Thornton Hall Prison: Solution or Problem?

John on the Prison Carousel

Having completed a nine-month sentence, John was released from Mountjoy Prison in March 2007. For the entire duration of his imprisonment, John was ‘on protection’, because of fears for his safety. This meant that he spent twenty-three, and sometimes almost twenty-four, hours each day locked up in a cell on his own. When he was released he had no place to live. Homeless and adrift, he began to drink heavily and to abuse prescription drugs. Over the next few weeks, he was arrested several times for being drunk and disorderly and for shoplifting.

In June 2007, he was committed to Cloverhill Prison and spent two months there awaiting sentence – again on twenty-three hour lock-up. After two months, he appeared in court and received a three-month sentence. He was then transferred to Mountjoy Prison, but since his sentence had been backdated to include the two months he had already spent on remand in Cloverhill, and since he was also entitled to remission, he was released after just one day.

Back on the streets, he tried to make a new start but by late September he was once more in Cloverhill Prison awaiting trial, again for the same type of offences. After a two-week remand, the court sentenced him to a month’s imprisonment. So again he was transferred to Mountjoy, where he spent less than a week.

Now released, he is once more homeless, though trying to link in with support services that might help. He is also facing two more charges for offences he is alleged to have committed during summer 2007 and it is possible that he will be back in Mountjoy again before Christmas.

So far, then, in 2007 John has been in two separate prisons, and has spent close on two hundred days behind bars, spread over three separate periods. This has cost the prison service about €60,000;1 the Court Service costs and the cost of Garda time involved in arresting, questioning, charging and sentencing John would no doubt amount to substantial additional sums.

During the course of his time in prison, John never saw a counsellor, a probation officer or attended any training or education programmes. This is despite the fact that he has a serious drink problem, is addicted to drugs and has no formal educational qualifications. The only rehabilitative measure he accessed was his daily dose of methadone. Even were he to have had contact with support and rehabilitative services in prison, it is open to question whether they could have made any real impact over such short periods of time in two separate prisons.

Not a Unique Experience

The imprisonment of John is highly questionable, having been both ineffective and extremely expensive. The authorities might argue that his imprisonment was a measure of last resort, given his multiple personal and social problems. But imprisoning John was a matter of last resort only because of the inadequacy of supports in the community to address his addictions and his housing needs.

The pattern evident in John’s story is mirrored in the case of many others sent to prison. Repeated short spells in increasingly violent prisons for relatively minor offences are now significant features of the Irish penal system.

Moreover, the kind of personal and social problems which blight John’s life are all too often the experience of those who are imprisoned. Studies of people in prison in Ireland have consistently shown that a very high proportion come from poor socio-economic circumstances and have benefited little from schooling; many have faced family break-up in childhood; many also have experience of homelessness and/or of living in insecure accommodation; disproportionate numbers suffer some form of mental illness and are addicted to alcohol and/or illicit drugs.

A Brand New Prison at Thornton Hall

In the face of the reality of the short time a majority of those imprisoned spend in prison, and of the social and economic deprivation that underlies much of the crime in our society, what major initiative is being planned by those responsible for our penal policy? Disappointingly, it is to build the largest prison complex ever seen in this State2 – and at the same time increase the number of prison places provided.

Of course, the initiative is not being presented as such: rather, it is described as a project to build a new prison to replace unsatisfactory prison buildings. Thus, the Minister for Justice, Brian Lenihan TD, stated in July 2007: ‘The new prison at Thornton is badly needed to replace the Dickensian conditions [of Mountjoy] … and to ensure that those committed to prisons can be kept in a safe and secure environment with the facilities necessary to encourage their rehabilitation.’3

A plan to provide improved physical facilities for those imprisoned is, naturally, to be welcomed. However, in this article I argue that there are several grounds on which we should question the proposed new development.4

Firstly, the new prison at Thornton Hall will represent a continuance of the dominant feature of Irish penal policy over the past decade – which has been to increase the number of prison places, and to increase the number of people detained, while failing to radically develop alternative sentences that would offer a better opportunity to address the personal and social problems experienced by a high proportion of those who come before the courts.

