European Prisoners’ Children Week

Fiona Donson

This week is European Prisoners’ Children Week and is being marked by Eurochips and its partners. the families of prisoners are an oft  forgotten group. Children in particular often suffer serious ill effects as a result of losing a parent to prison.

This issue was recently explored at an excellent conference hosted by St. Nicholas Trust in Cork entitled Doing Time – Outside. Speakers from a variety of organisations from the Irish Prison Service, to Bedford Row, St.Nicholas Trust and Partners of Prisoners UK, all made important and often moving contributions to an event which laid bare the challenges that arise in this area.

Organisations working with prisoners families provide invaluable support, counselling and services to this forgotten group often on very little money. And their cause if given little publicity or sympathy with the view taken by most, including those in the criminal justice system, that the prisoner has brought it on themselves, and therefore by connection on their own family too. However, the impact of imprisonment goes far beyone the offender. Eurochips notes in their literature that:

Each year, more than 800,000 children within the European Union are affected by the incarceration of a parent. These children frequently experience trauma stemming from a violent separation from their parent, social stigmas, and prejudices associated with having imprisoned parents, and violations of their rights.

For the children of prisoners the issue is one of fundamental rights including their right to family life and right to health as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Eurochips is currently running a campaign including a petition calling for the right of children of prisoners to have their right to family life respected. Their desire to

-improve prison visiting conditions for children including longer hours, awareness raising and training for prison staff, and permission to maintain regular contact with a parent in prison


-create national monitoring groups to obtain more information on this vulnerable group of children and maintain quality visits

are essential and realistic goals which should be realised in any modern prison system.

Prison populations and sentencing reform

In the news yesterday – the prison population had passed the 4000 mark for the first time the history of the State. In fact it has since dropped back down below that dramatic figure but remains above the bed capacity level of 3,947. The Irish Penal Reform Trust‘s press release on this news valuably highlights the figures charting the steady rise in the prison population:

To place this level of imprisonment in context, the Irish prison population was just 750 in 1970; over 1,200 in 1980; 2,100 in 1990; 2,948 in 2000. The immediate consequence of this increase is to exacerbate an already critical overcrowding situation.

These figures need to be seen in the light of the report on Mountjoy Prison by Judge Michael Reilly, the inspector of prisons. His report was brought forward because of concerns about the dangers created by cronic overcrowding, not least of those being the fact that lives were being put at risk.

Overcrowding in Irish prisons has been described as cronic and acute for many years now, yet little signioficant action has been taken. And prison expansion is not the answer.

The short term answer is clearly put in the IPRT Directors Blog:

The Prison Service must set clear safe custody limits in each of the prisons and ensure that dangerous overcrowding levels are not allowed to develop. In the short term, numbers can be reduced by careful and structured use of temporary release.

But longer term, the issue is about sentencing. Indeed, Fine Gael yesterday called for “a radical overhaul of the State’s sentencing system”:

“I am calling on Minister Ahern to radically overhaul his approach to incarceration and to focus on community service for minor offences. With each prison place now costing almost €100,000 annually, the Minister must review the benefit of handing down thousands of minor sentences annually.”

According to Fine Gael the govenment needs to consider alternatives to custody, particularly in the case of non-violent offences on the basis that community service “is less expensive for the taxpayer and allows offenders to put something back into the community”.

It is good to see that in addition to proposing sentencing reform, Fine Gael have also now recognised that prison does not work:

“It is clear that prison in Ireland is enormously expensive and has little deterrent or rehabilitative value. Its effectiveness is further undermined by the use of early release as a means of facilitating the committal of ever more prisoners. Ireland has a revolving door prison system that sees almost 50 per cent of prisoners back inside within four years of their release. This is not sustainable…”

Ultimnately any discussion on the state of Ireland’s prison system must be done within the overall context of sentencing and criminalisation. The prison population has been rising for many reasons, not least of which is an iuncrease in a refusal of bail, an increase in lengths of sentence and increased levels of prosecution.

1 in 31 US adults are under “correctional control”

According to a report published earlier this week by the Pew Center on the States 1 in 31 adults in the USA are on probation, in prison or on parole, compared with 1 in 77 in 1982. The overall figures add up to an astounding 7.3 million adults under correctional control.

