Adjournment Matters. - Prisoner Releases.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy Coughlan, to the House. With no disrespect to her, I am somewhat disappointed the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform could not attend.

The matter to which I wish to refer arises on foot of repeated reports that there seems to be a different system of temporary release operating in recent times, particularly in relation to the IRA killers convicted of the murder of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe. In that context, I wonder if the Minister of State will be in a position to respond to recent articles and complaints. For example, the Evening Herald of Tuesday last states that the Department is either remaining tight-lipped or refusing to comment. It appears that some of these prisoners are being released more frequently for long weekend breaks from Castlerea Prison. This institution is described as a prison, but from some reports it seems to be a year-round holiday camp. Most holiday camps close for the period September-October until March, but it appears that Castlerea holiday camp opens all year round.

The article in Tuesday's Evening Herald states:

Detective McCabe's killers are serving their punishment in a small housing estate called The Grove, which nestles just inside the walls of Castlerea prison.

It's a picturesque development of five houses set on five acres separated by a wire fence from the "criminals" in the main prison building.

The design of the houses varies between bungalow and two storey constructions of four-to-six bed capacity.

This very interesting article proceeds to state that "When they don't want to cook, they can also send out for takeaways." This begs the question as to why would these people ever want to be released. It is important to recall that these people were not imprisoned for shoplifting. Is there some cosy arrangement between the Government and either the IRA or Sinn Féin in relation to temporary release procedures?

On Saturday 8, June 1996, the day after the murder of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe, the leading article in The Irish Times stated:

The Provisional IRA has denied any involvement in the attack. Only the culpably naive will take that denial at face value . . . Perhaps those who direct the IRA would not have wanted this to happen.

It is interesting to note that five years later the same denial was issued in respect of several people who became lost in Colombia. It was only when the IRA had to face facts that it admitted these individuals were its representatives.

Is the Minister of State in a position to indicate the procedures in operation at present? Have special cases been made? Why were the Garda authorities in Limerick not informed about these releases? Are these people being released for three or four nights without supervision? Was the family of the late Jerry McCabe, members of which reside in the vicinity of where these people spent their weekend sojourn, notified about the release? In light of possible Sinn Féin gains in the next election, will a deal be done in respect of further relaxation of the rules be contemplated in order to shore up Fianna Fáil support?

Answers are required in respect of this matter. The Department has been very coy and the Taoiseach has stated that these individuals will not be given early release. However, perhaps they are being granted frequent temporary releases from this so-called prison which, in reality, is probably as good as any other holiday camp in the country. I ask the Minister of State to respond positively. If she is not in a position to do so perhaps she will refer the matter to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I accept that she has no direct responsibility in this area and I have no intention of casting aspersions on her ability because I know she is competent. However, given the serious nature of the issue I would have thought the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform would have been present.

I apologise on behalf of the Minister who unfortunately has been delayed in Brussels. I am sure the Senator appreciates that this is on foot of current difficulties. The Minister has asked me to take this Adjournment debate in his stead. My presence is not a reflection on the importance of the issues the Senator has raised.

The granting of temporary or early release is a feature of prisons systems internationally and has been operated under statute in this country since 1960. I assure the Senator that the Minister is satisfied that the procedures in place for the determination of temporary release for prisoners are more than adequate in meeting both the objective of public safety and the requirement for prisoner rehabilitation.

The Government has approved the publication of a Criminal Justice (Temporary Release) Bill, 2001, the purpose of which is to amend the Criminal Justice Act, 1960, so as to provide a clearer legislative basis for the power of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to grant temporary release by setting down the principles which will apply to the exercise of this power. The Bill will provide a clear and transparent basis, as well as the necessary safeguards required, for the operation of the system of temporary release. The factors that will be considered include the length of sentence served, the nature and gravity of the offence, the length of sentence imposed, the potential threat to the community, the risk of that person failing to return to prison, behaviour while in custody and any humanitarian grounds that may exist. The Minister is satisfied that these criteria, which are currently in operation on a non-statutory basis, are relevant and, therefore, he has no plans to review the procedures currently being adhered to.

Since taking office the Minister has presided over an unprecedented investment in our prison infrastructure. The construction of 1,200 new prison spaces in recent years has created a situation where the Prisons Service is in a position to accommodate the vast majority of prisoners for the entire duration of their sentences. The "revolving door" syndrome is now largely a thing of the past and the impact of this cut in unplanned temporary releases on the level of indictable crime in this jurisdiction is clear and irrefutable.

Prisoners currently on temporary release are generally on either a structured temporary release programme, often under the direct supervision of the probation and welfare service, or on short temporary release periods for valid com passionate reasons such as ill health or death of a family member. As a direct consequence of the ongoing prisons building programme, there has been a considerable reduction in the proportion of prisoners on temporary release. This figure has fallen from 19% of the total prison population in October 1996 to a current figure of 6%. The actual number has fallen from 550 to just over 220 in the same period. This is a significant improvement in the situation and it is an achievement of which the Minister is justifiably proud.

I would like to comment on recent reports concerning occasional short periods of temporary releases granted to the persons convicted in relation to the killing of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe. Initially, on behalf of the Government, I reiterate to the House my total and utter revulsion at the callous killing of Detective Garda McCabe. The Minister fully understands that it is very difficult for his family and friends to come to terms with such a loss. The Minister can also appreciate that they, and many other members of the public, are opposed to the idea that the prisoners convicted in relation to such a crime are benefiting from what may be perceived in some quarters as concessions.

However, the notion that the persons convicted in relation to this crime are "part-time prisoners", as described in a recent media report, is a complete distortion of the truth. For example, in the case of the person granted compassionate temporary release at the weekend, this was the only period of such release since his committal to prison in March 1998. It is the onerous responsibility of the Minister to consider all applications for temporary release, taking into account wider considerations, while trying to strike a balance between the need for persons sentenced by the courts to serve their debt to society and the need to be as humane as possible in relation to the granting of such temporary releases.

I am assured by the Minister that each application for temporary release made by these prisoners was considered in accordance with the normal criteria that apply in such cases. It is the case that Provisional IRA prisoners have received temporary release for such compassionate reasons for years and furthermore, this was the case even prior to the Good Friday Agreement.

I am also advised by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that the Seanad can be assured that there are no early release implications associated with these periods of temporary release and that the Government will be defending this position in judicial review proceedings which are currently being taken by two of the persons convicted in relation to Detective Garda McCabe's killing who are seeking early release as a consequence of the multi-party Agreement.

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform wishes again to assure Senators that all appropriate concerns are given due consideration before he gives his decision in cases such as the ones I have mentioned.