Apathy towards the needs of prisoners

There is a silence around what is happening in our prisons. Earlier this month the Department of Justice published four reports on prisoners who had died while on temporary release. The reports describe very vulnerable individuals who have been failed by society, by social services, education services and the prison service. Did you see anything in the news about this?

The reality is that we as a society ignore what happens in our prisons. Some believe that the people (which includes children) in prison are in some way different to us, less human even.

The people in our prisons are poor, have low levels of literacy and numeracy, limited work history, have health and mental health problems and upwards of 80 per cent have a drug or alcohol dependency. For young people who are sent to prison it is clear that they have fallen through various safety nets including school, the medical profession and their local community support programmes, for most they have been failed by society. When we send someone to prison we naively expect that it will have greater success than the past failures of social providers.

For many people in prison they will be in and out of jail for a large proportion of their lives. The rate of repeat offending is so high that after four years 50 per cent of people that were in prison will be back in prison. The majority of these serve short sentences and are released back to communities with limited supports. In most cases the reason behind their offending behaviour such as a drug or alcohol dependence will not have been addressed. It becomes a perpetual cycle.

Imprisonment is meant to be a measure of last resort; for many it is a measure of last resort only because of the inadequate supports in the community to address addiction, poverty and other needs such as housing. If we are to meaningfully address the cyclical nature of imprisonment, then we need to focus on the causes of offending behaviour and provide support to people within and upon exiting prison. More community alternatives need to be found, while simultaneously damaged relationships with members of their community should be repaired. People leaving prison have to be welcomed back and supported.

For more serious crime prison is unfortunately the only option.However, prison needs to change and become more constructive and more normal! This would meansingle rooms,shorter lock up times (currentlyaverage 17 hours)and opportunities for meaningful work and education for everyone in prison.


Christian responsibility

Pope Francis is giving hope to people in prison. Shortly after his appointment he visited young people in prison and washed the feet of a Muslim woman. Francis is affirming their dignity, he is expressing love and compassion for them, he is living up to the Gospel message of ‘I was in prison and you visited me’.

As Christians we believe that people can change, it is therefore our responsibility to facilitate this transformation. We are also called to forgive and be compassionate. In fact we are obliged to treat people found guilty of even the most horrendous crime with human dignity.


Irish prisons need to be restorative

If we truly care about people in prison, we need to start doing things differently. We need to look to international best practices, condemn the living conditions in Irish prisons and to demand meaningful activity to be available for all. Most importantly we have to affirm the innate dignity of the human person who is in prison.

Within this new regime standard the first day of a prison sentence would be the first day in planning for release. Prison would be a more positive environment supporting people in addressing the reasons behind their offending behaviour. It would be seen as an opportunity to address other needs such as employability skills. This initial support would then seamlessly transition to community support upon release.

Such an environment would facilitate the re-building of relationship with those who have been harmed, often close family members and local community. Likewise, the community and the State would be preparing for their release by having readily accessible housing and a support worker available.

Eoin Carroll is Social Policy and Communications Co-ordinator with The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.