Secondly, from what we know about the plans for the new complex, it appears that the opportunity to design the buildings in a way that would lessen the threat of prisoner violence seems to have been passed up.

Thirdly, the Thornton Hall plans regarding facilities for pre-release male prisoners, for women, and for young people under eighteen, represent regressive steps in our penal policy in relation to these groups.

Adding Still More to Prison Capacity

Up to 1,400 prisoners will be held within the walls of the 150-acre site at Thornton Hall. Currently, the total average number of prisoners held in the Mountjoy complex, which Thornton Hall is intended to replace, is 860. Building this new and larger prison will therefore add a further 540 prison places, representing a capacity increase of over 60 per cent on what is currently available in Mountjoy.

This will add to the significant expansion in prison places that has already occurred during the past decade. The opening of four new prisons – Castlerea Prison (1997), Dochas Centre (1999), Cloverhill Prison (2000), and the Midlands Prison (2001) – resulted in an extra 1,000 prison places.5 Improvements and extensions have taken place in Limerick Prison, Shelton Abbey, and Loughan House; a new wing is currently being built in Wheatfield Prison. Close to €250 million has been spent on building, expanding and refurbishing prisons.

This building programme has undoubtedly resulted in facilities that offer better physical conditions for prisoners: that is, of course, welcome. However, in terms of overall penal policy, it could be argued that the key outcome of the ‘prison building boom’ of the last ten years is not so much the replacement of outdated prison buildings as the creation of greater prison capacity. This ‘capacity creep’ is one of the reasons people question the building not just of the Thornton Hall complex but of a new prison outside Cork city.

Unsurprisingly, more and more people are coming into prison to fill the places that have been added. The average number of people in prison on any given day rose from 2,121 in 1995 to 3,151 in 2005, representing an increase of over 50 per cent.6 On 2 November 2007, the total prisoner population, including people on remand, and those detained under immigration rules, was 3,342.7

Scope for Reducing the Use of Imprisonment
Instead of looking to increase the capacity of our prisons, I would argue strongly that we should be examining how we could reduce the number of prison places, and develop alternative penalties as a more appropriate and effective way of dealing with those who come before the courts.

I suggest, further, that an analysis of the length of the majority of sentences imposed by the courts, and of the type of crimes for which people are currently in prison, shows that there is significant scope for reducing the use of imprisonment and the number of prison places provided.

For How Long are People sent to Prison?
In 2005, the latest year for which there are published statistics, 40 per cent of people sentenced to imprisonment received sentences of three months or less; eight out of every ten people sentenced received prison terms of less than twelve months.8

Most sentences of imprisonment in that year were for crimes at the lower end of the scale of gravity: over 60 per cent (3,050) were for offences in these categories and 85 per cent were for non-violent offences.9

Consistent with this pattern of short sentences of imprisonment being used as the punishment for less serious offences, is the fact that it is the district courts – that is, the courts which deal with less serious crimes – which are responsible for imposing up to 80 per cent of all sentences of imprisonment. (These courts deal with offences such as public order offences, minor drug offences, road traffic offences, criminal damage, littering and failure to have a television licence.)

For What are People sent to Prison?
We can also get an understanding of the use we make of imprisonment if we look at the situation on a particular day. A written answer to a parliamentary question, provided in Dáil Éireann on 6 November 2007, gives an interesting snapshot.10  The information made available relates to the situation on 2 November 2007 and shows how many people were in prison on that day, as well as giving a breakdown, in nine categories, of the offences for which they were serving a sentence (see Table 1 below).

Of the 3,342 prisoners in custody on 2 November, 2,641 (80 per cent) were serving a sentence; the remaining 701 were either on remand (awaiting trial or sentence) or detained at the request of the immigration authorities.

The breakdown of offences for which the 2,641 people serving a sentence were convicted is not very detailed and in some cases a category could include both serious and minor offences. For example, ‘Drug Offences’ could range from possession of cannabis for personal use to possession of major quantities with intent to supply.

However, on the basis of the information provided, we know that there are almost as many people in prison for road traffic offences as there are for murder. We also know that if the figures for imprisonment for offences such as theft, shoplifting and criminal damage were combined, the resultant total (647) would be higher than the combined figure for imprisonment for murder, manslaughter and sexual offences (538).

