Articles tagged with: Peter McVerry SJ

Working Notes Issue 67 Editorial

on Thursday, 29 September 2011. Posted in Issue 67 Questioning Drug Policy

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Working Notes:Issue 67 Editorial

Two of the three articles in this issue of Working Notes deal with the distinct but not unrelated issues of drug policy and prison overcrowding; the third with the broader topic of the reform of public services generally.

In the opening article, Fr Peter McVerry SJ calls for a radical appraisal of current approaches to dealing with illegal drug use. Pointing out that ‘drug policy’ encompasses both policies to deal with the supply of drugs and policies to deal with demand, he says that addressing supply absorbs by far the greater share of public expenditure. Yet, despite successes by the authorities in intercepting supplies, the inflow of drugs continues, with powerful criminal gangs controlling this trade. Fr McVerry says there is need for a serious rethink of policy in relation to how the State can control the supply of drugs and suggests that the findings and recommendations of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, published in June 2011, provide some useful guidelines for the much-needed public and political debate on the issue.

In relation to policies to control demand, Fr McVerry highlights the importance of addressing demand among those who are habitual users or who are addicted to drugs. He emphasises the need for a comprehensive range of detoxification, rehabilitative and after-care services, and says that it is essential that these be accessible without undue delays. While the importance of all these elements has long since been recognised in official policy and strategy statements, provision falls far short of need, and existing services are endangered by current cutbacks in public funding.

Overcrowding is widely recognised to be a core problem of the Irish prison system, one which affects every aspect of prison life.This issue is addressed in an article by Patrick Hume SJ who notes that many Irish prisons are overcrowded even in terms of the most basic level of ‘bed capacity’ – simply the number of beds which can be fitted into a prison building. Moreover, he says it would appear that the prison authorities have now abandoned the principle that ‘one person per cell’ should be the norm. 

Fr Hume shows that international human rights agreements provide only general guidance as to what constitutes ‘desirable’ cell capacity and that in any case the provisions of such agreements can be appealed to in Irish courts only if they have been explicitly made part of domestic law. He shows too that while judgments of the Irish courts have upheld the basic rights of prisoners it is clear that the courts are unwilling to meddle in the administration of the prison system by specifying the conditions under which prisoners may be detained. He concludes that there is limited scope for a legal route through the courts towards ensuring that our prisons provide adequate accommodation, and argues that there is need for an informed public to advocate strongly for the changes necessary to close the gap between the prison conditions to which we should be aspiring and the reality of the conditions now prevailing.

The economic crisis of the last few years has focused increased attention on the importance and urgency of reform of Irish public services. In the third article in this issue, Dr Fergus O’Ferrall points out that the outcomes of services are in fact ‘co-produced’ by users and providers and so it makes sense to ensure public participation in the design and implementation of public services. However, he says, too often services are based on ‘passive models of delivery and narrow understandings of solidarity’, with citizens being seen as dependants or clients. Dr O’Ferrall argues for a ‘human development and capability approach’ to public service reform, one which would see citizens as ‘active, creative and able to act on behalf of their aspirations’, and which would allow for ‘participation, public debate, democratic practice and empowerment’ in the framing and implementation of services. He suggests that a capability approach is particularly necessary in relation to the reform of our health services, pointing out that effectively addressing the key public health problems of our times – obesity, harmful alcohol consumption and socio-economic differentials in health – will depend not on spending ever-increasing sums on health services (even if that were possible) but on the active commitment of informed and engaged citizens.

Drug Policy: Need for Radical Change?

on Thursday, 29 September 2011. Posted in Issue 67 Questioning Drug Policy

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Drug Policy: Need for a Radical Change?


What began as a heroin problem in inner-city Dublin in the 1980s has now spread like a cancer throughout Irish society. A wide variety of drugs, from cannabis to heroin to cocaine and on to crack cocaine, are now available in almost every town and village in Ireland. Crystal meth will probably be the next wave of drugs to hit our shores. While many of us have lived our entire lives without ever seeing an illegal drug, this most certainly cannot be assumed to be the case for the children and young people now growing up in our society.

