02 June 2022, The Tablet

Irish prison system needs 'urgent' overhaul

Irish prison system needs 'urgent' overhaul

Fr Peter McVerry, right, pictured here with Fr Jan Michael Joncas and Bishop Harold Millar.
Irish Catholic Bishops

The Irish prison system needs an “urgent” overhaul to reduce rates of recidivism and end the criminalisation of the mentally ill, a former prison chaplain has warned.

At conference in Mount St Anne’s Centre in Co Laois titled “The Unheard Voices in our Justice System”, Sr Imelda Wickham, who worked in prison chaplaincy for 20 years before retiring during the pandemic, called for “a radical updating of the criminal justice system” to bring it into line with the latest advances in cognitive, forensic and behavioural psychology.

“The time to move from our adversarial and punitive system to a more healing and restorative model has long passed. Our whole understanding of human behaviour has developed and evolved and this needs to be taken on board by the criminal justice system,” the Presentation Sister told the assembled prison governors, politicians, prison workers and representatives of homeless and addiction services.

Calling for a national conversation on the development a more humane justice system, she said the conversation had to include those who carry out crimes as well as their victims.

“Unless and until all voices are listened to and heard we will continue to paper over the cracks and we will continue to criminalise the mentally ill, criminalise people who suffer from the scourge of addiction, and criminalise poverty and homelessness.” These, she said, were some of the major contributors to crime.

In his address, homeless campaigner, Fr Peter McVerry SJ said he suspected that “some judges send people with mental health problems to prison in the mistaken belief that they will get better mental health treatment while in prison than in the community”.

However, he saidd that prison is about punishment, and it is not place for people with mental health problems as the prison regime “can only make a person’s mental health worse”.

He also highlighted that over 70 per cent of those sent to prison have an addiction. “Most receive little help while in prison and leave prisons still addicted. Drugs are readily available in most of our prisons despite the best efforts of the prison service to keep them out.”

Ian O’Donnell, Professor of criminology at University College Dublin (UCD), and a past director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, spoke about addressing the challenge of recidivism, a key theme in Sr Imelda Wickham’s recent book on prison reform.

Research by the Institute for Criminology in UCD found that a quarter of released prisoners are back in prison within a year, and half are back in prison within four years.

Professor O’Donnell highlighted new research from the Netherlands on 4,000 offenders which showed that substituting suspended sentences or community service for short prison terms is effective in reducing recidivism. It also results in massive savings to the State as it currently costs over €80,000 per annum to keep a person in prison.

Noting that 40 per cent of people sent to prison in Ireland receive sentences of fewer than six months, he suggested, “These are the kind of short sentences that could be replaced by community service or maybe be suspended with a huge cost saving.”  

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