Currently, then, for every ten prisoners serving a sentence for one of the most serious offences (murder, manslaughter and sexual offences) there are twelve in prison for property crimes without violence.



Table I: Prisoners Serving Sentences by Offence Category, 2 November 2007
Offence Category Total Percentage
Murder 226 9
Manslaughter 82 3
Sexual Offences 230 9
Other offences against the person 373 14
Offences against property with violence 93 4
Offences against property without violence 647 24
Drug offences 435 16
Road traffic offences 190 7
Other 365 14
2641 100

Source: Dáil Debates, 6 November 2007 (Vol. 640, No. 6).

1,000 Fewer Prison Places?

The information given in Table 1 allows only some cautious conclusions. If we were to define imprisonment as being ‘warranted’ in the case of offences in the first five categories – namely, murder; manslaughter; sexual offences; ‘other offences against the person’; ‘offences against property with violence’ – then we would conclude that the imprisonment of at least 40 per cent of those in prison under sentence in November 2007 was ‘warranted’. If we were to go further and regard all crimes in the category ‘Drug Offences’ as serious and meriting imprisonment then ‘warranted’ prison sentences would rise to 55 per cent.

If we were to regard the remaining categories – namely  ‘property crime without violence’, ‘road traffic offences’ and ‘other’ – as including offences not generally of sufficient seriousness to merit a prison sentence, then the imprisonment of at least 45 per cent of the people in prison under sentence in November 2007 could be described as ‘unwarranted’.

Of course, much more detailed information and analysis would be required before any firm conclusions about the extent of ‘unwarranted’ use of imprisonment could be made. However, what can be drawn from this (admittedly tentative) analysis is that if a decision were to be made to use prison for only the most serious offences there could possibly be a reduction of around 1,000 in the number of prison places needed. This would obviously mean there would be no need for further expansion in current prison capacity. Surely, this possibility merits serious consideration?

Remand and Immigration Detention
A policy of reducing the use of imprisonment would also rigorously examine how we use imprisonment for those awaiting trial (remand) and for those detained at the request of the immigration authorities. At present, it appears that there are around 700 people from these categories in prison.

Changes to the law relating to bail introduced following a referendum to amend the Constitution in 1996 have increased the need for prison spaces by about 600. The principal reason for tightening the bail laws was a belief that some offenders
were taking advantage of being free on bail to go on a spree of committing crime – on the basis that imprisonment was in any case inevitable as a consequence of the crimes for which they had already been charged. Before expanding our prison capacity further it would be prudent to know how effective this expansion in remand  imprisonment has been in reducing crime.

No clear information is available on the extent to which migrants and asylum seekers – who have not committed any crime – are being detained in prison at the request of the immigration authorities.  The data supplied to Dáil Éireann on 6 November 2007 does not give a figure for this group. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that on any given day somewhere between thirty and fifty prison spaces could be used for the detention of people under immigration legislation.

Need for a Different Direction in Policy
Few disagree with the official position that some of our prison buildings are so old and dilapidated that they are unfit to accommodate prisoners, let alone provide a suitable place for rehabilitation and a humane environment for both staff and prisoners. Moreover, few would disagree that the new buildings and facilities offer a better prospect of improving prison regimes.

However, it is evident that to an alarming degree the provision of new prison buildings over the past decade has come to be equated with building additional prison places. This is in spite of the evidence that to a significant extent prison is being used to detain people for short periods and for crimes that are at the less serious end of the scale.  It is also in spite of the evidence of the ineffectiveness of prison as a solution to crime. Research has shown that of the nearly 20,000 people released from prison between 2001 and 2004 almost one third were back in prison within a year and almost half were in prison within four years.11

It is clear that there is in Ireland a continued failure to make imprisonment just one element of a comprehensive penal policy, which would seek to develop non-custodial penalties focused on restitution and rehabilitation, and also to ensure that former prisoners were given every opportunity following release to rebuild their lives and avoid further criminal involvement. As they stand, the proposals in relation to Thornton Hall hold out little prospect that the radical change of policy that is needed is about to take place anytime soon.

