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  Rehabilitating Our Criminals

Should prisons be institutions of retribution or rehabilitation? Brendan Walsh believes that not enough is being done to reintegrate prisoners back into society.
Brendan Walsh  

Why do we put people in prison? Is it a means of rehabilitation or is it to punish them? Penal theorists have argued about this for years without reaching a definite conclusion. However none of this changes the fact that the Irish prison service is in crisis. Mountjoy prison is overcrowded, under-resourced and menaced by drugs. Suffice it to say, conditions are not conducive to turning out civic-minded citizens.

But what do we do to re-integrate released prisoners back into the community? About four out of every five released prisoners go on to commit more offences. We have career criminals coming out of our prisons. Inmates are released back into a community which shuns them, without the institutions to care for them in a structured and lasting way.

Martin Tansey, the county's Principal Probation and Welfare Officer, thinks that "the primary purpose of prisons has always been containment and not rehabilitation." On release, he told me, the offender is free once more and the authorities should not interfere with his/her rights in any way. This applies also to paedophiles and repeat offenders, he says. There is a corresponding feeling among criminologists that recidivism is an ugly fact of life. Probation officers are there to assist the Court in implementing sanctions against the ex-prisoner, especially as regards Community Service, Mr. Tansey maintains. Their work also involves carrying out pre-sentence assessments for the courts, supervising offenders who are released conditionally from prison and providing a counselling service for offenders and their families. They build up a social history of the person on probation including reports from the Gardai, social workers and psychologists. They then build up a programme of supervision and care for the individual. That is the theory, but the extent and effectiveness of these programmes is another matter. Martin Tansey also has a different view of prisons and other institutions. He claims that institutionalisation causes recidivism. Dysfunctional people are institutionalised in prisons and become accustomed to the life they experience there, up to the point of becoming dependent upon it in some cases. They will never be "rehabilitated" simply because they do not want to be. He also thinks that when a person goes into prison for the first time the barriers of the unknown are broken down. That person will not have the same fear of incarceration in the future, despite the experience there.

Others do not share this view. In their last Annual Report, the Mountjoy Prison Visiting Committee consistently argue that prisoners should be taught basic literary and work skills which would help them secure employment after their release. They place particular emphasis on community work projects outside the prison, such as the construction of the community centre near Mulhuddart in North Dublin. Projects such as this benefit everybody, especially the prisoners who learn valuable skills, and, most importantly, a greater sense of self-worth because they make a real contribution to the community. In 1993 everybody who took part in these schemes got a job. The rate of placement is lower now but this is blamed on wider economic factors. They make the important recommendation that "structured links be made by the Department of Justice with community based services and half-way houses". The Committee further adds that some of these services are willing to expand to meet increasing needs with a view to coming under the authority of the Department of Justice. However the support and funding of the department has not been offered to them. If this were to happen it would result in a more unified, cohesive approach to monitoring of, and care for, the prisoners after their release. However their recommendations seem to have joined the Whittaker Report and the 5 Year Plan in total obscurity, just as they predicted.

  One valuable community-based service is PACE, a voluntary organisation which was founded in 1969 for the care and education of male offenders. It runs a hostel at Priorswood House and a training workshop at Santry with the co-operation of FAS and CDVEC. PACE provide an information service, putting their residents in touch with officers in Dublin Corporation who can help them with housing and flats. They help men with drug histories get in contact with relevant counselling services in Coolmine and Trinity Court Drug Treatment Centre. Ex-prisoners are re-introduced to living and working in the community once more, albeit in a slightly institutionalised way. Sinead Keogh from PACE says that their activities were not very popular in the broader community and so their fund-raising efforts are usually very low-key. It is a case of, "Out of sight, out of mind." They do not accept sex offenders or arsonists because of the likelihood of repeat offence. This leads to the situation that paedophiles and other known recidivists are presently not adequately looked after when they are released.

Other half-way houses exist for males but there are none for female offenders. Although statistics show that the rate of recidivism amongst females is less than their male counterparts there is a great need for such a service for women. This is made worse by the fact that many families refuse to have anything to do with women who are given prison sentences. On their release these women have nowhere to go and can end up in shelters or, worse still, destitute and on the street.

Brendan Walsh has been a student of Sociology for three years at UCG and has a particular interest in the theory and practice of the Irish criminal justice system. He lives in Dublin.
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