The monetary value of the illegal drug trade in Ireland probably runs to hundreds of millions of euro per year.1 This ‘business’ has created about twenty violent drug gangs, who import illegal drugs and control their sale. Despite the successes of the Gardaí in seizing huge quantities of drugs and arresting those who are dealing in this trade, there is no shortage of drugs on our streets. As long as a kilo of cocaine can be bought in South America for €700, and sold on the streets of our cities and towns for €70,000, there will be no shortage of people willing to risk imprisonment – or worse – for this kind of profit. Each new generation of drug dealers is more violent and more alienated from the society around them than those who went before, and the factors which trigger their violence are becoming more and more trivial. Their violence and threats of violence discourage all but the bravest from providing information or evidence to the Gardaí.

‘Up Stairs, Down Stairs’: Whose Interests are being Protected?

on Wednesday, 18 November 2009. Posted in Issue 62 Who Will Pay for Recession?

Peter McVerry SJ

November, 2009

‘Up Stairs, Down Stairs’: Whose Interests are being Protected?

The Parable

John and Jane are tenants in the same house. John lives in a flat on the top floor. At 8 o’clock in the morning he pulls the curtains; the sun shines in. He looks out the window at the mountains in the distance rolling down to the sea. The mountains are beautiful; sometimes in winter they are covered in snow; mostly, though, they are a luscious mixture of greens and browns. He sees the ships coming in and out of the harbour and the yachts on the sea. The sun shows the scene in all its beauty. He says: ‘It is a beautiful day. It is great to be alive’.

Jane lives in the basement flat of the same house. At 8 o’clock in the morning she pulls the curtains; nothing happens. The sun cannot get in. She looks out the window but she cannot see the mountains, or the sea or the yachts or the sun. All she sees is a stone wall, yards from the window. She hardly knows what sort of day it is.

Building Sustainable Communities – The Role of Housing Policy

on Wednesday, 02 July 2008. Posted in Issue 58 Time for Justice?

Peter McVerry SJ
July, 2008

pdf Building Sustainable Communities – The Role of Housing Policy


The Barriers to Community


Barriers to community?
© D. Speirs

Building sustainable communities is extremely difficult in Ireland today. In many urban areas, at least, the sense of community has almost disappeared.

There are several reasons why this is so:

First, increased mobility means that many people expect to move from one community to another and so may have fewer bonds with the community in which they currently live. People move job, and therefore move home, much more often than their parents did. Many others see a first home as simply ‘getting a foot on the property ladder’ and when they are able to purchase a bigger house, or a house nearer to their work, they will uproot themselves and move. 

Gardaí and the Committee for the Prevention of Torture Reports

on Thursday, 27 March 2008. Posted in Issue 57 Thornton Hall Prison: A Progressive Move?

Peter McVerry SJ

pdf Gardaí and the Committee for the Prevention of Torture Reports


Towards the end of 2007, a young man, aged nineteen, from a deprived neighbourhood came to tell me that on the previous day he had been taken to a Garda Station for a drugs search, during the course of which he had beeng assaulted by several Gardaí. When no drugs were found on him, he was told to leave. He claimed that as he was leaving he was shoved forcefully towards the door by a Garda, which caused his head to smash the glass panel of the door. He said that he was then brought back into the Garda Station and charged with assaulting the Garda and causing criminal damage to the door.

Homes not Hostels: Rethinking Homeless Policy

on Tuesday, 13 November 2007. Posted in Issue 56 The Anniversary Issue

Peter McVerry SJ, Executive Director of the Peter McVerry Trust, which provides accommodation and care for homeless young people
Eoin Carroll, Advocacy and Social Policy Research Officer with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice

November 2007


Homeless people dream of a key to their own front door

pdf Homes not Hostels: Rethinking Homeless Policy



Most homeless people simply want a place they can call home. Some need varying levels of support to enable them to keep a home. But a key to their own front door is the symbol of the desires of homeless people.

Rehabilitation - Are We for Real?

on Wednesday, 25 October 2006. Posted in Issue 53 Rehabilitation in Irish Prisons: Are we for Real?, 2006

Fr Peter Mcverry, SJ
October, 2006

If money were scarce, and one had to prioritise where to invest in rehabilitative facilities within prison, where would you invest it? I suggest that the greatest return is likely to be found amongst the younger prison population who are still at a very decisive developmental period in their lives, namely the 16 -21 age group. Hence for evidence of any sort of political commitment to rehabilitation within prison, one might expect to look at the detention centres and services for young offenders.

Fort Mitchell had a capacity of 102, almost all under 25, the majority of them between 16 and 21. The regime was very much educational focused. Despite offering young people a far more rehabilitative programme than any other prison in the State, it was closed in the dispute about overtime between the Minister and the Prison Officers Association .