Prevention of Violence in the New Prison

A second area of concern in regard to the proposals for Thornton Hall is that the design apparently being considered may do little to address one of the more serious problems that Irish prisons now face – a high incidence and a serious level of violence among prisoners.

The reality is that today significant numbers of those whom society incarcerates are exposed to the risk of intimidation, abuse, serious injury or even death while in prison.

A report released in October 2007 by an international watchdog on prison conditions stated that: ‘at least three of the prison establishments visited can be considered as unsafe, both for prisoners and for prison staff’: these were Mountjoy Prison, Limerick Prison, and St Patrick’s Institution. The report goes on to say that: ‘Stabbings and assaults with various objects are frequent and many prisoners met by the delegation bore the marks of such incidents’.12

The report echoes widespread concern about the extent of inter-prisoner violence in Irish prisons. Aware of the threat of assault or attack, many prisoners inform prison authorities of their fears for their safety. In response, prisoners are placed ‘on protection’ – indeed, it seems that this is the principal way in which the authorities deal with these threats of violence.

In nearly all cases, prisoners on protection are kept locked in their cells for twenty-three hours a day. In May 2007, it was reported in the media that there were seventy prisoners on protection in Mountjoy Prison.13 Being ‘on protection’ means that prisoners do not have access to education or recreation and the whole experience of being in prison becomes even more damaging.

The culture of violence within prison calls for a range of measures.  One element of a possible response lies in the design of prisons: small units providing a full range of facilities in self-contained areas could represent an important part of the solution to this serious problem. Yet, despite the opportunity that is being presented by the building of a new prison on a spacious campus, it seems that the option of having smaller units is not going to be adopted at Thornton Hall. Instead, it appears that the two main prison buildings on the complex will each accommodate between 400 and 500 male prisoners.

If these buildings proceed as proposed, with common facilities, such as visiting areas, exercise areas and educational facilities, shared by hundreds of prisoners, it will mean it is very likely that threats of intimidation and violence will ‘infect’ the regime of the new prison. As a result, large numbers of prisoners will be ‘on protection’, and will be unable to avail of the rehabilitative services that it is promised will be an important feature of the new complex.

Facilities that should be Located Elsewhere

A third area of concern regarding Thornton Hall is that the proposed complex is to include facilities that would be better located in their existing or alternative sites. Not all buildings on the Mountjoy site need replacement and there are good reasons for arguing that it would be better to leave both the Training Unit for male prisoners and the women’s prison in their current locations. It would most definitely be better not to include, as is proposed, a facility for young people under eighteen in the Thornton Hall complex.

The Training Unit in Mountjoy
The Training Unit, a semi-open prison for pre-release prisoners which was completed in 1976, is in good physical condition. Furthermore, it is recognised that this facility is one of the best functioning prisons in the country. It has a very progressive regime that is widely acknowledged to assist those who have been detained there to integrate back into society following their release.

Many of the prisoners in the Training Unit leave the prison each day to work in jobs which they have been facilitated to obtain, and which offer the possibility of continued employment once they are released.  The relocation of this prison to a site far outside the city centre will pose a serious challenge to this very positive aspect of the Training Unit’s regime.

Dochas Centre

As with the Training Unit, the demolition of the Dochas Centre, the women’s prison located in the Mountjoy complex, and its replacement by a building on the Thornton Hall site, is not motivated by the need to improve physical conditions and provide a better regime for prisoners but, rather, by economic considerations – the enhancement of the value of the Mountjoy site when it goes on sale for re-development.

A significant advantage of the present location of Dochas is that it is close to where the children and other family members of many of the women prisoners live. If the prison is moved to Thornton Hall, visiting those detained will be much less convenient for their families and children.  It is likely also that they will have to travel there by prison bus, as there is no public transport to Thornton Hall. (Indeed, the need for this prison bus is potentially one of the most negative elements of the impact of the Thornton Hall proposal on the families of prisoners. Having to use such a service will add to the sense of stigma that families of prisoners already feel. The hour-long journey from the city centre will allow easy identification of the families of prisoners and possibly give rise to bullying and intimidation by those who may seek to use these visitors to smuggle contraband into the prison.)

