Prison’s Mission Creep

Released into Emergency Accommodation

Earlier this month, the Irish Times ran a series of articles on prisons and homelessness. Initially, it revealed that 113 people who were released from prison in the first five months of 2022, also presented to emergency homeless accommodation on the same day. This figure is easily on target to outstrip the 249 people who presented as homeless on release the previous year. Those providing analysis on this growing trend highlighted the increased risk of reoffending shortly after release and the barrier to societal reintegration caused by homelessness.

Few would disagree.

Numbers and figures—the communicative currency of both policy plans and outcomes—often tell us very little about the who and the how. A colour piece quickly followed to give a real voice to the numbers. We were introduced to Marie (a pseudonym) whose story represented an increasingly common pattern for women in contact with the criminal justice system. In fact, if I was asked for an archetype, Marie would likely be it. She had been to prison four times—sentences ranging from three to six months—for crimes without victims. Many of the similarities with other female prisoners were also present; homelessness, substance abuse, trauma from abusive relationships, and severed familial ties.

Prison was experienced by Marie as a respite from her life, and the article continued in this vein. After describing her inability to sleep due to the cold within a tent, Marie said:

“It was a relief. It was definitely better to be in prison than on the streets. I had hot showers, three meals a day, a bed. It was a break from me drinking. I have a drug problem as well, and it was a relief to be clean.”

Additional analysis from service providers and penal advocates described the low-level offenses commonly committed by homeless people, the high risk of reoffending after committal for a public order offense and the rejection of bail applications due to homelessness. However, living in a specialised step-down unit for women who are homeless upon release and after securing her first job in a decade, Marie’s story is one of cautious optimism for her future. But there is a subtle subtext present which we should be both sensitive to and aware of how it is changing who we choose to imprison.

“Sympathy with Suffering”

If we attend carefully to Marie’s words, it is difficult to not be sympathetic as she found succour in prison; comfort from the cold hardship of living in a tent in one of the most affluent countries in Europe. We know that prison is not ideal but we can rationalise that it is better than her previous situation and some good has come of it. Marie is receiving support and services unavailable in the community. Some judges and legal professionals think similarly and decisions to send people to prison can often be framed as acts of compassion, prompted by a deep concern. So central to our self-understanding as moral agents, compassion has become the central claim when seeking social change.

Writing at the end of the 19th century in response to the destitution he saw around him, Oscar Wilde noted that refuge is often sought in sympathy rather than thought. In The Soul of Man under Socialism, he suggests that:

“The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.”

A week after the stories in the Irish Times, Noel Baker from The Examiner reported on the heartbreaking story of Kay Barrett, who is currently in Limerick Prison and will remain so until November. In a Clonakilty courtroom in February, both her solicitor and the judge agreed that her committal would “be the lesser of two evils.” But what was her crime?

A number of suspended sentences had been activated from breaches of a safety order. But the real kicker of the story is that Kay was only under a safety order, under recommendation by the Gardaí, as her family believed that it would act as a deterrent because she would not receive the mental health treatment she desperately needed. Kay had committed no crime other than having a history of serious mental illness. Was Marie guilty of any real crime other than being homeless and the victim of addiction and abuse?

The Sixth Purpose of Imprisonment?

Prison is an institution where we should never forego thought. The political justification and expressed purpose of prison is that it plays a central role in keeping people safe from those among the general population who are dangerous or pose a threat to the safety of others. Prisons are also believed to serve four other purposes (or some combination thereof): deterrence (from present or future offending); incapacitation; rehabilitation; and the delivery of justice (conceived of as punishment). There are other aims but, all in all, most people would agree on these five purposes. The irony is that these agreed purposes have endured but there is no definitive evidence that prisons effectively fulfil any of these five purposes in practice. 

But what are we to draw from the stories of Marie and Kay? Their experiences are not isolated, or even uncommon. As we pass down the list of the purposes of prison, where is the threat to the safety of others where they need to be removed from society? Is the aim of their imprisonment a deterrence from future crimes linked to severe mental ill-health or substance abuse and homelessness? Should we understand their sentences as punishment?

If so, we find ourselves in the dark territory of individuals being punished for the failure of social provision by Government. It is worth deeply reflecting on how these stories of imprisonment fit with the purposes of prison.

I suspect we may only be left with one move which is logically coherent; the creation of a sixth purpose of imprisonment: The provision of shelter. Neither Marie or Kay are criminals, yet they find themselves in prison. Marie for the lack of a secure roof over her head and Kay for the absence of healthcare and a secure placement. That Marie is currently flourishing in supported housing reveals the perversity created by social policy and housing failures.

As a society, we should always be seeking to reduce both our prison population and the role of the prison. What we are currently experiencing is a mission creep—the gradual expansion beyond its original aims or goals— which is very difficult to row back once it becomes ingrained. Especially in rigid institutions of detention. It is important to say that this is not a mission creep desired by the Irish Prison Service but is because of policy failures in housing, addiction services, and mental health services.

What can we say of the future and the role of the prison to provide shelter to our most marginalised citizens? This sixth purpose—shelter—will increase. Homeless figures for July 2022 have reached the highest level ever recorded yet homeless prisoners are not included in that count. What you count is what you care about. With many areas of social policy at crisis point, it is difficult to see how this will end. At the moment, it is easier to envision the Irish State expanding prison places than providing the homes, addiction services and inpatient care which are desperately needed.