From Socialist Voice, October 2007

Making us aware of what is happening in our prisons

On 18 July this year Dermot Kinlen died at the age of seventy-seven. He was a man of the establishment: grandson of a Circuit Court judge and Redmondite MP, educated at Clongowes Wood and UCD, graduating in modern Irish and European history, called to the Bar in 1952, and appointed a High Court judge on the nomination of the Labour Party. Made a knight commander of the Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great with Cross by the Pope in 1997, he was also a life member of the Royal Dublin Society and of the Irish Military History Society.
     Just the man for the job of Inspector of Prisons; and it seems he was expected to enjoy the perks of the job and not ruffle too many feathers. However, a glance through one of his annual reports will reveal a few surprises. (His last was for the year 2004/05 and can be downloaded from the web site of the Department of Justice at www. justice.ie/en/JELR/4thAnnRpt.pdf/Files/4thAnnRpt.pdf. It is also available in printed form in the Business Section of the Central Library in the ILAC Centre, Henry Street, Dublin.)
     The biggest surprise is that Mr Kinlen clearly took the job seriously and was damning in his criticism of Irish prisons, where vast amounts of public money are spent and no attempt is made to reform prisoners; instead our prisons are “training grounds for criminality,” and suicide is increasing.
     Mr Kinlen wrote his reports in plain English, for the simple reason that he wanted everyone to read them. Surprisingly for such a serious and indeed grim topic, anyone reading this report will find themselves laughing at some of the things he wrote. Here’s a short example from page 44, in the section on “recidivism”:
     “It is very difficult and, as the Minister says, regrettable that figures are not available. If there were any underemployed person in the Prison Section of the Department (and there might be!) he or she should be able to work out the number of recidivists in the system. However, they may complain that they are not literate enough and are depending on computers. We know a fortune has been wasted on computers for the prison which are obsolete and have to be scrapped. However, each prisoner has a number and it is recorded. He/she carries that number through life. Surely, even a semiliterate would be able in a very short time to check in each prison how many prisoners had been imprisoned previously.”
     Throughout his report he quotes groups and individuals who have many interesting things to say about Irish prisons, on how bad things are at present and in recommending solutions, among them Rick Lines of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (www.iprt.ie) and Dr Ian O’Donnell of UCD, who points out the lack of data and also the fact that immigrants awaiting deportation are not convicted criminals and therefore should not be held in prisons.
      Mr Kinlen also refers to reports made many years ago that drew attention to the same concerns and were evidently ignored. One of these is St Patrick’s Institution for young offenders in Dublin, which a report by Ken Whitaker recommended more than twenty years ago should be closed immediately and no more money wasted on it.
     “It was clear that the Minister was merely using St. Patrick’s . . . as a warehouse for young people who learnt the finer points of criminality in St. Patrick’s which almost certainly guaranteed their progression into the ‘university’ of Mountjoy.”
     What is most clear from reading the fourth annual report of Mr Kinlen (the first three reports are not on the web site of the Department of Justice, and we made numerous enquiries to TDs and to the department, to no avail) is that the same information and recommendations are made over and over again but are not acted upon.
     Part of the problem is that the information in these reports is not made available to the majority of citizens. By and large, the newspapers and television news fail to mediate these reports to their readers and audiences.
     Yet this is an issue that concerns us all. Some of us will have had the experience of being jailed ourselves, or at least of visiting a friend or relative in prison. Many of us won’t; but we will all have been at the receiving end of a robbery or an attack of some kind at some time, and we would prefer to live in a safe society where this would not happen. Closing our eyes to what prisons actually do will not solve anything. As Mr Kinlen says, “All citizens should be interested for selfish, if for no other reasons, in urgent penal reform.”
     Until we have the facts we cannot be sure of our arguments. By reading this report—which was written for all of us, not just the minister and his civil servants—we can take responsibility for our prison system and examine the recommendations, then lobby our political representatives until what needs to be done is done. That is, after all, what living in a democracy is supposed to be about.
     Dermot Kinlen took his job seriously: insisted on having an office and staff, visited all the prisons and made surprise return visits, and liaised with all groups working for prison welfare and reform. His very public row with Michael McDowell over the position of Inspector of Prisons being made a statutory one (which, as he pointed out, it was in the North of Ireland under the terms of the Belfast Agreement) culminated in victory.
     The pity is that Mr Kinlen died so shortly afterwards. He set a high standard of diligence and output for his successor. Let’s hope that whoever succeeds him will continue to make us aware of what is happening in our prisons.
[MNM]

Some facts about Irish prisons

• 1,000 people are sent to jail annually for the non-payment of fines.
• Most defaulters are sent to jail for debts of a few hundred euros or less.
• 60 per cent of defaulters are unemployed or on social welfare.
• €3.7 million per annum is spent on keeping defaulters in prison.
• It costs €225 per day to house a prisoner.
• 1 in 4 of the inmates in Mountjoy Prison has a history of mental illness.
• The former Minister for Justice Michael McDowell spent €30 million on consultants in his first eighteen months in office.
• In 2003 the overtime bill for prison officers was €62 million.
• After the closure of several jails, wages continued to be paid to prison staff. In the Curragh, eleven prison officers were paid to guard an empty jail—including overtime.
• €9 million was spent on renovating a unit of St Patrick’s Institution that has never been opened.
• The committee for the prevention of torture recommended that a re-education project, called “Connect,” be expanded. Housed in a Portacabin unit, it had only fourteen places, though ninety people applied. The scheme was not expanded: instead it was curtailed.
• The Dóchas centre for women in Mountjoy cost more than £30 million to build. It is earmarked to be sold, however, along with the rest of the prison, because “the Mountjoy site would be much more valuable if sold in its entirety.”

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