On 17th June, The Irish Times reported on a case of a woman prisoner who, after being granted Temporary Release (TR), refused to leave the Dóchas Centre in Dublin as she had no home to go to. It was reported that a number of inquiries have been initiated to look into the incident, which involved the forceful removal of the prisoner suffering from mental health difficulties from the prison grounds. This incident comes less than a month after The Irish Examiner reported on a case of another prisoner with mental health difficulties who spent a night in the car park of Cork Prison after being granted TR without linking him to suitable accommodation in the community.
While unquestionably distressing for the prisoners concerned, these two cases are examples not of one-off decisions but rather examples of how the prison system in Ireland – and wider social and penal policies and practices – continue to fail to assist individuals with high level of needs. This is particularly true in cases of prisoners who are imprisoned for short periods of time, and those who suffer from mental health difficulties and/or drug abuse – and that means, the majority of the prison population in the State.
A report on the reintegration of prisoners in Ireland, published in May by the Irish Penal Reform Trust, documents the gaps in service provision in Irish prisons which impact on the ability of the system to provide such assistance. While noting certain improvements – such as increased provision of drug counselling services and a more coordinated approach to sentence management for prisoners on long-term sentences – the study found that the Irish prison system struggles to engage with the vast majority of prisoners, and is largely unable to link them with the support needed, either in custody or upon release.
One of the major difficulties identified in the report is the use of TR as a safety valve to relieve pressure on overcrowded prisons. Under legislation, TR is designed as a measure that should assist integration back into the community following a period in custody, and should be used to work with a prisoner in getting them prepared for independent living upon release. The chronic overcrowding in Irish prisons means that TR is currently being used to free-up spaces needed for people committed by the Courts. Those prisoners who are assessed for TR are often informed about the decision only a couple of hours before their release. Service providers, including those who may have been engaged with the prisoner in custody, are often not informed about the release at all. Information about services available upon release is not always provided and those on short (but often multiple) sentences stand little chance of being linked with appropriate support during and following a period in custody. The moment of regaining physical liberty therefore turns into a traumatic experience of having to deal with the reality that little support is available and that the stigma of having been incarcerated blocks access to assistance. No wonder then that former prisoners interviewed for the research compared release from prison to “stepping on a land-mine”.
The report makes a number of recommendations regarding the improvement of services for prisoners on their release, including a call for the introduction of a statutory duty to reintegrate. The Irish prison system needs an integrated framework for provision of support to prisoners, and – more importantly – the Government needs to take responsibility for promoting social inclusion of prisoners and providing resources to ensure that those most vulnerable in our society are not consigned to the margins of social policy. Until that happens, stories such as the two cases quoted above are set to remain part of the narrative of imprisonment in Ireland.
(The report, “It’s like stepping on a landmine…” – Reintegration of Prisoners in Ireland, is available in hard copy and electronically from Irish Penal Reform Trust. See: www.iprt.ie)