The Dochas Centre is acknowledged as operating a very progressive regime. The Centre is well designed; although part of the Mountjoy complex, it is located on the periphery of the site, has its own entrance and is essentially a separate prison. It was designed so that small numbers of women can live together in ‘houses’. Each house has approximately twelve single bedrooms and contains domestic-style cooking and laundry facilities.

It seems that the design qualities of the Dochas Centre will be transferred to Thornton Hall. However, it will be a bigger prison, thus adding to the likelihood that more female offenders will be imprisoned.

This would be an extremely retrograde step. If we consider the profile of women prisoners it is evident that there is scope to reduce the use of imprisonment for women and furthermore to reduce the extent to which those imprisoned are detained in secure  closed prisons. Most women detained in the Dochas Centre are young, unemployed, inner-city women with addiction problems who are sentenced to short terms of imprisonment.

A 2003 study of committals to the Dochas Centre for the twelve-month period 25 September 2000 to 25 September 2001 pointed out that:

… more women were imprisoned in the relevant year for larceny, robbery and stealing than for any other offence.  The next most frequently occurring offences were Drunk and Disorderly, or Breach of the Peace type offences. A large number of women deemed to be aliens were committed to the prison that year. Also striking is the number of women imprisoned on assault charges, one third of them for assaulting a Garda; and equally striking is the very small number of women imprisoned for murder or domestic violence charges. Perhaps the most striking feature of the analysis is the relatively trivial nature of the offences for which many of the women were imprisoned, either awaiting trial or having been sentenced. 14

At present, all women detained in Ireland – irrespective of the seriousness of their offence, or whether they are on remand awaiting trial or whether they are very young or whether they are detained under the rules of the immigration system – are held in a secure closed prison. This contrasts with the situation for male prisoners who may at least have the possibility of being detained in less highly secure or even open prisons.

If the women’s prison is to be moved to Thornton Hall, then the planning process for this should ensure that the building of a new prison is not seized on as an opportunity to expand the number of places provided. Instead, the building of a new closed centre should be accompanied by the development of one or more open centres, with special consideration being given to the needs young women offenders.

Detaining Children in Thornton Hall
One of the most objectionable aspects of the proposals regarding the Thornton Hall complex is the inclusion of a facility for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds in what is supposed to be an adult prison complex.

This is despite the fact that the detention of young people who are still legally children (that is, are under the age of eighteen years) in adult prisons has been one of the most shameful features of the Irish penal system and is in contravention of Ireland’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In 2006, a total of 165 young people under the age of eighteen were imprisoned; most were held in St Patrick’s Institution, which holds young offenders up to the age of twenty-one.15

The Irish Government has given repeated commitments to end the practice of detaining those under eighteen alongside adults. The Children Act 2001 (as amended by the Criminal Justice Act 2006) allows for the extension of the use of ‘children detention schools’, which are currently only for those aged fifteen and younger, so that they could be used for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds.  This would mean that all those aged under eighteen could be removed from the prison system. The proposal to build a facility for young people aged sixteen and seventeen as part of the new Thornton Hall prison complex runs directly counter to this decision.

In April 2006, an Expert Group was established to ‘initiate and oversee the planning needed to give effect to the extension of the children detention school model’.15 It is widely expected that as a result of the Group’s deliberations, the Irish Youth Justice Service will provide a new centre specifically for the purpose of the detention of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds.

Why do we need to build a facility for young people in Thornton Hall if another statutory agency will probably shortly afterwards (if not at the same time) commence building an identical facility at a more appropriate location?  It is not a sufficient response to the concerns raised that the Minister for Justice should try to justify the proposed facility for under-eighteens at Thornton Hall by describing it as temporary and ‘purely a precautionary measure’ and by saying that ‘the accommodation can be used by adults in due course.’16

Currently, young people under eighteen detained in St Patrick’s Institution are housed in a dedicated and refurbished section of the centre. This section includes a multi-million euro school completed in 2003, which only came into operation in April 2007. Rather than proceed with the proposed new centre for young people under eighteen at Thornton Hall, it would be preferable to enhance the existing special section of St Patrick’s Institution and staff it with a child care team, so when there are no longer adult prisoners in Mountjoy, this could become the temporary facility that is claimed to be needed.


