health authorities because one is dealing with a citizen's psychological and health welfare.
In 1982, when Whittaker was reporting, the cost of a prison place was £29,000 per year. The annual cost is now over €90,000 and it is over €100,000 in the case of Mountjoy. It is a destructive way of dealing with individuals who happen to have broken the law. We have been unable to examine the implications of this approach. If we were to go back to first principles, one would ask the question and look at the process which is made certain. The struggle of the 18th century was making incarceration certain. The origin of prison is of putting people into cells. Very often prisons were in monasteries. People did not know of what they were accused, how long they would be there or in what condition they would get out of prison. Therefore, the great movement of the 18th century, which was described by people like Sir Leon Radzinowicz, was towards establishing certainty of the offence, the process and the treatment.
In the 19th century, the industrialists and those who wanted prisons shared a great moment when they were influenced by Bentham. They thought they could try to control everything from a single point — the image of the panopticon — and thus it is at Pentonville we see the people throwing their silk hats in the air as the Prince of Wales opened the prison. From that time on, we in Ireland were interested in the history of prison reform and sometimes in political prisoners, but very often they were anxious to separate themselves from the general condition of prisoners.
I have visited prisons. I have read poems in the secure section of Mountjoy and, built as it was in those circumstances for different purposes, it is outrageous that prison staff have to work there. I made reference to the Gary Douche case. On the day of that crime, the prison was over capacity. That is a fact. It is quite scandalous that the forensics of that case are not available. Perhaps they are but I have not seen them and I cannot recover them.
We are really talking about the alternatives to prison. Other speakers have raised the issue of why the Minister has chosen in this legislation to establish himself as a unique planning authority in regard to prisons, taking powers to himself that should normally be within the planning process. People have made representations to us on that and they appear to be reasonable. When I served on the body that examines prisons, we came to the conclusion that there were hardly any cases where the incarceration of women in prison were justified. At that time two women required to be in a secure environment. One was a very famous case. The rest were cases relating to repeated shoplifting, stealing etc. It makes no sense to ignore the statistics. If 80% of those in prison for non-payment of fines re-offend and are back in prison within four years, why does the Minister of State not address this fact? There is a notion that people do not want to visit prisons. I was very well aware that a judge who sentences someone to prison is entitled to visit a prison, day or night, to observe the conditions to which he has sent someone. A few very notable people did because they were interested. That is why I take very seriously what the current prison inspector has said and the comments made about the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
Deputy Neville referred to clothing being removed from prisoners considered to be suicidal and their being left in solitary confinement. A definitive study from Harvard Medical School shows the destructive effects of solitary confinement to one's mental health.
It is interesting to consider the history of the Quakers. They examined the whole history of prison. They examined the notion whether one should expunge one's guilt through hard work or hard labour. Before that in the American experience they tried putting people into solitary confinement and leaving them with the Bible so that it would lead the person to find Jesus and through that they would recover. When they studied this, the unfortunate man who wrote about this found that most of the people in the American system had gone mad. The Harvard study, carried out by Professor Grassian in the past 12 months shows that it is a most destructive thing to put a person into solitary confinement. I am certain that we are breaching human rights as I speak in relation to the conditions in prison. I welcome that the Irish Penal Reform Trust has been able to establish, at least in the High Court — although it is on appeal to the Supreme Court — alocus standi in relation to the right to take cases in defence of having decent and dignified conditions in our prisons.
Those who have visited prisons are aware of the level of illiteracy in prisons. Prisoners exchange cigarettes and chocolates and give each other presents in return for writing letters. Today is St. Valentine's Day and a literate prisoner may be given presents to write letters to members of another prisoner's family. These are the conditions in prison and it is not a matter of saying that we need more places. We need better conditions.
The Dóchas facility is a good facility that should not be closed down. It will be closed in the move to the new prison but it should be used as a model. We should not state that conditions in it are too soft. We are tested every time we speak about prisons as to whether we refer to revenge, retribution or rehabilitation. We should first of all remove as many people as possible from the conveyor belt to prison. Those in prison who need medical treatment should receive it and those who must stay in prison should have an assurance of respect for their dignity. We are not forced to choose between appropriate recognition of the rights of victims and expanding and establishing the rights of prisoners.
Deputy Higgins referred to literacy in prisons. On "Morning Ireland" prisoners were asked what it meant to them to have the right to vote. One of those interviewed said that while a notice to that effect had been displayed for weeks, most of the prisoners could not read and did not know what it said. That proves Deputy Higgins's point. We are giving the prisoners the vote but we have not taught them how to read and write. There is a duty on the State to give prisoners the tools needed to fit into society when they leave prison and thereby reduce the chance of re-offending.
