The IPRT Progress in the Penal System project seeks to drive positive change in Ireland’s penal system through setting standards of best practice and benchmarking progress towards these standards on an annual basis.
Since the publication of PIPS in October 2017, there has been some limited progress towards improvement in our penal system. IPRT’s overall assessment of progress over the last 12 months across each of the 35 standards has found:
The increase in prisoner numbers since the latter half of 2017 is of particular concern, and risks reversing the significant progress achieved by the State since 2011. If prisoner numbers are allowed return to previous levels, Ireland will not pave the way as a leading model of international best penal practice as we believe it can.
To address rising prisoner numbers, the stakeholders we have identified as ‘changemakers’ – the judiciary, probation, State bodies (including education, health, housing), media, and politicians – all have a significant role to play. PIPS aims to inspire these changemakers to work together towards a more effective and humane penal system, one that supports safer and more equal communities.
A continual challenge is the lack of robust data published by State bodies that could better inform research, policy and practice, and expedite improved processes, practices and policies. We welcome the Department of Justice and Equality’s recently published Data and Research Strategy 2018–2020, which has the aim of addressing this gap. Without settled consensus across the criminal justice system and beyond on fundamental issues like penal policy creation and sentencing principles it will be difficult to ensure that any positive progress which has been achieved is not lost.
This year’s PIPS report highlights three key issues: (1) the number of people with severe mental illness presenting in our prison system, (2) the increasing numbers of women being detained in prison, with the two women’s prisons being the most overcrowded prisons in the State, and (3) staffing issues that have resulted in closure of schools and workshops, impacting on the daily regimes of prisoners. These issues need to be urgently addressed.
There are many innovative approaches that can be taken to address the range of issues, as identified throughout this report.
Positive developments within the penal system must also be acknowledged. These include: better cross-agency approaches through the initiatives such as the Joint-Agency Response to Crime (J-ARC) and the Interagency Group on Cooperation for a Fairer and Safer Ireland, as well as more structured release of prisoners through the Community Return Programme and Community Support Scheme. These positive programmes should be extended in 2019.
IPRT welcomes the commitment by the Minister for Justice and Equality to introduce legislation to ratify OPCAT by the end of 2018. We would strongly welcome this step forward, and hope that next year it will be one of many positive actions taken that will be reported in PIPS 2019.
What is clear is that no individual body can achieve substantial change on its own. The mutual and inter-dependent relationships between criminal justice agencies and government departments mean that the involvement of the identified changemakers is crucial. Change in the penal system is linked to addressing wider social issues such as housing, educational disadvantage and social exclusion, which presents in many forms. It is hoped that this report will inspire many to see their role in advocating for change.
Although the prison system cannot solve these wider social issues, progressive reform can certainly ensure that issues of social exclusion and inequality are not further compounded. Implementation of the short-term actions laid out in this report will support a more humane, just and equal penal system, one that helps build a safer society for all.
This time next year, IPRT will again be assessing progress on achieving the 35 standards set out in PIPS. We look forward to working constructively with all stakeholders over the next 12 months towards achieving positive change in the penal system in Ireland.
Department of Justice and Equality (2018) Data and Research Strategy 2018–2020: Supporting delivery of “A safe, fair and inclusive Ireland”