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The Progress in the Penal System project encourages us to be more ambitious for the prison system. It exhorts us to acknowledge that, no matter what they have done, prisoners possess the capacity to redirect their lives. They are not entirely defined by their pasts; their life stories can be re-narrated and later chapters can be very different in style and substance to earlier ones. Hope is the state of remaining open to this possibility. Devoid of hope, imprisonment is pointless pain.
The prison cannot be seen in isolation. A decent prison system exists in a sentencing environment that is parsimonious (punishment is used sparingly) and proportionate (the punishment fits the crime). It exists in a political environment that is evidence-driven, innovative and compassionate, recognising the multiple layers of disadvantage under which many prisoners have toiled.
A hopeful and decent prison system must be underpinned by robust mechanisms of accountability. To ensure that high standards are striven for – and maintained – requires clarity around role expectations and independent monitoring. In this regard Ireland has been a laggard.
Visiting committees have the potential to act as local watchdogs but, as currently constituted, they lack credibility. Prisoners do not have access to an ombudsman. The Office of the Inspector of Prisons has been slow to generate momentum, with reports appearing infrequently and in arrears. The state has not ratified the optional protocol to the UN Convention against Torture. There is a dearth of basic information about how prison life is experienced.
While the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has had a positive impact, several years elapse between visits and its focus is not limited to the prison system.
The IPRT has done a great deal to shine a bright light into the closed world of the prison. But there is a limit to what one organisation can do. The time has long since passed for the accountability deficit to be addressed at the highest levels of government. There is no excuse for continuing to deny some of the most vulnerable members of Irish society the protections they deserve.
Professor Ian O’Donnell MRIA
University College Dublin
Member of PIPS Advisory Group