We meet on average 30 people a morning, many of whom continue to live on the streets and likely to, going by what we daily see.

The majority of people we meet have been in prison,

  • Some for petty offences linked to anti-social behaviour due to drinking
  • Others for very serious crimes
  • Some having no suitable accommodation available having served long sentence.
  • Some having no accommodation on release.

I also write from my experience of my membership of Sentence Review Group over 5 years and Chair of that Group currently, following on Chairmanship of Dr. Ken Whitaker and Judge Mary Kotsonauris.

The Sentence Review Group is an advisory Group established by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to advise him / her in relation to the administration of long-term prison sentences.

The Group reviews the cases of individual offenders who have served 7 years or more of a current sentence, including life sentences, but excluding offenders serving sentences for capital murder. Following review, recommendations are made to the Minister advising him / her of an offenders’ progress to date, the degree to which that offender has engaged with the various therapeutic services available, and how best to proceed with the future administration of that offenders’ sentence.

The Group may make any one of a number of recommendations including, for example; facilitation / maintenance of family contacts, commitment to engage with therapeutic services, education, work training, transfer to another institution etc., and eventually recommendations in relation to temporary release leading to full temporary release.

The Sentence Review Group will be replaced by a Parole Board this summer.

Quote from The Irish Times 24 May 2001:

” ‘It cost £1,135 a week or £59,000 annually to keep an offender in prison last year’, according to statistics released by the Minister for Justice, Mr. O’Donoghue.”

On that day we met a man who had spent his first night in a hostel costing £10.00 per night or £50.00 per week approximately. He had spent a total of 20 years in prison – he said, “this is the saddest day of my life” he was so institutionalised.

  • He could not read or write
  • Knew nothing about money
  • Didn’t know the streets
  • Was not linked into welfare service
  • Had no Medical Card or letter to G.P. even though he was on medication
  • We had to arrange contact with a Community Welfare Officer and advice re budgeting, diet, etc.
  • Employment would be very far down on the list of priorities to meet his needs.
  • Performance indicators – the much abused term, likewise.

Prison is clearly the only hope some people have of getting an education, for some we meet it is the only hope of getting medical attention, and sadly, for some, even getting a clean bed and food.

The emphasis on performance indicators – a requirement for funding – does mean that massive resources are available to work with those who are motivated, but there are increasing numbers of people in prison who require long term help in this area and this must start from the time of sentencing, and even then it is possible that achievements will not be earth shattering. Some would argue that, even then, it is too late, but in accepting that fact there is a danger that many will be forgotten about.

Education also has a role to play in society’s understanding of crime and fear of crime and greater effort needs to be put into this area.

Re-Integration is a two-pronged process. The ex-prisoner needs support and indeed does the community – all too often insensitive headlines leads to further isolation and statutory agencies including Health and Social Welfare Service have a responsibility in this field i.e. to ensure communities and the prisoners have adequate supports.

The increasing numbers of sex offenders and paedophiles to be released needs to be looked at, as a matter of urgency – where do they go, discussion re tagging alone is clearly not enough and raises ethical issues yet to be debated widely. These prisoners have special needs and indeed human rights.

Re: Education and Training:

What do we mean by education? Academic debate, while necessary is meaningless without a strong practical arm, involvement of staff doing the daily hands-on work needs to be valued and therefore encouraged.
Prisoners need training in area of practical coping skills for today’s’ world.

Staff at all levels need to constantly look at their own roles, because working in secure units like hospitals over a long period can lead to institutionalisation and debate needs to be encouraged or supported.

Health cannot be isolated from other issues and the World Health Organisation definition is clearly too narrow for this group of people:

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

While there is a serious drug problem in some prisons and in parts of the country as a whole, I seriously ask the question why do people take drugs in the first place and treating an addiction with a more addictive substance is questionable – while acknowledging that it does maintain some type of stability. The whole area of addiction, including gambling, need to be addressed in a more holistic way.

Prisons clearly have become the catchment area for social problems ignored from a young age and therefore Prison Service alone cannot solve all the problems.