Reforming the reformers

 
 

As the Irish prison population rises, Yvanne Kennedy examines the need for reforming the system of incarceration

Prison is where the bad people go. Prisoners shouldn’t have rights. Those in prison are there for their own faults; they don’t deserve our sympathy. They don’t deserve any luxuries. They definitely don’t deserve anything better than those ‘on the outside’ are allowed. These are all commonly held beliefs. As far as most people are concerned, the only way you end up in the Irish prison system, or any other for that matter, is because you have done something that has wronged society. For that, you deserve to be punished.

Many have a “lock them up and throw away the keys approach”; most can’t understand how almost every prisoner only serves three-quarters of their sentence and they certainly can’t wrap their heads around the concept of open prisons. The issue here is that, for the most part, the general population tars the smaller, prison population with the same brush. Very few people find they are ‘liberal’ when it comes to penal reform but the data would suggest that unless we become somewhat ‘softer’ on those convicted of crimes, prisons as an ‘agent of reform’ become redundant and we create a group of ‘hardened’ individuals who wish to rebel against the system and end up right back where they started.

One of the large issues in many prisons both here and around the world is sanitation. Those in prison sleep, eat, live and then some in small cells potentially with one or two other people. However these cells may very well also contain their ‘bathrooms’: sometimes, these are little more than glorified buckets which must be ‘slopped out’ into larger containers come morning. This practice is not confined to some archaic system in countries hundreds of miles away but instead is routine for many of the men currently incarcerated in Mountjoy Prison. How could it be said that this in any way helps those in prison, or those they have hurt?
Adjunct Professor in the UCD School of Social Science, Dr Kevin Warner also notes that while “staffing and facilities for [structured activities] have expanded in the last 30 years, increases have not, in general, matched the enormous surge in the prison population”. These activities such as sports, art and education are key to ensuring that those entering prison leave more calm, ready to re-enter general society and, in some situations, more educated and capable of finding employment.

If we hope that crime levels will decrease, along with prison numbers and that those still imprisoned will make good use of the time the State has given them to repent and work on themselves, there needs to be change within the system itself because the system is not working. If we take it back to the point where we think about people who will be affected without good consideration and reform in this area, those who have been in prison will lose out but society as a whole has even more to benefit from if we move in the right direction with this.
Three ways that have been suggested by UCD School of Law Professor of Criminology, Ian O’Donnell to combat the growing number of those incarcerated in Ireland are temporary release (TR), reform of the parole system and the increased use of the remission system. These are all very possible, straightforward and low-cost, to the community as well as to the Government purse strings.

TR is a system that allows those in prison to be released from prison on humanitarian grounds where they need time with their families or are on vocational placements. This system reintroduces people to the community and into society. O’Donnell says that a “study of 19,955 releases from Irish prisons showed that prisoners who, during their sentences, were occasionally allowed to venture out … were significantly less likely to be re-imprisoned”.

So the system works, it’s not an idealistic concept. Parole is also another under-utilised resource within the criminal justice system. Parole in Ireland is only considered for those who have been sentenced to ‘life’ or to ‘long-term’ sentences of eight years or more. However, when people are released on parole, they have the prospect of returning to prison over them the entire time until their sentence expires and those on parole have a tendency to be quite well behaved. Therefore, O’Donnell is of the opinion that the parole system should be expanded. In Finland, parole is available after 14 days, so why couldn’t be somewhat shorten the window here as well?

Finally, there is the prospect of increased remission. Right now, 25% of a person’s sentence is taken off for ‘good behaviour’. So if you receive a four year sentence, you should only serve three of those years. Good behaviour doesn’t mean anything sterling, it simply means that you don’t cause much trouble while you’re in prison with the power resting with the Governor of each prison whether an amount of that remission will be taken from you in the event of your misbehaving.

However, a crucial agent of reform has been overlooked here. There is the possibility that up to 33% of a person’s sentence can be cut, if they willfully and properly engage with the extra services available to them in prison. These include the education and welfare services and may also extend to work done inside the prison such as working in the kitchens. This 33% is rarely, if ever, utilised. If a prisoner minds his own business for three years and does nothing to contribute, he will still get a 25% knock down but the very same happens if he engages with everything. So for many, where is the incentive?

There seem to be few excuses for non-implementation of these practices because when something is good for the prisoner, good for the community and good for the purse, why would it not go ahead? There seems to be no logic. The Minister for Justice wants to see those in prison reforming themselves but how can they do that when the system he has supported and implemented is far away from being reformed itself.

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