I have no problem with the idea of prisoner escort services referred to in section 2. Is this included to strengthen the hand of the Minister in negotiations with prison officers? Two weeks ago he was at pains to tell us he did not expect the provisions to be used. I question his motive on this point.
I have a problem with the certification of custody officers. Who will certify them? Will it be an accredited training body with expertise and experience in this area? What are the criteria for assessment? Who is to be certified — the person who gets the contract who can then employ other officers or is it every officer or employee of that business? It is important to have that clarified. Section 9(1) states:
A prisoner custody officer shall not disclose information relating to a prisoner which is obtained by him or her in the course of his or her employment as a prisoner custody officer unless he or she—
(a) is authorised by the Minister to so do, or
(b) does so for the purposes of performing his or her functions as a prisoner custody officer.
It does not mention that the person cannot pass on information about transport arrangements. We know what could happen if information about transport of certain prisoners gets out. We must be very careful how we deal with this, and it must be clarified. Who will do the certification?
The same section refers to private contractors detaining prisoners. Where do we envisage this detention? Will it be in an office or a backyard? I ask this because we have been through traumatic times in recent months with regard to tiger raids involving large sums of money. The same trauma could happen with dangerous criminals who could plan for their escape to occur while they are being transported. It is much easier to plan when there is information on the inside which can get out. The Bill is not clear on the matter of who will detain prisoners and where they will be detained.
Have these measures been costed or are they for another purpose? This has not been made very clear. I am concerned when I hear a Minister explaining how a measure will not be used. Why bother with it? I would like to know what is behind it.
If someone is refused certification he or she has the right to appeal to the Circuit Court. Can the Minister of State explain this? It does not seem to be normal human resources procedure in any Department? Why would one want to do so?
The contractors will file an annual report, in effect, evaluating themselves. There should be independent evaluation of the private contractor services. Will a licence be granted for three years? Many other programmes funded by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform must seek funding on an annual basis and must produce evaluation reports and so on. This sector seems to be allowed to send in its report with no proper evaluation. I seriously question that.
Section 3 refers to prison discipline, another area that must be clarified. Some sanctions may damage mental health, notably the provision for 60 days without visits, workshops or letters. The disciplinary measures must be clarified. I favour a charter explaining what category of punishment is attached to each breach of discipline. There must be a clear system for the prisoner to know what is happening.
I can accept the withdrawal of extra recreational activities but we should not prevent somebody attending a workshop. That would be counter-productive because that person might not get certification. There is a reference to taking away television rights but the televisions were brought in to help prevent suicide. Has this measure been thought through? I want to see proper information on this before the Bill is passed.
The Bill provides that the person hearing a prisoner's appeal must be a barrister or solicitor with seven years practice experience. Does the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform think he is going to lose his job here? Is he lining up a job for himself afterwards or why must the person be one who may not be best trained or have the expertise to judge this appeal? There are many people with expertise and training in dealing with prisoners who might give a better judgment on appeals.
We have had the "Bertie Bowl", now we will have the "McDowell Bowl". The Minister wants to give himself permission to build prisons where and how he wants. This would breach planning laws. The Bill provides that there is no need to go through the full planning process on the existing site of a prison. The decision rests with the Minister on a new site because it is a matter of national importance. Under the legislation, a rapporteur will hear submissions and this House will have the final say. We all know that if a Minister wants to shove something through here he or she has the power to do so. It is democracy on paper, not real democracy. I am not happy that this gives us a chance to make sure the planning process is correct. That is not good planning law.
If the Tánaiste is enabled to knock down a premises and rebuild it does that mean that if he were to apply the same planning allowances to the stadium at Lansdowne Road he could knock it down and build a new one, without planning permission? He would not accept that and should not accept it in respect of prisons. That is not fair to the neighbourhood or the local people.
Why, when it comes to purchasing a prison site, does the Government pay over the odds? In the case of Thornton the Tánaiste paid almost eight times the price at which it could have been bought. If the matter is of such national importance surely he can compulsorily purchase the land at a fair price and not waste taxpayers' money paying a ridiculous sum for it.
I welcome the proposal to put an independent inspector of prisons on a statutory basis. That is important. Could that person's remit be extended to cover the evaluations of the people who pick up the escort service contracts?
The Tánaiste stated: "We are changing how prisons are run, work practices in prisons, where prisons are located and, very importantly, we hope to change what is achieved by sending people to prison." What exactly is achieved by sending people to prison? We do not seem to achieve anything. A recent report from UCD states that 25% of people who leave prison return within a year and up to 85% are back within four years. We must not be achieving much in our prison system. The Minister must explain that comment to the House and offer some proper initiatives. Prison does not solve the problem for everybody, as this proves.
