A piece by a female “journalist” in today’s Times:
Ireland needs its first female open prison to reduce reoffending and overcrowding, a human rights charity has said.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) said that the lack of rehabilitation strategies tailored for women created a revolving door for female prisoners. It added that the country’s two women’s prisons were “chronically overcrowded”.
The Dóchas Centre in Dublin and the women’s section of Limerick Prison were operating at 127 per cent capacity in October last year, according to the most recent figures.
An IPRT spokesman said: “The two women’s prisons have been chronically overcrowded. Often people will say that women serve life sentences by instalments, they’re serving very short sentences and going in and going back out again.”
They added: “There’s not very much in terms of support for somebody’s release and the support and reintegration we have now is quite poor.”
In a parliamentary question, Éamon Ó Cuív, Fianna Fáil TD for Galway West, asked Helen McEntee, the justice minister, about the possibility of a new open prison for female inmates. He asked if it would be possible to open a facility similar to male centres like Shelton Abbey in Wicklow or Loughan House in Cavan for female prisoners on the grounds of equality.
Open prisons have minimal security measures in regards to staff and locked cells, and prisoners are often given their own room keys which encourages responsibility and dignity. They focus on rehabilitation and allow prisoners to keep in touch with their communities to give them a better chance of reintegration after release.
Ms McEntee said there were no plans for a new open female centre. To address the issue of overcrowding, a new development at Limerick Prison will be built by the end of next year and will accommodate 50 female inmates.
She added that a step-down facility was created by the Probation Service and Irish Prison Service to help women ending their sentences to reintegrate into their communities. The facility, run by Focus Ireland, took in it’s first clients in May last year but only has capacity for nine women.
Mr Ó Cuív told The Times that the step down facility was a passive move, but there was still a need for a recognised minimum security prison for women. He said he had visited women’s facilities himself.
“Many of these women don’t need to be here at all, they don’t need to be in prisons,” he said.
He added that most female prisoners were serving short sentences for petty crimes, and because they posed no serious threat an open centre should be created.
According to the 2019 Irish Prison Report, female inmates make up only 4.3 per cent of the prison population. Last year the average number of female prisoners in custody was 170 while the average number of male prisoners in custody was 3,801. Of the 170 female inmates, more than a third received sentences under 12 months.
Similarly, the IPRT spokesman said: “It’s about preventing women coming into prison in the first place and addressing wider social justice issues. Then we need to address overcrowding and ensuring women have access to good support while in prison.”
They added: “Women are often our primary caregivers so that needs to be taken into account and obviously these women want to be near to their families when they are finishing their sentences. So with all that in mind, an open centre would be a key part of a female prisoner’s integration process.”
They also said to address all these factors there must be gender-specific strategies that recognised the impact incarceration had on female prisoners compared with male prisoners. Female inmates often suffered from trauma in prison due to family separation, prior abuse, or addiction related issues.
The recorded rate of self-harm among women inmates in 2018 was 5.7 times higher than the rate for men and nearly half of all women who self-harmed did so on more than one occasion, according to a 2018 report from Irish Prison Service self-harm assessment and data analysis.
The IPRT spokesperson said more research and action was needed to address female prisoners’ specific needs and to prevent women entering or re-entering prisons. “Until changes are made that address the wider economic and social marginalisation of women, female prisoners will be caught in this vicious cycle,” they said.
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