Irish Government Gives Up On Penal Reform


The Irish Government will see a number of records broken in 2023; some desirable, and some, less so. Slipping under the radar and news-cycles in recent weeks, a new threshold was exceeded as the State now has 4,664 people incarcerated in our prisons (the highest number in the State’s relatively short history). To facilitate this record, 164 prisoners were sleeping on mattresses on available floor space in cells, in some cases four to a cell originally designed for one person.

While it has been reported that “eyebrows were raised” at a ministerial meeting as the gravity of the current situation was outlined, the Government should not expect this number to decrease into the future. In many ways, it is reminsicent of the Homer Simpson meme on global warming as he warns Bart about declaring it the hottest summer ever. With a little editing, the Irish Government could be similarly cautioned that “this is the lowest prison population of the next couple of decades” as, the State intends to build its way out of the prison crisis.

The effect of this recent episode of overcrowding on prisoner dignity and prison management has been noted elsewhere, but I would like to go further and posit that a Government overseeing a disproportionate programme of prison expansion is a Government that has given up on the idea of penal reform.

Penal Moderation

The concept of penal reform is a broad church where many people of different political persuasions and understandings of prisonfind common ground to advocate for more humane imprisonment and the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners. Crucial to the core conceptualising of penal reform is the continual and progressive displacement of the prison as the centre-piece of the criminal justice system. Its theory of change rests on the notion that as alternative community-based sanctions are continually developed, the use of prison becomes an absolute last resort.

Over a decade ago, a group of academics sought to develop the idea of penal moderation which bears a close resemblance to penal reform. Teasing out the idea, Ian Loader proposes that the “harshness and scale of the present penal system” should be traded for a “milder and smaller system.” His carefully constructed concept of penal moderation is built upon three guiding principles: restraint, parsimony, and human dignity.

Whilst restraint in political discourse and the realisation of human dignity will always be relevant, the principle of parsimony is most pressing in Ireland now as it concerns a “minimum necessary penal system.”

Describing a Reality of Prison Expansion

One of the clearest signs that civil society has an impact on politicians and policymakers is the incorporation of advocates’ language into political debate and official documents. The language of penal reform has been so subsumed by the Irish Government that it published a “Review of Policy Options for Prison and Penal Reform 2022-2024” last year. This gives the impression that the Government is taking heed of what advocates recommend.

However, since this review was published the former Minister for Justice, Simon Harris, has announced that the Government would address the overcrowding issues in prison by pledging to built an additional 400 prison spaces in the next five years, accommodating a minimum of 620 prisoners. Five thousand prisoners will become the new norm, far in excess of demographic projections which are offered as the primary rationale.

Placing the State’s current programme of prison expansion alongside a historical understanding of penal reform or a more contemporary understanding of penal moderation, it becomes clear that the Irish Government has thrown in the towel on penal reform as it is commonly understood, despite its adoption of advocates’ rhetoric.

It is important to say this. The increasing number of people finding themselves on the prison carousel for short sentences when community-based addiction, mental health, or social work inputs are what they need, cannot speak up. So it is vital that organisations in civil society, including the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice advocating to effect change on prison policy in Ireland accurately describe reality, even when it means openly criticising the Government. Concepts like penal reform have a historical tradition as activists and researchers continually wrestle with its principles and how it maintains its relevance and organising ability in each new decade.

Where Now for the Future?

In one of his last interviews as Minister for Justice, Simon Harris said that Ireland needed both penal reform and increased prison capacity. In the understanding of the Irish Government and civil service, these are two sides of the same coin. No inconsistency exists. Unfortunately, this represents the risk to the language of advocacy as the State stretches the concept to breaking point; far beyond any recognisable meaning.

Aspects of the State’s penal agenda will undoubtedly be consistent with reformist ideals but the role of the prison is too central to how we punish in Ireland to ignore.

If new modern prison spaces are required to replace severely dilapidated, crumbling Victorian-era cells, then for every new space opened two old prison spaces should be closed. This approach would be consistent with penal reform, by modernising  the prison estate making imprisonment more humane, while steadily and gradually reducing the prison capacity.

The requirement for a robust and energised agenda for penal reform is more needed now than ever in Ireland.  Appropriating G.K. Chesterton’s famous maxim on Christianity, ”penal reform has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

Clearly stating that the planned programme of prison expansion is not consistent with penal reform is the first step to rehabilitating its meaning.