The Minister's announcement that new prisons are to be built and that he is going to stamp out crime may sound good to voters but prison does not solve the problem. Many studies have proved that prison is not the answer for everybody. It may work for dangerous criminals and people who should be off the streets. If results show that people are reoffending we are failing and the Tánaiste needs to address that failure. He needs to stop being cool in front of the voters and get down to what actually works.
A high percentage of people imprisoned for non-payment of fines go back into prison for reoffending. This week I dealt with a young single mother who is in dire financial straits. She got a parking fine for €40 but because she missed the payment deadline that has risen to €80 and now she is being brought to court which will cost at least €120. She will not be able to pay that sum and has no family members to help her. She will probably end up in Mountjoy or some other prison, taking up another place and meeting other criminals and learning about crime. This will happen because we could not pass a Bill introduced by my colleague, Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, which would attach orders to recover the fine rather than put people in prison. It might sound hard and tough for a Government to announce that it is increasing prison space but that is not always the answer. The Prisons Bill offers an opportunity to discuss these issues.
I thank the Deputies who have contributed to the debate on this Bill which contains significant measures in the programme of reform of the prison service. I acknowledge the points raised by the Deputies tonight and will bring them to the Tánaiste's attention. He has stated his determination to ensure that our prisons are modern and humane and can take their place as models of how a 21st century prison service should operate. The Bill deals with several major issues in this regard and the level of support it has received from Deputies is pleasing.
Deputy Jim O'Keeffe mentioned recidivism and noted that 75% of offenders reoffend. The results of a recent study by the Institute of Criminology in UCD do not support this figure. That study found that approximately 27% of released prisoners serve a new prison sentence within one year, this rises to 45% after three years and 49% after four years. While these figures are high, they are not of the magnitude suggested by Deputy Jim O'Keeffe.
I agree with Deputies Jim O'Keeffe and O'Connor that every encouragement should be given to keep people out of prison. Towards that end a working group to review the potential of restorative justice is being established. The group will take account of the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights which was published last month.
Deputies Fleming, Jim O'Keeffe and Ó Snodaigh were concerned about the possible privatisation of prisons. There are no plans in the offing to privatise our prisons. There are, of course, circumstances in which individual functions now being carried out by the State could be carried out by private companies — the escorting of prisoners is one such service provided for in the Bill. The Minister has stated, however, that it is not his intention to commence this part. The prison service escort corps is running very successfully and operates on average over 33% more efficiently than the previous overtime-based system. As long as these efficiencies continue, there is no reason to contract out the prison escort service.
Deputies Jim O'Keeffe, Howlin and Ó Snodaigh raised the matter of the appeals tribunals and why only lawyers should be appointed as members. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has been advised by the Office of the Attorney General that such tribunals are necessary in order to meet the requirements laid down in recent decisions in the European Court of Human Rights and will in effect be quasi-judicial bodies. As such, it is important that members who will be expected to take on quasi-judicial functions have legal training.
That is rubbish.
That is the Government's interpretation.
In respect of the points made on the planning provisions in the Bill, the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006 dealt with planning permission for developments of strategic importance.
At the time, the Tánaiste took the view, however, that largescale prison developments were in a unique position, not just because of the security aspects but also because of the public interest and level of concern that surrounds the development of new prisons and that it would, therefore, be more appropriate that special provisions relating to the construction of prisons should be brought forward.
Deputies Cuffe and Burton seem to be labouring under a misapprehension in this regard. Under section 86 of the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, prisons are already exempt from normal planning procedures. Rather than circumventing planning procedures, the Tánaiste is introducing them and providing in this Bill for a specific planning regime for largescale prison developments that will include a public consultation process and approval by both Houses of the Oireachtas.
A flawed system.
As regards Deputy Burton's queries on the role of the rapporteur and the action to be taken on foot of the receipt of that report, as the Tánaiste stated, section 23 provides for the appointment of a rapporteur to receive submissions relating to the proposed development and the rapporteur shall prepare a report that shall summarise the submissions received and identify the main issues raised. This report shall be published. It is not intended that the rapporteur would evaluate the submissions or make recommendations to the Minister. To ensure this is clear, it is intended to bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage to replace the word "consider" in section 23(2) with the phrase "take account of". This is being done because it appears the word "consider" might be open to misinterpretation in this regard. In accordance with section 25, the Minister may make alterations——
The Tánaiste is a trained planner.
——or decide either to proceed or not proceed with the development on foot of the rapporteur's report and environmental impact assessment.
