Kathleen Mahon, the Governor of the Dóchas Women’s Prison situated in the Mountjoy complex has resigned citing ‘impossible’ conditions’ – the Women’s Prison is overcrowded with 137 prisoners in a centre designed to accommodate 85.
Meanwhile, Paul McKay a member of the Mountjoy Visiting Committee writes a highly critical piece in today’s Irish Times describing his ‘horror’ at the appalling conditions in the men’s prison next door to the Dóchas centre.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust have issued the following response to today’s resignation:
GOVERNOR’S RESIGNATION YET ANOTHER ALARM CALL FOR MINISTER
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has today expressed deep concern at the resignation of Kathleen McMahon, Governor of the Dóchas Centre. The issues cited by the Governor on her resignation are worrying in the extreme, and IPRT is calling on both prison management and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to take responsibility for the issues of overcrowding in the prison and the consequent impact on prison regime identified by Governor McMahon.
Speaking today, Executive Director Liam Herrick said:
This unprecedented public gesture by a prison governor sounds a clear alarm call for government that even our most progressive prison can no longer achieve its stated purpose. If the Governor of a prison says that she cannot do her job under these conditions, then the onus is on Government to address the issues of policy that have precipitated the growing overcrowding crisis in our prisons.
Much has been achieved in the past ten years in what is a progressive and modern prison, and this is now threatened by a failure of government policy. Kathleen McMahon has taken a brave step for the staff and prisoners of the Dóchas Centre and it is critical now that this resignation is a watershed for policy towards women offenders.
In December 2009, the Women in Prison Reform Alliance, of which IPRT is a member, made a detailed submission to the Minister for Justice calling for a comprehensive review of policy and practice in relation to women who come into the criminal justice system. We believe that such a review will identify effective and cheap non-custodial options for many categories of women offender, ultimately leading to a reduction in the need for secure imprisonment. To date we have not received a response from the Minister to this proposal.
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has launched this press release in response to Kathleen Mahon’s resignation.
Resignation of Dóchas Governor Highlights Failures of Prison System and Need for Radical Review of Use of Imprisonment for Women, says Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice
Monday, 26 April 2010
The resignation of Kathleen McMahon, Governor of the Dóchas Detention Centre for women, highlights the urgent need for a fundamental review of the use of imprisonment as a response to crimes committed by women, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice has stated today.
Responding to the resignation, Eoin Carroll, Acting Director of the Jesuit Centre, said: “The reasons cited by Ms McMahon for her resignation make clear the seriousness of the problems now existing within the Irish prison system in respecting the rights and responding to the needs of women who are detained.”
Mr Carroll went on to say: “The resignation of a highly-regarded Governor, and the reasons underlying it, highlight the need for a robust, independent review of the extent to which imprisonment is being used in the case of women offenders, the operation of prison facilities for women and the scope for non-custodial sentences”. The independent Corston review of women’s prisons in England (2007) provided a set of recommendations to radically change the approach to dealing with women offenders and led to the appointment of a ‘Ministerial Champion’ for Women in the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales.
Mr Carroll added: “It is highly regrettable that the enlightened approach which led to the building of the high-quality facilities in the Dóchas Centre now seems to have been abandoned. The ethos and progressive regime of the Centre, considered to have been the ‘shining feature’ of the Irish prison system, have been eroded as a result of overcrowding.”
Responding to the issue of overcrowding in the Dóchas Centre, Carroll went on to say, “Overcrowding in the Centre has been an issue for some time but in recent years the problem has become acute. In his answer to a parliamentary question last week, the Minister of Justice, Dermot Ahern, revealed just how endemic the problem now is in the Dóchas Centre. With a design capacity for 85 women in single cell occupancy, only 55 women (42 per cent of the total of 130 now imprisoned in the Centre) are in fact accommodated in a single cell.”
The remainder are accommodated as follows:
54 women in “Double Cells”
12 women in “Treble Cells”
4 women in a “Quadruple Cell”
5 women in one cell
Eoin Carroll went on to say: “The severely delayed Thornton Hall prison complex is being seen as the panacea to the problems of overcrowding in the Dóchas Centre and the prison system as a whole. Instead, we should instead be looking to reduce the use of imprisonment for less serious offences, by radically developing non-custodial alternatives punishments that would focus on rehabilitation”.
“The reality is that the majority of women sentenced to imprisonment are convicted of non-violent crimes of poverty. Studies of women in prison highlight the vulnerability of many of those detained, revealing high incidences of psychiatric illness, addiction to drugs and alcohol, family and relationship breakdown, homelessness, unemployment, and educational under-achievement.”
The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice is an agency of the Irish Jesuit Province. The Centre undertakes social analysis and theological reflection in relation to issues of social justice, including housing and homelessness, penal policy, asylum and migration, health policy and international development.