At first sight, the proposal to replace the Victorian edifice that is Mountjoy Prison with a new prison, Thornton Hall, on a site that will be fifty times the size of Croke Park might seem reasonable, progressive and even laudable.

However, many reasonable people who know at close hand the realities of how imprisonment operates are dismayed by the proposal to greatly expand the number of prison places, thereby serving to reinforce the dominance of imprisonment in Irish society’s response to crime.

The story of John, and of many more people like him, shows that all too often, ‘prison doesn’t work’. Increasing prison capacity alone is not going to ‘make prison work’ for John or indeed for the large number of other people who repeatedly come into prison, serve a short sentence, are released into social circumstances that are the same as, or even worse than, those they experienced before they were imprisoned, and who then re-offend.

What a significant number of the people we send to prison need is not a new prison campus but rather a comprehensive range of services to address the factors that lead them to commit crime.

Promoters of the development of Thornton Hall often euphemistically refer to it as a ‘prison campus’. However, the prospect of imprisoning on one site, some distance outside Dublin, 1,400 men, women and children, many of whom will be the among the most vulnerable in our society, might be equally referred to as a ‘penal colony’.

Plans for this prison are, it seems, well advanced, yet apparently there is to be a period of public consultation about the proposed development in the near future. If that consultation is to be anything other than window-dressing, then it must allow for the possibility of serious reconsideration of at least the most alarming aspects of the proposed development. These include the expansion in the number of prison places, which will perpetuate the use of imprisonment for petty offenders; the proposals relating to the women’s prison, and the inclusion in the complex of a facility for young people who are under eighteen.


1. The average cost of keeping a person in prison in 2005 was €90,900. (Irish Prison Service, Annual Report 2005, Dublin: Irish Prison Service, 2006, p. 68.)

2. The new prison complex at Thornton Hall will be  almost as large as Long Kesh.

3. The Minister for Justice was speaking in Dublin on 25 July 2007 at the launch of The Whitaker Report 20 Years On – Lessons Learned or Lessons Forgotten?, published by The Katherine Howard Foundation.

4. Limitations of space prevent examination of several other important concerns regarding the proposals for Thornton Hall, in particular the plan to move the Central Mental Hospital to the new site, and the use of a Public Private Partnership to build and maintain the prison.

5. Fitzpatrick Associates, Economic Consultants, Irish Prison Service Capital Expenditure Review, Dublin: Irish Prison Service, 2006, p. 12. This report was commissioned by the Irish Prison Service and is available on

6. Irish Prison Service, Annual Report 2005, p. 13.

7. Dáil Debates, 6 November 2007 (Vol. 640, No. 6).

8. Irish Prison Service, Annual Report 2005, p. 11.

9. Ibid., p. 12.

10. Dáil Debates, 6 November 2007 (Vol. 640, No. 6).

11. Study of Offender Recidivism in Ireland. This three-year project involved collaboration between criminologists at University College Dublin, the University of Missouri-St Louis and Cambridge University.  Findings of the research will be published in a number of forthcoming journal articles. However, details of the research findings were, with the researchers’ permission, widely reported in the Irish media in December 2006:  see, for example, The Irish Times, 6 December 2006.

12. Council of Europe, Report to the Government of Ireland on the Visit to Ireland carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 2 to 13 October 2006, Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 10 October 2007, CPT Inf (2007) 40, par. 38, p. 21.

13. Sunday Business Post, 20 May 2007.

14. Christia Quinlan, ‘The Women We Imprison’, Irish Criminal Law Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2003. For another detailed study on the profile of women in prison see: Celesta McCann James, ‘Recycled Women: Oppression and the Social World of Women Prisoners in the Irish Republic,’ Thesis (Ph.D.), National University of Ireland, Galway, September 2001.

15. The Irish Times, 13 August 2007.

16. Expert Group on Children Detention Schools, First Progress Report to Mr Brian Lenihan TD, Minister for Children, December 2006, Dublin: Irish Youth Justice Service and Office of Minister for Children, 2006, p. 4.

17. Dáil Debates, 9 October 2007 (Vol. 639, No. 1).