Not surprisingly the report shows that men are five times more likely than women to be in the corrections system, and black adults are 4 times more likely than white adults to be in the system. The cost of the system is staggering: $68 billion a year. Yet research shows that the overall impact of the correctional system in the USA has had little impact on the reoffending rates. At present, according to the report, prisons consume nearly 90 % of state corrections spending, although two-thirds of offenders under supervision are in fact on parole or probation. The yearly cost for a prison inmate is around $29,000, whilst the average cost of managing parolees and probationers range from $1,250 to $2,750 a year.

Whether the current financial crisis in the USA will have an impact on the overall structure and philosophy of the correction system is of course yet to be seen. However, the report calls for policy leaders to see the situation as “a chance to retool their sentencing and corrections systems.” rather than simply undertaking short term cost cutting.

The report reflects some of the current theories on punishment and an understanding that perhaps the policies of being “tough on crime” have in fact not resulted in any significant improvement in crime control. At the same time the report reflects the view that building more prisons is “not a cost-effective path to greater public safety”.

The report sets out a six-step strategy to manage the growing population

  1. sorting offenders by risk to the public safety – separate offenders who are more likely to cause serious harm. The report calls for the use and further development of more scientific methods of risk assessment.
  2. basing intervention programs on science – in other words use evidence based practices and programs such as the use of case plans for higher risk offenders and the locating of supervision agencies in the neighbourhoods where offenders tend to live.
  3. harnessing technology – including electronic monitoring, GPS technology, monitoring drug and alcohol offenders with random testing. Overall they are recommending an intensification of traditional “face-to-face” supervision.
  4. imposing swift and certain sanctions where offenders break their supervision thus strengthening probation
  5. creating incentives for success – which encompasses incentives for offenders to change their behaviour, benefits for agencies which succeed and a system of measuring results.
  6. measuring progress.

The report confirms the fact that the US currently has the highest inmate population. According to a report last month from the US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics a total of 2.3 million adults were in prison in 2007.

Whilst the findings of the report are clearly welcome in the light of long term concerns about the level of imprisonment in the USA, the report does not question or challenge the levels of criminalisation of American citizens, but instead focuses on the value of alternatives to prison.

American Prisons: Some Perspectives

Today’s New York Times carries an editorial entitled “Prison Nation” in which recent statistics on the United States’ prison population released by the Pew Centre on the States are considered. According to these statistics, contained in a report entitled One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, the US’ prison population stands at approximately 1.6 million and racial disparities among those imprisoned are stark. The editorial argues that these statistics “point to a terrible waste of money and lives” and “underscore the urgent challenge facing the federal government and cash-strapped states to reduce their overreliance on incarceration without sacrificing public safety”. The editorial also acknowledges, however, that persuading politicians to reduce their reliance on incarceration will be difficult, “not least because building and running jailhouses has become a major industry”.

The editorial calls to mind two interesting publications. The first is an excellent edited collection entitled (coincidentally) Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor (Amazon) which contains essays on inter alia privatization of prisons, racial disparities, sexual abuse, the HIV/AIDS crisis in American prisons.

The second is the Concluding Observations of the CERD on fifth and sixth periodic reports of the United States, which were released on February 28th. In these Concluding Observations the CERD expressed concern about “the persistent racial disparities in the criminal justice system…including the disproportionate number of persons belonging to racial, ethnic and national minorities in the prison population” (paragraph 20), the fact the “young offenders belonging to racial, ethnic and national minorities, including children, constitute a disproportionate number of those sentenced to life imprisonment without parole” (paragraph 21), and “the persistent and significant racial disparities with regard to the imposition of the death penalty, particularly those associated with the race of the victim” (paragraph 23).

Some Irish Prisons Unsafe

A report by the (COE) Committee for the Prevention of Torture claims that three Irish prisons – St. Patrick’s, Mountjoy and Limerick – are unsafe and degrading due to a high rate of inter-prisoner violence and intimidation, which it links to a lack of activities and the easy availability of drugs. Detainees interviewed also claimed that they were frequently subjected to abuse (verbal and physical) when arrested. The Irish government has made the Report public (which it is not required to do) and claims that it is working to ensure adequacy of activities and to restrict the availability of illegal drugs inside prisons.

Irish Independent; Irish Times