Ahern’s get-out-of-jail card will not solve prison crisis

Sunday Tribune 26 April

Gary Douche should not have died in Mountjoy. Those are the words of the man who beat him to death there in 2006. Nobody should die in Mountjoy, but they do, as in other prisons across our state.
Douche was in a holding cell to protect him from other prisoners. His killer, Stephen Egan, was there because the jail was overcrowded. He had been transferred from the Central Mental Hospital without his anti-psychotic drugs. I’ll spare you the details of what happened.
We only ever hear what passes as life in Irish jails when someone like Gary Douche is killed. Attacks happen every day. As of 9 March, we had 3,790 prisoners and only 3,611 beds in our powder-keg prisons. They are operating at 105% of their capacity. While Douche lay dying in Mountjoy, there were 526 other inmates sleeping in the jail which had a capacity for just 470. There are now 633.
Four thousand prisoners doesn’t seem like an overwhelming number to deal with. So why do we have overcrowding? It costs the state an average of €97,700 a year to house a prisoner. Do the maths: we have overcrowding because we’re strapped for cash.
Justice minister Dermot Ahern made two announcements last week. The first was the publication of the Fines Bill 2009. At any given time, there are about 15 people in prison for non-payment of fines. The Bill allows defaulters pay by instalment as an alternative to jail.
The second heralded a plan to rehabilitate sex offenders. Prisoners who volunteer for therapy will be released early and electronically tagged. This will incentivise serious offenders to undergo treatment.
Both plans have merits and while I agree with the first, I don’t with the second. Sex offenders are notorious recidivists and should do their time. Out of 578 released since 2003, only 42 had completed the Sex Offender Programme.
The optics are fine: TV licence fee defaulters stay out of jail and offenders get treatment. Look closer and you’ll notice something both plans have in common: they free up prison space. Does the government believe releasing paedophiles is the answer to overcrowding? Or releasing short-term prisoners? Last year, anyone serving less than 20 months in Mountjoy’s women’s unit was released to make room for more serious offenders.
Or how about letting potential killers out on bail?
On 8 April, Ahern said that our bail laws can’t be tightened because of prison overcrowding. There’s no room for suspects who might not be granted bail. That’s an admission of defeat.
Ahern knows that 25% of all serious crime is committed by people on bail (CSO, 2008). This includes rape and murder. Between 2004 and mid-2008, 90,000 serious crimes were committed by bailed suspects.
In 2007, despite garda objections, Tipperary man Jerry McGrath was granted bail after being arrested for assaulting a five-year-old girl. A month later, McGrath murdered mother-of-two Sylvia Roche Kelly. Her husband has accused the state of giving McGrath freedom which he used to carry out the killing.
Ahern has linked reform of the bail laws to overcrowding. His solution is early release. This will, inevitably, breed more crime. Our penal system is a revolving door which will soon be spinning faster than a government press secretary.
Every time the overcrowding issue comes up, the standard answer is ‘Thornton Hall’. This 2,200-bed super-prison will solve everything. The problem is, Thornton Hall isn’t being built. It’s been “in the pipeline” for the past three years due to negotiation problems with the builders. There’s a first: disharmony between the government and the construction industry.
The Prison Service can move quickly when it needs to, though. It’s currently being investigated for awarding €100m of contracts to one building company – Glenbeigh Construction – without putting them out to public tender. The justice department secretary general, Sean Aylward, has defended the service saying it had to move quickly due to… overcrowding. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Last week the government scrapped the unused electronic voting system that has cost us over €51m. Then there’s the pay-offs to junior ministers and bonuses to ‘veteran’ TDs. All the money it has wasted could have been put towards Thornton Hall or some interim solution, like reopening Spike Island or the Curragh detention centre.
The former military camps at Rockhill House, Lifford, Monaghan and Longford could be used as ‘boot camps’ for young offenders, like Thorn Cross centre in Warrington. This is a voluntary scheme where prisoners sign up to learn respect and self-esteem. They are given construction courses leading to placements with local builders. If we had an Irish version, an offender could end up building Thornton Hall rather than residing in it.
The crime rate is rising and the government must protect us, inside and – more importantly – outside prison. Opening the gates is not the solution, minister. Stop wringing your hands about the bail laws and dreaming of Thornton Hall. Use the idle facilities we already have. Continuing to pack prisoners in will result in more Gary Douches. Continuing to let them out will result in more Sylvia Roche Kellys.
We don’t want any more like them on our conscience. Find the space now.



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