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Ó Snodaigh calls for prison reform

29 February, 2004


Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh addressing the party's Ard Fheis on prison reform said 'That this Ard Fheis opposes the Minister for Justice‚s prison restructuring plans as they are not evidence-based, do nothing to address the conditions urgently requiring change as outlined by the Prison Inspector, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and human rights groups including Amnesty International and the Irish Penal Reform Trust, and also do not address the primary source of overspending on the prison service which is unnecessary incarceration for minor non-violent offences such as non-payment of fines.' Deputy Ó Snodaigh said:

No less a person than Nelson Mandela said that we must judge a society not by how it treats its most powerful citizens, but by looking inside its prisons to see how it treats its least powerful citizens. How true this is.

Historically, republicans have always been in the forefront of exposing unacceptable conditions and practices in prisons, jails, and places of detention throughout this island. Our concern about prison conditions extends beyond our immediate preoccupation with the conditions of republican prisoners and POWs. We recognise that general prison conditions are a major human rights concern in this state, and something that needs to be tackled. These conditions have been criticised by major human rights organisations including Amnesty International and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture but also by the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Prison Inspectorate here at home.

In the face of these widely criticised conditions does the Minister for Justice take the necessary steps to change this situation, to end human rights violating conditions in our prisons and jails? No. As we see from his closure of Loughan House that was scheduled for this very weekend as the last in the recent series of announced closures under this Government that will eliminate open institutions, we have a Minister who is intent on prison restructuring without reform, who is making prison policy not based on evidence or best practice, but his own right-wing ideology ˆ effectively, he is making prison policy on the back of a bar matt. That is not acceptable to Sinn Féin.

The motion I commend to you is self-explanatory. That this Ard Fheis opposes the Minister for Justice‚s prison restructuring plans as they are not evidence-based, do nothing to address the conditions urgently requiring change as outlined by the Prison Inspector, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and human rights groups including Amnesty International and the Irish Penal Reform Trust, and also do not address the primary source of overspending on the prison service which is unnecessary incarceration for minor non-violent offences such as non-payment of fines. That the Ard Fheis asserts its belief that the Minister is exploiting the prison officer overtime issue as a decoy to cover his plans to privatise or partially privatise the Prison Service, and expresses its opposition in principle to prison privatisation. That we believe that the most effective and socially responsible way to reduce prison spending is to reduce recidivism through state investment in programmes and services in deprived communities, for prisoners, and for ex-prisoners, and to introduce appropriate alternatives to custody in suitable cases to eliminate unnecessary incarceration. And that therefore this Ard Fheis calls for a transparent review of the prison system in the 26 Counties with a view to comprehensive reform and modernisation of the prison service based on international best practice and in keeping with human rights obligations. That we call for the reversal of funding cuts to the Probation and Welfare Service, the ringfencing of any savings from prison officer overtime for redeployment to rehabilitative services for prisoners including education and training, and an assurance from the Minister that no jobs in these areas will be lost as a result of his restructuring plans.

I believe that even after all republican prisoners are released, republicans will continue to be in the forefront of fighting for improvements to prison conditions and the human rights of prisoners because we are committed to human rights for all. Sinn Féin is the only party that can produce real, effective alternatives to the failed prison policies of successive Governments and so I seek your mandate to authorise the party to begin the process of developing a more comprehensive all-island prison reform policy that can deliver the necessary change, and that will provide the basis for a future justice policy for the United Ireland we are seeking to build.

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