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That little tent of blue

20 Jul 2023 / justice Print

That little tent of blue

As a society, we must continuously review penal policy in order to continue to uphold a just, humane and safe society – and to promote pro-social behaviour by all our citizens, argues Orla Dunlea.

‘When we use art
It is though
The walls disappear.
When we use art
We escape
As though our souls
Are no longer here.’

(Poem by a prisoner on the wall in the education centre of Mountjoy Prison.)

The announcement by the Government last February to appoint an additional 44 new judges in two phases has been welcomed by the Law Society and the public.

The Courts Act 2023 was signed into law by the President on 19 May, allowing for the first tranche of new judges to be appointed in advance of the Oireachtas summer recess this year.

Access to justice will be considerably improved. There are long waiting lists in some courts, the Planning Court (a divisional court of the High Court) could begin operating, and the additional judges will facilitate a speedier criminal-justice system to serve its citizens.

It is also anticipated that the appointment of the new judges will result in a greater number of committals to prison as more cases will be heard.


Our prisons are already chronically overcrowded. In the two decades from 2001 to 2021, the average number of people in custody increased by 20%.

The Prison Service said recently that capacity in the system is 4,409, but 4,571 people are currently in custody, resulting in 162 prisoners having to be accommodated on the floors of cells with other inmates.

The cells in Mountjoy were designed as single-cell rooms and the overcrowding means ‘doubling up’ is the only option, which means a mattress on the floor.

Among other things, overcrowding contributes to a negative impact on the mental health of prisoners, escalations of violence and bullying and, perhaps, increased drug use as a coping mechanism, as described by staff on a recent visit to Mountjoy.

Governor Eddie Mullins and his team have genuine concerns for the safety and mental health of prisoners and staff due to overcrowding. There have been recent disturbing reports of violent attacks on prison officers.

Overcrowding also means fewer resources for rehabilitative activities, like opening the library or attending addiction services.

Governor Mullins and his colleagues are in favour of non-custodial reform for relatively minor non-violent crimes that would ordinarily attract a short sentence. This, he says, would considerably reduce the current strain being put on prison resources and make it a safer environment for his staff and the prison population.

Benefits of education

Mountjoy opened in 1850, with the Dóchas Centre following in 1858. Prior to that, there was a heavy reliance in this jurisdiction on transportation to the penal colonies and corporal punishment (including whippings) and execution.

The majority of Irish prisoners have never sat a State exam – over half left school before the age of 15. Many factors, including family background and circumstances, education, employment, social network, and problematic drug use (among others) are cited in research as contributory factors in offending behaviour and crime (see Prof Ian O’Donnell’s 2020 report on recidivism).

On our recent visit to Mountjoy, it was evident from meeting with a group of prisoners that they are intelligent men. It was difficult to reconcile these people with their criminality, which led to their incarceration and to the pain and suffering that they have caused to victims and their families.

Inspiring head teacher Dr Ann Costello is passionate about providing these men with educational opportunities (sometimes their first experience of education), which she hopes will help in their rehabilitation and reintegration journeys.

However, reports in the media that some men are continuing to direct criminal operations from within prison are alarming, in addition to other reports suggesting that prisoners deliberately get arrested in order to bring drugs into prison.

Why care?

When we think of the cost-of-living crisis and the increased strain on our health and education services – not to mention the rights of and impact on victims of crime – it might be hard for an ordinary member of the public to be concerned with overcrowding in our prisons. After all, they argue, prisoners have committed crimes and deserve their punishment.

While acknowledging judicial discretion, as a society do we need to consider interventions and services to promote better social behaviour, rehabilitation, and to end offending?

There is some research that suggests community sanctions can play a role in addressing criminality, reducing reoffending, and providing protection to the public, while holding the individual accountable.

Non-custodial sentences for minor non-violent crimes, including sentencing offenders to undertake community service, mean that they can retain links to their own communities, which improves the chances that they will not reoffend.

In the words of Governor Mullins: “Prison should be a last resort. People should find a way to repay society another way. While some people need to be there, many do not.”

The Hang Room

The final stop on our Mountjoy visit, the Hang Room – last used in 1954, but which remains intact – grimly illustrates how approaches to crime and punishment change over time.

In all, 45 men and one woman were hanged between 1901 and 1954, including the young Kevin Barry and nine other volunteers executed in Dublin during the War of Independence.

It was a stark reminder that, as a society, we must continuously review penal policy in order to continue to uphold a just, humane and safe society and promote pro-social behaviour by all our citizens.

The Review of Policy Options for Prison and Penal Reform 2022-2024 states: “While punishment for those who commit crime is a central element of our justice system, the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders is at the core of our penal system.

"Criminal sanctions represent punishment for crimes committed against individuals and society. All sanctions imposed, whether custodial or community based, represent a visible punishment and interrupt a person’s liberty or freedom of movement.

"However, punishment alone, as experience and research have shown, does not prevent offending or make everyone safer. Interventions and services to promote pro-social behaviour, rehabilitation, and desistance from offending are necessary to drive and sustain real change.”

Review of policy options

Last August, the Minister for Justice announced that the Government had approved the Review of Policy Options for Prison and Penal Reform 2022-2024, together with an associated action plan.

Among its recommendations is reducing the use of short custodial sentences (especially sentences under three months) and exploring how the judiciary can be provided with a greater range of non-custodial sanctions.

Including 21 actions, the review identifies six priority actions – interventions that have been identified in order to reduce reoffending, support desistance from offending, avoid overcrowding in prisons, and reduce reliance on custodial sentences as the primary criminal sanction (except where determined necessary and proportionate to the suffering of the victim, particularly in relation to serious crimes that may result in life sentences):

1) Consider the incorporation of prison as a sanction of last resort in statute in relation to people who do not pose a risk of serious harm, to reduce reoffending and overcrowding in prisons,

2) Develop and expand the range of community-based sanctions, including alternatives to imprisonment to reduce reoffending and overcrowding in prisons,

3) Take forward the implementation plan of the taskforce established to consider the mental health and addiction challenges of those imprisoned, and primary-care support on release,

4) Ensure that all criminal-justice policy decisions are pre-assessed to determine, as far as possible, their impact across the criminal-justice sector,

5) Establish a Penal Policy Consultative Council, and

6) Introduce judicial discretion to set minimum tariffs for life sentences, and examine the effectiveness of the use of mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes.

Look it up



Orla Dunlea is a solicitor and mediator. She recently visited Mountjoy Prison along with other colleagues as part of the Law Society’s Diploma in Judicial Skills and Decision-Making.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

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