Irish prisoners should be given amnesty for papal visit
Hundreds of unfairly-incarcerated prisoners across Ireland should be released to mark the Pope’s visit to the country this month, Jesuit campaigner Fr Peter McVerry has said.
The prominent priest said that there are a “significant number” of people in prison who are there for relatively minor offences, including homeless people who would be released “in the morning” if they had an address.
“There are a lot of prisoners who are in for two months, three months and four months, on public order offences, you know drunk and disorderly and they should have been dealt with by non-custodial sentences anyway,” he said.
Fr McVerry added that with around 4,000 people currently imprisoned, the State could “easily release several hundred prisoners” in the morning who are no threat to anybody, and particularly women who are usually jailed for minor offenses.
An amnesty for prisoners was given to celebrate the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979. 78 prisoners deemed unlikely to be dangerous to the public and who were due for release by the end of the year were released on October 1, just as the then Pontiff left Ireland.
Alongside his support for a similar amnesty to celebrate the World Meeting of Families, Fr McVerry said it would be “nice” if Francis visited a prison and that it was a “pity” there are no official plans for him to do so, given that “it would have meant a lot to prisoners”.
Echoing these sentiments, former chief prison chaplain Fr Fergal MacDonagh, said that he would also approve of an amnesty as many prisoners may have received unfair sentences or have already suitably reformed.
“In general, I would always be in favour of looking again at sentences people have received, how they’re doing in prison, how are they cooperating with various treatment programmes or how they’re dealing with their behaviour, and rewarding it, we should be doing that…” he said.
The Dublin-based priest added that Pope Francis has been instrumental in promoting the rights of prisoners, especially given last week’s change of Church teaching to focus on the abolition of the death penalty. “It’s great for prisoners all over the world and even countries that don’t have the death penalty. It’s important. It says something about that dignity of human beings that we hold in custody,” Fr MacDonagh said.
Although it is unlikely that Pope Francis will speak directly about prisoners, Fr McVerry said the Pontiff may talk about the dignity of people which isn’t lost “just because you commit an offence”.