Shanganagh Castle, despite being the only open centre for young offenders, and despite the fact that it is widely recognised that imprisoning people in conditions that are unnecessarily secure is harmful to their rehabilitation, was closed, as it occupied a financially valuable site.

That leaves St. Patrick\'s Institution as the only dedicated prison for young offenders. Surely, the closure of Fort Mitchell and Shanganagh Castle were unfortunate, but, for reasons unknown to us lesser mortals, necessary decisions made by a Department of Justice whose commitment to rehabilitation can be found in that only institution for young offenders which remains, namely St. Patrick\'s Insitution?   

St. Patrick\'s Institution
St. Patrick\'s Institution caters for about 200 young men, aged 16 to 21, of whom about 60 to 70 are under the age of 18, who are at a most impressionable age, still in adolescent development and full of vitality and energy.

‘St. Patrick’s Institution is a disaster,
an obscenity and it reveals the
moral bankruptcy of the policies of
the Minister for Justice’.

It accommodates the most difficult (and therefore the most damaged) children in our society. Many of them suffered abuse, violence or serious neglect in their earlier childhood, sometimes in other institutions of the State. That abuse was never adequately addressed, sometimes not even acknowledged. The failure to address that abuse is partly – largely – responsible for the subsequent behaviour which has led them to St. Patrick’s Institution. Almost all of them have left school early, without any qualifications. 50% are illiterate. In short, it contains young people who by and large have been victims of family and community dysfunctionality and have already been failed by all the important State services with which they have interacted during childhood and adolescent. What happens or does not happens to them during these years in St. Patrick\'s Institution can have a very significant impact on the rest of their lives.
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St. Patrick\'s Institution is a disaster, an obscenity and reveals the moral bankruptcy of the policies of the Minister for Justice. In the 1970s and 80s, when this country did not have two pennies to rub together, there were 18 workshops in St. Patrick\'s Institution providing a range of skills to those detained there. Until September 2006, there were none, all closed since 2003 because of funding cutbacks. (In September, following widespread criticism, a small number of workshops were rapidly opened).

The one-to-one literacy scheme was closed, because of funding cutbacks. In 2004, out of 1300 committals to St. Patrick\'s, 24 sat for one or more subjects in their Junior Certificate. Most young men in St. Patrick\'s spend 19 hours each day alone in their cells and the other five hours mindlessly walking up and down a dreary, depressing yard with nothing to do except to scheme (with enormous ingenuity, it must be said) how to get drugs into the place to kill the boredom. Young people who explode in frustration, are punished by being placed in solitary confinement in the basement, where they are locked in their cells for 24 hours a day, with no contact with other prisoners, no cigarettes, and nothing to do except sleep for three days. Other lesser punishments for infringement of rules include deprivation of visits, letters and phone calls, the very things which help to make time in prison bearable.

Despite the fact that about one-third of the population of St. Patrick\'s are legally children, under the age of 18, there are no staff with child care qualifications, the various agreed standards for children in the care of the State do not apply, there is no inspection by Special Services Inspectorate, there are no care plans for the young people there as required for all children in the care of the State, the young people there do not necessarily have a social worker as required for all children in the care of the State, the required documentation detailing all interventions by staff with the young people in care is not kept and the Children\'s Ombudsman is prohibited from investigating complaints or allegations by the young people accommodated there. Nothwithstanding the fact that there are many fine prison officers who wish to do their best for the young people in St. Patrick\'s, the system dictates that any aggression shown to staff will frequently invite a totally inappropriate violent response towards the young person, which would, in any other residential institution, result in instant dismissal of the staff involved and possible prosecution for assault.

St. Patrick’s Institution is nothing but a “warehouse” for young people, many of whom were broken by their childhood experiences. In this harsh and punitive system, they are further broken down. It is a demoralising, destructive and dehumanising experience, with no redeeming features, characterised by idleness and boredom, for young people, who are full of energy, at a critical time in their development. One young person there summed it up very succinctly when he told me: “This place brings out the worst in you.”

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Education and Literacy
Priority of Education within rehabilitation:
The young people in St. Patrick\'s Institution are, almost universally, characterised by educational failure. The educational system has failed them and they consequently have failed to achieve within the educational system. Given the critical importance of education for the future life prospects of a young person, rehabilitation must give priority to making up for the prior failure of the educational system, in order to give these young people some possibility, in future life, of competing on a level playing field. Low educational achievement reduces a young person\'s options in life to such a level that they are likely to no longer share agreed values.

