In 1984, the government commissioned a report into the Irish Prison system. I have no doubt that the [then] Minister for Justice, Michael Noonan established the Committee in good faith, desiring to improve conditions for prisoners and to bring penal policy into the 20th century. He asked one of Ireland’s most distinguished civil servants, Dr T.K. Whitaker, to chair the report. I was asked to be a member of the committee despite – I was told – strong objections from the Department of Justice!
Mutual Mistrust between Prison Officers and Management
There was considerable unrest at the time amongst prison officers, which the government hoped could be addressed by a report into all aspects of prison life. Perhaps the reason for the unrest could be explained by the closure of the Ferenka factory in Limerick in 1977, due to a bitter inter-union industrial dispute, with the loss of 1,400 jobs. Many of those who were made redundant were offered jobs in the prison service, which consequently became attuned to normal industrial relationships, rather than the traditional discipline of the prison service. The Department of Justice failed to fully accept this new reality and a high level of mutual mistrust between prison officers and prison management ensued.
1985 Whitaker Report
The Whitaker Report was completed in July 1985, to the dismay of government. It had requested a limited report on staff/management relations by the end of 1985. But there was no urgency about the full report (There was an election due in 1987). It was widely considered to be a very enlightened and progressive report – but not one to win elections!
In 1985, crime rates were rising, particularly car theft and burglary. More people in prison, serving longer sentences, was being demanded by the public, and the Committee’s report was pointing in the opposite direction! The Minister discovered that enlightened thinking in the Department of Justice is a guarantee of political extinction. Perhaps that is why very few copies were printed. Shortly after the report was published, it was unavailable and no further reprints took place.
Implementation of Report in Penal Policy
Some of the recommendations have been implemented, such as the closure of St Patrick’s Institution for young offenders (2017), the appointment of a Director General of Prison Service (1999), the creation of an Office of Inspector of Prisons (2007), and others. But overall prison policy since then has gone in the opposite direction to that proposed by the Committee.
The report recommended that imprisonment should be reserved “for serious offences against the person and major property offences (including larceny or unauthorised taking of motor vehicles where life has been endangered or substantial damage caused).”
“The Committee is in favour of custodial sentences being reserved for the most serious offences (with the corollary that very short prison sentences should be eliminated).” (Recently, a person was imprisoned for non-payment of maintenance to his ex-partner).
It concludes that “imprisonment is of limited deterrent or corrective value, it is an expensive sanction, costing £29,000 per year per prisoner (it is currently costing €80,445 per prisoner) …and should only be imposed after consideration of a full personal report on the offender from the Probation and Welfare Service (since renamed the Probation Service, with the Welfare dimension abandoned!) supplemented, where appropriate, by a psychological and medical/psychiatric report.”
Expansion of Irish Prison Estate
Even as the Committee was recommending fewer committals to prison, the government was busy expanding the prison system. Spike Island was opened, single cell accommodation was abolished, and some educational and training facilities were being taken over to provide more accommodation for yet more prisoners. At the time, Dr Whitaker told me that he would never again agree to sit on a government committee.
When the report was written, the number in custody was 1,960. It said, “if the upward trend in prisoner numbers of the past ten years were to continue for the next ten, an appalling situation would arise – some 4,000 prisoners to be accommodated by 1995. The Committee considers it obvious that for social and financial reasons, no such situation should be allowed to arise.” (There are currently about 3,800 prisoners.)
It recommended that “a limit should be set from time to time to the acceptable prison population and any tendency for the limit to be exceeded should signal the need for revised policies and strategies.”
Recommendation to Correct Deprivation and Social Disadvantage Ignored
The Committee recommended one-third remission of sentences, as against the one-quarter which currently exists (in the UK, remission is one-half). This was never implemented. It recommended that prisoners should be in single cells (the newly-built Cork prison was built with double cell occupancy as the norm) and have at least 12 hours out-of-cell time each day (currently it is about 6-7 hours). These were also never implemented. It calls for “correcting the deprivation and social disadvantage which expresses itself in anti-social behaviour… The State’s primary concern should be for the welfare of the family, child and juvenile, rather than for punishment of the negligent, wayward or the criminal (i.e. a caring rather than a punitive policy)… A society which neglects this basic responsibility (a concern for social progress and equity) hardly deserves sympathy for the growth in criminality.” Today, as then, the vast majority of prisoners come from a small number of deprived areas.
The report complains that “there is much aimless, useless work in the prisons… no prison routine is so sterile as one in which a large number of prisoners do not have suitable work… the one outstanding success in the system has been the Training Unit in Glengarriff Parade., Dublin. It is comparable in scope and recognition to an AnCo training centre and has scope for 96 prisoners.” The Training Unit has since been closed!
A commitment to a more humane and rehabilitative prison regime is a difficult issue for any Minister for Justice. Governments know that most voters do not know what goes on behind prison walls, and they know further that most voters don’t care. The public doesn’t want their tax money spent on improving the lives of prisoners; money spent on rehabilitation shows few visible results (as you cannot see someone not committing a crime!) and the investment needed to really make a difference is very substantial.
Report’s Vision of Rehabilitation in Prison
But this was the vision which the Whitaker Committee had for a renewed prison service. It is a vision that makes sense. It is a vision that believes that communities are made safer – the legitimate demand of the public – not when we lock up more people for longer, but when those we imprison are released as better people, with more skills, more opportunities open to them and more hope that their future can be different from their past.
That vision was probably more in evidence in 1985 than today.