The Report of the Thornton Hall Project Review Group was published by the Minister for Justice and Equality on Thursday of last week, July 28 2011. The Group was established by the Minister, Alan Shatter T.D., in early April 2011 with specific terms of reference which, basically, provided for a review of the need for new prison accommodation in the jurisdiction and consideration of the future of the Thornton Hall prison project. The Review Group’s report is interesting from a number of perspectives. The recommendations relating directly to the future of the Thornton Hall prison project are more than noteworthy; observations and recommendations made regarding other aspects of the prison system and the state of the prison estate in Ireland at present are intriguing; and statistics provided on the levels of imprisonment, the use of temporary release and the pervasive problem of over-crowding are fascinating.
In relation to Thornton Hall specifically, the Review Group Report set out the costs which have already been incurred by the State in relation to that project. The total expenditure to date is almost €45million (including the cost of the site and various engineering studies). This expenditure was partly offset by the sale of surplus prison lands at Shanganagh Castle, County Dublin for €29million, meaning that the net cost of Thornton Hall, before any foundation stone has been set down, is almost €16million. Because of this expenditure to date, the Review Group considered that it would not make economic sense to suggest that prison facilities be built on any other greenfield site in the Dublin area. The Group did not recommend that the original plans for the Thornton Hall site should be followed at this juncture, however. The original plan (see Chapter 3 of the Report), developed in 2006, was to build a prison campus at Thornton Hall which would be broken down into eight practically self-contained units each with its own unique and dedicated regime dependant on the type of prisoner (e.g. female prisoners, medium-high security prisoners, low security prisoners, pre-release prisoners…). The overall design capacity was to accommodate 1,400 prisoners, with a built-in operational flexibility to cater for up to 2,200 prisoners if that was required. The building of Thornton Hall in this manner would have allowed for Mountjoy Prison to be closed and its site (which at the time when this was originally planned would have been quite valuable) to have been sold. In 2010, given the financial constraints of the Irish state, the then government proposed that Thornton Hall should go ahead on a phased basis, maintaining the original design concept. However, the Review Group’s Report from last week now recommends a scaled-back version of the original design and the maintenance of Mountjoy, amongst other things.
The central recommendations of the Review Group are as follows:
- The Government should build a new prison at Thornton Hall on a reduced scale. This prison should provide for 300 cells capable of accommodating 500 prisoners. It should also have 20 secure step-down facilities (like the houses in the Grove area of Castlerea prison) capable of accommodating up to 200 prisoners in an open centre type setting within the secure perimeter. Structured regime activities should also be provided for.
- Mountjoy Prison will have to remain open for the foreseeable future, and therefore continued efforts are required to improve conditions at that prison. The Review Group overtly stressed that if their recommendation is accepted it is “imperative” that the Government “provides the Irish Prison Service with the resources and staff necessary to operate the prison regime at Thornton and Mountjoy in a manner that enables delivery of normalisation, progression and reintegration.”
- As Mountjoy will be remaining open at least in the short to medium term, there is no justification to move the female Dóchas Centre to the Thornton Hall site.
- The balance of sums to be allocated for the Thornton Hall prison project should at this juncture be utilised to build new prison facilities in Kilworth Cork (where the Irish Prison Service has already acquired a site) to replace Cork Prison, which should be closed at the earliest possible opportunity. The new prison at Kilworth should provide 200 cells with accommodation for up to 350 prisoners. There should be an additional 150 spaces provided in secure step-down, housing type facilities at the Kilworth site, within the secure perimeter of the prison.
- The Review Group emphasised that the recommendations in relation to Thornton Hall and the new Cork prison at Kilworth are not exclusive of one another, but ought to be viewed as a single recommendation to address the “clear and present risks facing the State” in terms of the current prison system.
Other recommendations include the introduction of an “earned temporary release” regime (potentially combined with electronic tagging and/or a curfew requirement); the introduction of “home detention” in certain appropriate cases as an alternative to imprisonment; and the undertaking of an overarching strategic review of penal policy incorporating an examination of prevention, sentencing policies, alternatives to custody, accommodation and regimes, support for reintegration and rehabilitation, the issue of female prisoners, and 16 and 17 year olds in the prison system. The Group also recommended the establishment of an inter-departmental group to examine the issue of people with mental illness coming into the criminal justice system. A number of other recommendations were also made.