Priority of Literacy within education:
Within the educational system, literacy is of course the most basic issue. In the Literacy Survey of 2003, 80% of the population of St. Patrick\'s scored at or below the second lowest literacy level, with one-third of the prisoners at such a low level that they have to be described as “illiterate”.   Illiteracy, or low levels of literacy, not only contributes enormously to low self-esteem but also excludes a person from almost all further education. Rehabilitation then must first enable young people to achieve a competancy in literacy and numeracy, without which further educational achievement becomes impossible.

One would therefore expect that in St. Patrick\'s, a commitment of resources would be provided to enable every prisoner to achieve basic literacy levels. There would also be a commitment of resources to enable each prisoner, within the time-frame available to them, to make up for the failures of the educational system in their childhood. While acknowledging the commitment of the teachers in St. Patrick\'s which enables 50% of the prisoners to participate in at least one educational activity per week, and 25% to avail of at least 10 hours education per week, a serious attempt at rehabilitation would seek to achieve a lot more.

The biggest obstacle to achieving a lot more is the daily regime of St. Patrick\'s. Despite “serving” a client group whose needs are quite different from any other group within the prison system, St. Patrick\'s Institution has not only a physical structure which is identical to that of the adult Mountjoy Prison but much more seriously, has a daily regime that is also identical to that of adult prisoners in Mountjoy. By the time prisoners are actually unlocked and a prison officer collects them for the school, there is less than one and a half hours available for education in the morning and the same in the afternoon.

Apart from a futher hour and a half in the evening, when the school is closed, this is the only recreational time available to them. The desire to freely associate with their friends during these periods, the negative experience of school that they bring with them into prison, the embarassment of being illiterate and the total boredom and mindless meaninglessness of most of their day makes the effort needed to engage in educational activities distinctly unattractive for many.

Locking juveniles up on their own for 19 and a half hours a day, with educational activities having to compete with recreational activities for the other four and a half hours, does not encourage young people to engage in education. A serious attempt at rehabilitation would have made sure that the one-to-one literacy scheme was expanded to include all those who require it – instead it was abolished, because of funding cutbacks.

Training for post-release employment

Most of those committed to St. Patrick\'s Institution were unemployed at the time of committal, many had been unemployed for all or most of their lives. Helping such young people to obtain the personal and interpersonal skills which would help them to secure employment, which they could access on release, would surely be very worthwhile and might even make a significant difference to some offenders. The Connect programme, which sought to do just that and was already operating in some prisons, was due to be introduced into St. Patrick\'s in 2003.

‘The biggest obstacle to achieving a
lot more is the daily regime of
St. Patrick’s’.

It never happened - instead it was withdrawn from even those prisons in which it was operating and most of the €46 million allocated to expanding the programme to all prisons appears to have been used to compensate for prison officer overtime.

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Drug Rehabilitation in prison
A majority of those being committed to prison these days have a drug problem. While, again, successful drug treatment within the confined and isolating environment of prison is difficult to achieve, some prisoners are more than willing to accept help even within prison.

The only dedicated drug treatment service within the prison system is the 12-bed detox facility in the Medical Unit in Mountjoy prison. There is a waiting list to get into it. On completion of the detox, prisoners are transferred to the Training Centre where the possibility exists of continuing their rehabilitation by engaging in training programmes, sometimes linked to outside agencies. Apart from the Medical Unit, any drug treatment that takes place in prison happens despite the system. In Mountjoy, there is absolutely no drug-free space to support a person who wishes to tackle their drug problem;  in Wheatfield, out of 320 cells, there are 16 cells available to those who become drug free. For prisoners in Dublin who want to become and remain drug free, their best option is to go to the Midlands prison, but the isolation from family and reduced possibility of visits is a serious obstacle. There are no counsellors to support them, no incentives to encourage them, no nothing!

The Minister is planning to create drug-free prisons by a policy that has already been tried in Scotland for ten years and is now being abandoned as a failure, namely random drug tests with punitive sanctions for testing positive. Presumably (but that may be a presumption we cannot make!) the Minister has consulted with the management personnel of the Irish Prison Service. However, 15 minutes consultation with anyone who knows the prison system or anyone seriously connected with the lives of prisoners could tell the Minister to get real. The Minister\'s proposal appears based on the premise that prisoners\' drug use is simply irresponsible and selfish pursuit of pleasure. Many prisoners take drugs to forget their past, it is their only way of coping with childhood traumas or other overwhelming experiences that they find too difficult to bear. As one drug user said so eloquently: “Wouldn\'t it be wonderful to be able to ride away so fast that our memories could not catch up.” 