In the best planning traditions.
At what college did the Tánaiste train as an engineer?
Even the Minister of State is amused.
In the event a development is to proceed, prior approval of the Houses of the Oireachtas will be required under section 26.
On a free vote, no doubt.
It has already been stated on several occasions that the Thornton Hall site was the least expensive suitable site offered, from over 30 that were put forward. I am not going to rehearse those arguments. With regard to Deputies Howlin's and Burton's queries as to a timescale for the development of Thornton Hall, the closing date for the receipt of tenders for development was 31 January 2007. The tenders are being assessed and the intention is to select a preferred tenderer by April 2007 and sign——
I would not sign anything if I were the Minister of State.
——a contract, with construction to be completed within three years.
As a matter of interest, what is the signing date in respect of the contract?
The Minister of State should be allowed to continue, without interruption.
As already stated, the tenders are being assessed and the intention is to select a preferred tenderer by April 2007 and sign a contract, with construction to be completed within three years. I assure Deputy Howlin that he will have ample opportunity to change the entire process if he can identify a cheaper site.
It is going to be tight.
It would not be difficult to identify a cheaper site.
On the point of access to the site, which was raised by Deputy Burton, the existing road has been deemed adequate following a traffic survey by professional consultants. However, following an approach by local residents, the Irish Prison Service is examining the purchase of a small portion of land to provide an alternative route. Nothing has been finalised at this point.
Deputy Cuffe raised the issue of an ombudsman for prisons. It is not considered that an ombudsman is necessary. A range of options is available to prisoners if they wish to make complaints. A prisoner may complain of ill treatment to the governor, to a member of a visiting committee, to the Director General of the Prison Service or to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It is also open to a prisoner to report a matter to the Garda, pursue a civil action for damages in the courts or make a complaint to any third party. In these circumstances, it is not clear what value the addition of an extra layer of bureaucracy in the shape of a prison ombudsman would have.
Deputy Cuffe suggested that the Inspector of Prisons should be in a position to publish reports independently. The purpose of the post of inspector is to provide an independent monitoring function. However, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has overall responsibility for the proper running of the prison service and reports should be submitted to him or her in the first instance. In any event, it is the norm in such cases to submit reports to the Minister and I would point to precedent in this regard in the Children Act 2001 in respect of the Inspector of Children Detention Schools submitting a report to the Minister for Education and Science. Similar provisions are contained in the Consumer Credit Act 1995 and the Railway Safety Act 2005.
Deputies Jim O'Keeffe, Howlin, Burton and Andrews referred to the Fines Bill, which the Tánaiste recently presented to Dáil Éireann and referred to the fact that attachment of earnings is not addressed. While there will be an opportunity to debate the merits of this Bill at another time, I will say that it is the first in a two-part strategy to update and rationalise——
The Government announced the contents of the first Bill as if they were also included in the second Bill. It was a total fraud.
——the fines system in our courts. The operation of the first part of the strategy will determine how the other issues will be approached in a second Bill. There are a wide range of issues to be resolved with the courts and the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Nevertheless, it is clear that the provisions in the Fines Bill should reduce the number of persons imprisoned for default because they did not have the resources to pay a fine imposed by the courts. It should be noted, however, that the numbers in custody for non-payment of fines generally represent less than 0.1% of the available accommodation at any one time. For example, of 3,130 persons in custody on 3 January, six were in custody for non-payment of fines. However, I take on board the points made by Deputy English. In such cases, there must be a better way to proceed than that offered under the existing system.
With regard to the cost of prisons, I wish to point out that the introduction of video link facilities in the Bill for certain court hearings will increase the cost-effectiveness of the Prison Service and result in substantial savings. While it is not possible to accurately estimate the possible savings at this point — the figure depends on issues such as the scope of the hearings that can be dealt with by video link and on the lead-in period for full acceptance of the facility by members of the Judiciary, as well as on other factors — I am in a position to state that the committee on video conferencing, which reported in January 2005, was advised at the time that the cost in one year of transporting prisoners from Cork Prison to High Court sittings at Cloverhill Prison and to Cork District Court was just under €300,000. That is just one example relating to one prison but it gives a good idea of the extent of the savings we might expect.
No one would disagree with the points raised by Deputy Michael D. Higgins. While some of them are not directly related to the Bill, he has again raised issues that are extremely pertinent and in respect of which I fully concur with him.
It is good that the Bill has in general been supported by Deputies. While it is not possible on Second Stage to go into significant detail about all of the measures in a Bill or the issues raised, these can be discussed further on Committee Stage. I again thank Deputies for their contributions and I commend the Bill to the House.
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