Chaplains of Irish Prisons Decry 3-fold Crisis

Call Current Policy a “Disaster” for Prisons and Society

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MAYNOOTH, Ireland, NOV. 29, 2010 ( The annual report of the Irish Prison Chaplains says that current prison policy is a “disaster for both prisons and society” and the only obstacle to bettering it is political will.

The report points to a threefold crisis: overcrowding, drugs and violence — highlighting such problems as elderly prisoners without beds and prisoners entering jail drug-free but leaving addicted to heroin.

A statement today from the Irish Bishops’ Conference summarizes “another grim report on conditions in the country’s prisons, [with the chaplains] saying violence and drug use continues to escalate in prisons and overcrowding is adding to inhumane conditions.”

There are 27 prison chaplains, priests, religious and laypeople, working in 14 prisons in Ireland.

Father Ciaran Enright of the chaplaincy team in Arbour Hill Prison said, “It is frustrating and depressing to have to come out with similar reports year after year, with little or no sign of any positive action being taken by those in charge.”

Packed in

The report names overcrowding as the foundational problem, leading to conditions that are more and more degrading and making rehabilitation an impossibility.

It provided several examples of overcrowded prisons: “Mountjoy Prison was built for 489 prisoners; the Inspector of Prisons has stated that it cannot safely accommodate more than 540 prisoners, but the stated ‘bed capacity’ is 630. On 30th July 2010, it held 759 prisoners, which meant that 129 prisoners did not even have a bed to sleep in; indeed some did not even have a mattress to sleep on. There is structured activity for a maximum of 391 prisoners.”

Overcrowding “reduces the — already inadequate — opportunities for education or training, leaving many prisoners with nothing to do but endlessly walk around a yard or play snooker. Rehabilitation — which should be at the center of prison policy — has become a meaningless concept for many prisoners,” the report states.

These same conditions motivate drug use, the report noted.

“A considerable number of ex-prisoners report that they never touched drugs before they went into prison but came out heroin addicts. Imprisoning non-drug users in such an environment is a disaster, not just for them but for the whole of society. From any perspective, it is totally unacceptable,” the chaplains stated.

And regarding violence, the report notes that there are more than 800 assaults by prisoners on other prisoners each year, occasionally fatal.

“The culture of violence has become so pervasive that large numbers of prisoners request to be placed ‘on protection,'” it explains. “Some of these men request a further protection of 23 hour lock with limited or no access to educational or recreational facilities. Locking people in a cell for 23 hours per day, every day, for the duration of their sentence which could be several years, is totally unacceptable.”

Increasing danger

The chaplains conclude that current prison policy is a detriment not only for the prisoners but for all of Irish society.

“Many of those going into prison, despite the impression that politicians like to convey, are imprisoned for short periods of time, for less serious offenses,” they note. “In 2009, of the 10,865 persons sentenced to imprisonment, 1,153 (10%) were convicted of offenses with violence, while 5,750 (53%) were sentenced to three months or less.

“We believe the deterrent value of such a short sentence is minimal and, by exposing people to a drug-filled, violent environment where there is little to do, increases the danger they will subsequently pose to society on release.”

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