Thank you, Chairman. I thank the members also. We are delighted to have been invited to address the joint committee and to hear that prisons, penal policy and sentencing are on its work programme for 2017. The Irish Penal Reform Trust, IPRT, is Ireland's leading non-governmental organisation campaigning for rights in the penal system and the progressive reform of Irish penal policy. Our vision is of a penal system that is just and humane, that protects and promotes human rights, equality and social justice, and that only uses prison as a sanction of last resort.
I would like to begin with an overall observation that reforms achieved since 2011 mean there is now a strong foundation on which to work towards a progressive penal system in Ireland - one led by innovation and best practice not crisis management, one that addresses and does not merely compound social inequalities.
Taken together, the cross-party consensus achieved in the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality report on penal reform from March 2013, and the cross-agency consensus achieved in the strategic review of penal policy final report in July 2014 means there is a strong basis for reform. Indeed, implementation of the recommendations in both reports would represent significant advances in achieving a just and humane penal system, which would in turn contribute to safer and more equal communities.
Ireland's penal system is characterised by the systematic overuse of imprisonment as punishment. Although our daily prison population is of average size by European standards, at approximately 79 per 100,000, our rates of committal to prison, and consequently our rates of release, are among the highest among the 46 countries of the Council of Europe area, and third highest in the European Union. Our rate of release is the highest.
Ireland's prison population is characterised by mental health issues, addictions, homelessness, poverty, unemployment, educational disadvantage, chaotic family backgrounds and social marginalisation. In this context, it is not surprising that re-offending rates on release from prison are high. This does not mitigate the harm that is caused by offending, nor does it minimise the impact of crime on victims and the community. However, if Ireland's criminal justice system and penal policy are to realise the goal of having safer communities, they must have at their centre a means of addressing the causes of offending behaviour, and not just punishment. As an overarching recommendation, IPRT calls for a clear Government commitment to evidence-informed criminal justice policy grounded in data and evidence of what works to reduce crime and improve community safety. There should not be knee-jerk punitive responses to serious incidents.
It is worth restating two principles that underpin penal reform. First, the deprivation of liberty is the punishment, and prison conditions must not be used as further punishment. Second, at its core, prison is damaging in itself, and the negative impacts of prison on individuals, families and communities mean it should be only a sanction of last resort, reserved for the most serious offences and for those offenders who continue to present a serious risk to society. Therefore, the emphasis of a progressive, just and humane penal policy should be on the following: investment in early intervention, prevention and diversion strategies; investment in community-based sanctions and non-custodial alternatives; protecting human rights and meeting best practice standards in prison with robust independent oversight, in cases where prison is the only appropriate response; and greater investment in rehabilitation services and post-release supports. In all cases, provision must be on a nationwide basis and not solely concentrated in Dublin.
There have been positive reforms in the prison system but, despite these, many serious issues remain, including crowding in a number of prisons, including Cloverhill and the two women's prisons. Some 45% of prisoners do not have access to private toilet facilities, and 45% are sharing cells, which does not contribute to prison safety. The majority of prisoners are locked up for 16 or 17 hours per day, with 72 prisoners in solitary confinement, which involves being locked up for 22 hours or more per day. Thirty prisoners with serious mental health issues are awaiting transfer to acute psychiatric facilities. In some locations, prison health has been found to be in a state of crisis. The parole board has not yet been established, and decision-making on releases remains in political control. The systems of accountability are weak. In this regard, prisoners still do not have access to an independent complaints mechanism; Ireland has not yet ratified the optional protocol to the convention against torture, which it will have signed ten years ago in October 2017. We have not seen a prisons inspection report by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons published by the Minister since September 2014, which is two and a half to three years ago.
Robust independent oversight is crucial to the prevention of torture and degrading or inhumane treatment out of sight behind prison walls, and strengthening Ireland's systems of prisons accountability must be a priority. To this end, we would like to see progress on the implementation of the proposal of the Office of the Inspector of Prisons that the general Ombudsman be able to receive individual complaints from prisoners. We would like to see progress on the inspection of places of detention Bill, including legislative change that would allow the Office of the Inspector of Prisons to publish its report directly to the Oireachtas. We need to see ratification of the optional protocol to the convention against torture and the establishment of the national preventive mechanism.
The optional protocol makes provision for a state to ratify the UN convention against torture and then establish the national preventive mechanism within three years. We will be examined under the convention in July 2017. Ratification of the optional protocol before that would show a Government commitment to meeting Ireland's obligations in this regard. It would also give us a timeline of three years for the establishment of the national preventive mechanism.
I thank the committee for its invitation to speak and for its attention to penal reform issues. We will be happy to respond to members' questions as best we can.