The Report is easily accessible in terms of the language used and I would highly recommend reading it in full as it gives a very interesting, if largely depressing, view of the current state of Irish prisons and the projections for the prison population in the coming years. It also gives an overview of the State’s human rights obligations in terms of the treatment of prisoners under domestic, European and International legal regimes, making the observation that “conditions in some of our prisons may expose the State to significant reputational, legal and financial risk” (p.65).
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has generally welcomed the Report and suggested that it represents a “new departure for Irish penal policy” and a shift in thinking around Ireland’s response to offenders. The IPRT was particularly taken with the recommendation for a strategic review of all aspects of penal policy and with the acknowledgement of the members of the Review Group that expansion of the prison estate is not the answer to overcrowding. However, the expansion proposed within the Report (albeit a reduction from the initial plans for Thornton Hall) is viewed as a cause for concern by the IPRT which suggests that any new prison building to address poor prison conditions ought to be accompanied by a commitment to close unsuitable prison accommodation.
Some of the notable facts and statistics contained in the Report of the Review Group are set out below:
- 8 of Ireland’s current 15 prisons were built prior to 1860;
- The Irish Prison Service considers a normal rate of temporary release to be 5% of the prison population. The current rate is 17%. The Group suggested
that “High rates of temporary release, for the purpose of addressing shortfalls in capacity, potentially undermine the criminal justice system and reduce the deterrent effect of imprisonment”;
- On 19 April 2011, 16% of all prisoners in the system nationally, that is, 916 prisoners, were on temporary release while the number in custody exceeded the total bed
capacity by 53;
- The bed capacity of Mountjoy Prison on the 19 April 2011 was 590 (although the maximum recommended by the Inspector of Prisons on 23 July 2010 was 540). On that day there were 620 prisoners in custody (105% of bed capacity) with a further 172 on temporary release (21.7% of total);
- The bed capacity of Cork Prison on the 19 April 2011 was 272 (although the maximum recommended by the Inspector of Prisons on 23 July 2010 was 146). On that day there were 307 in custody (113% of bed capacity) with a further 171 on temporary release (35.7% of total);
- The bed capacity of the Dóchas Centre (female prison at Mountjoy) on 19 April 2011 was 105 (although the maximum recommended by the Inspector of Prisons on 23 July 2010 was 85). On that day there were 136 in custody (130% of bed capacity) with a further 72 on temporary release (34.6% of total);
- The number of sentenced prisoners (as opposed to remand prisoners) more than doubled between 2005 and 2010, rising from 5,088 to 12,487. The most marked increase is a 93 % increase from 2007;
- 84% of sentenced persons are serving sentences longer than one year. In 2010, 1,725 prisoners or 46% of the total number of prisoners were serving sentences of 3 to 10 years;
- Although there has been a significant increase in the number of committals of persons with sentences of less than 12 months, this has not resulted in a significant increase in the numbers in prison – a more notable trend is the overall increase in the total number of committals of persons receiving sentences in excess of 12 months, which is up by 48% between 2005 and 2009;
- On 21 April 2011 there were 5,556 persons in the prison system in Ireland. Projections of future prison population carried out by researchers at the University of Limerick suggest that by 2015 there could be a high of 7,940 persons in the prison system.
The membership of the Thornton Hall Project Review Group is as follows:
- Mr. Brendan Murtagh FCCA, (Chairman), Former Global President of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, a Partner in the firm of LHM Casey McGrath, Chartered Certified Accountants;
- Ms. Catherine McGuinness, former judge of the Supreme Court, former President of the Law Reform Commission;
- Mr. Brian Purcell, Director General, Irish Prison Service; and,
- Mr. Tom Cooney, Special Adviser to Minister for Justice and Equality.
The Secretary to the group is Mr. Jim Mitchell, Deputy Director, Irish Prison Service.