Republican News · Thursday 03 August 2000

[An Phoblacht]

Felons and Fellonis

The 26-County prison system is designed to punish rather than rehabilitate. MICHAEL PIERSE takes isue with media coverage of the recent absconding of prisoner Regina Felloni and argues that government attitudes, as personified by `hard man' Justice Minister John O'Donoghue, are out of touch

When Regina Felloni escaped from Mountjoy jail guards this week during a prison outing, the media coverage and comments that followed reflected much of the establishment's attitudes towards crime and criminals.

Self-righteousness in our society is an evasion of the truth that many of us could easily be in the position of Regina Felloni. The message should be that society condemns the crime committed, but not the human being
Felloni, the daughter of one of Dublin's most notorious drug barons, nicknamed ``King Scum'', was herself jailed for drug dealing, a horrible and disgusting crime that has caused so much pain and death to many communities. But does that mean that her rights as an individual to dignity and rehabilitation are automatically revoked?

The Evening Herald stated that the ``jailed drug dealer is still a craving junkie''. What does this contribute to society? Calling someone who is obviously suffering from an addiction, a young woman who has known nothing but drugs, a ``craving junkie'', indeed calling any addict a ``junkie'', what does this achieve?

Felloni was found several hours after her escape at the Pope's Cross in Dublin's Phoenix Park. It is suspected that she overdosed on heroin. She was admitted to the James Connolly Memorial Hospital in Blanchardstown and then brought back into Garda custody. But still, two articles in The Star skimmed over this minor detail and went for the tongue in cheek headline `Regina back in jail after a wee break - drug dealer flees from restaurant' and `Chalets, comfort and shopping trips', referring to the activities and conditions at the women's prison in Mountjoy.

The fact that major newspapers feel comfortable flippantly labelling Felloni a `junkie' and giving priority coverage to the recreational facilities in Mountjoy, above the news of her overdose, says a lot about their attitude towards convicted criminals. Talk of `chalets' and `comfort' is only taking cheap shots at the prison system and pandering to those who, in their ignorance, think that punitive `justice' is the only way to solve crime.

While the 26 Counties has a relatively low ratio of prisoners to population as compared to other EU countries, the statistics are somewhat misleading. The state also has a relatively low rate of crime as compared to European countries. Comparing the number of crimes in the state to the number of prison sentences reveals that it has the highest level of imprisonment for recorded crime in Europe after the Six Counties, where `crime', of course, is a much more misleading term.

Despite this apparently damning evidence, Ian O'Donnell, who directs the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), believes that Irish people are not really that supportive of punitive measures when it comes to crime.

The IPRT is a registered charity that campaigns for reform of the 26-County penal system. They are currently researching a document which O'Donnell says is intended to offer a blueprint which, if implemented, will radically change the way the penal system in this state works. He aims for a ``model penal system''.

``I don't think Irish society is that punitive,'' O'Donnell says. ``There isn't a punitive constituency in the country.'' He bases this belief on the views he heard at the National Crime Forum, which visited several constituencies in the state during 1998 and found that most of those who contributed to the debate were, even when angry at the criminal justice system, not in favour of punishment alone as a solution to crime.

``People who generally have a more sophisticated view of how to deal with crime are the people who live in the areas most affected by it,'' he says.

The IPRT is campaigning for a halt to the 26-County government's prison building campaign. Currently, the Minister for Justice is half way through his pre-election pledge to provide an extra 2,000 places. This is despite the absence of governmental research or statistics on the prison service in the past six years or any projections on the amount of spaces actually required in years to come.

``We are asking the minister to stop the prison building programme until he can demonstrate these spaces are needed,'' O'Donnell says. ``This is a fairly conservative request.''

The extra 2,000 places will cost in the region of 200 million, with each prisoner filling those spaces averaging 894 per week for their upkeep.

``The minister's decision to provide these spaces was based on an electoral promise he made following public reaction to the high-profile deaths of Veronica Guerin and Jerry McCabe,'' O'Donnell says. ``If there was the same kind of enthusiasm when it comes to prevention of crime and rehabilitation, which Fr Peter McVerry and Judge Peter Kelly have been highlighting, then we would be far better off.''

The most recent statistics available (from way back in 1994) show that 38% of the state's prisoners are on short-term stays for the non-payment of fines. Many others are heroin abusers who have been involved in persistent petty offending. In Mountjoy Jail, roughly two-thirds of the prisoners are chronic heroin abusers.

``The prison service is obliged under various UN treaties to provide an `equivalence of care','' O'Donnell points out. ``This means that addicts and prisoners in general should be entitled to the same facilities when they are behind bars as they would receive in the community. Prison should be seen as a serious opportunity for change. At present many addicts develop more serious addictions while imprisoned.''

Those prisoners jailed for the non-payment of fines are also being subjected to a system which is very unfair, he says. ``The only option currently available to the courts for an individual convicted for the non-payment of fines is prison. This has to change. One option is to impose a sentence of community service on those who fail to pay fines. A means assessment should also be provided prior to hearings, to assess what fine is appropriate to the individual based on their earnings and other relevant factors.''

Despite all the money being spent on the building of prisons, the need for penal reform has not so far been seriously assessed. While the new women's prison in Mountjoy has been applauded for its relaxing, friendly atmosphere, the new prison at Wheatfield is an example of how little has changed. Men are still to be held, on remand, before trial, in three-bunk rooms. ``This new prison lacks the adequate medical and psychiatric treatment need for remand prisoners, who are often at great risk of committing suicide,'' says O'Donnell. ``Remand prisoners tend to feel anxious and uncertain, as they have not jet been tried, and they deserve to be in conditions which are as close as possible to normal life. These are innocent men.''

Some holding cells in Mountjoy Jail have twice the number of prisoners for which they were designed. There are 776 prisoners in the jail, which was built to accommodate 450, putting great pressure on facilities and staff. The level of violence in the women's prison in Mountjoy, by contrast, declined when the prison moved to housing just one woman in each cell. The incidence of self-mutilation also fell.

There may well be a need for more prison spaces, but Justice Minister John O'Donoghue needs to compile clear, recent statitics before he runs off spending hundreds of millions of Irish taxpayers' money on a prison system designed to punish rather then rehabilitate. Prisoners invariably get out at some stage and if they have not been treated, the chances are that they will reoffend. Self-righteousness in our society is an evasion of the truth that many of us could easily be in the position of Regina Felloni. The message should be that society condemns the crime committed, but not the human being.

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