Being alone in your cell for 19 hours a day ensures that your memories are your constant companion. Indeed, when imprisonment was first introduced as a penal sanction, the whole rationale for imprisoning people was precisely to keep them alone with their memories so that they could learn the error of their ways! People can overcome their addiction, they can learn other ways of coping, but they need intensive support to enable them to do so successfully. One-to-one counselling, group therapy and the realistic expectation that the future can be different from the past is necessary. Many prisoners are afraid to become drug-free in prison, because on release they may be returning to homelessness, boredome, or family problems and they know that if they relapse they may have to wait many months to regain their place on a methadone programme. To try to force people to abandon their learnt mechanism for coping with their problems without giving them alternative ways of coping is a recipe for increased tension within prisons, mental health problems, violence and self-harm.

The Minister\'s proposals, recently publicised, never mention harm reduction policies, although such policies are now part of mainstream drug programmes. A drugs policy that focuses exclusively on the elimination of drug misuse has long since been abandoned almost everywhere, as evidence-based research shows it to be much less effective. But the Minister\'s proposals to end the supply of drugs in prison is quite detailed with very specific policies – although many of them are already in operation in most Dublin prisons -  with a few new policies such as random testing of 5-10% of prisoners each month. However, the proposals on helping prisoners to deal with drug misuse is remarkably short on specifics, such as is the Minister planning to introduce full-time, trained drug counsellors into prison and in what numbers relative to the number of prisoners who need them.

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A serious attempt at rehabilitation within prison would necessitate a serious programme of evidence-based research which would try to identify what works. However, there is little serious research taking place on prisons or indeed on the whole criminal justice system. The absence of hard information or evaluation of programmes ensures that political expediency and the imminence of the next general election inform decision-making. It is not that there are no models available which could provide a much more rehabilitative experience while in prison. Three examples, within our own system, come immediately to my mind.

a) Wheatfield Prison might become a juvenile centre.
When Wheatfield Prison was being considered, the Department of Justice scoured Europe to examine different prison structures. The design of Wheatfield Prison was based on the best model then available. It is divided into separate units containing 16 single rooms per unit. Each unit has access to its own small, open-air, grass space. In that model, prisoners have free association from 7.30 in the morning until 10 in the evening. They have the key to their own room so that they can lock it when they are out. They have unrestricted access to the open-air space. They cook their own meals, taking it in turns to cook for the whole group – thus each prisoner has to learn basic cookery skills.

They have to learn the social skills of group living, how to reach decisions by compromise, how to deal with conflict in a positive way, skills which they may not have possessed before coming into prison. Prison therefore becomes much more demanding, both for prisoners and for staff. Each day prisoners have to make decisions (something that is almost forbidden in the current prison regime) and prison officers need a whole new range of skills. In such a regime, education becomes a more attractive option, the prisoner knowing that they have many more hours in the day to associate with their friends and engage in other recreational activities such as hobbies or football.

b) Training Unit.
It has been shown time and again that rehabilitation programmes are more successful when offered outside of prison. Prison isolates young people who have already been isolated from main-stream society and this makes rehabilitation all the more difficult. Rehabilitation, when it must take place in prison, will be much more successful when linked to outside agencies and programmes.

The Training Unit provides a model which could be expanded and improved. There, prisoners can undertake a range of educational programmes within the prison and graduate to programmes or to work opportunities outside the prison, as they prove their commitment and reliability. Prisoners leave each day to go to the PACE workshops or other training courses or to employment. A serious commitment to rehabilitation would ensure that each young person committed to prison would be helped to draw up a personal plan with a graduated programme of working or training in the community. This only requires resources, a bit of effort, a little creativity and a willingness to take risks. Not of these appear to be available in the Department of Justice. 

c) Temporary Release and Sentence Review.
Every young person in St. Patrick\'s that I know describes the place as a “kip”. They do not want to spend their day in idle boredom, but they have little choice. They are well aware of their illiteracy, their lack of education and absence of skills. They are often so proud of the certificates that they gain in prison and give them to me with strict instructions that I am to keep them in a safe place for them for when they get out. Many of them have never received a certificate in their life before. