Kevin Warner


Recent reports depict regimes in Irish prisons as ‘inhumane’, and as ‘increasingly oppressive and destructive’. This deterioration in conditions is part of a larger ‘punitive turn’ that can be identified in the Irish prison system since the late 1990s, and that is also evident in a huge increase in the scale of incarceration and much greater demonisation of those held in prison. In 1985, the Whitaker Report set standards for ‘basic living conditions’ in prisons. The Whitaker standards mirror similar ones in the European Prison Rules. For example, both stipulate that an imprisoned person should normally have a single cell. When current regimes in Irish prisons are examined in the light of five key ‘basic living conditions’ set out in Whitaker, a picture of severe deterioration is evident. Nearly sixty per cent of all those in prisons must now share cells. Close to two-thirds are subject to highly inappropriate, undignified and often unhygienic sanitary arrangements. Lock-up times, deemed ‘excessive’ in Whitaker’s day, have, in fact, worsened significantly. Access to structured activity such as education or work is now far more problematic. And contact with family is unreasonably restrictive. These deteriorating conditions reinforce each other. Likewise, the multiple factors behind the regression – such as overcrowding, segregation, prisons that are too large, and an overemphasis on ‘security’ – also compound each other. Rescuing the Irish prison system from the morass it is now in, and bringing it towards the kind of system the Whitaker Committee envisioned, is an enormous task. An outline of some of the changes required is suggested. These include a radical reduction in the numbers imprisoned, much greater use of open prisons and a renewed focus on balancing ‘custody’ with ‘care’. Moreover, given the problems now endemic in Ireland’s large closed prisons, major long-term adjustments in the prison estate need to be planned, so that we have a system of much smaller prisons. In particular, the fool-hardy Thornton Hall Project should be abandoned.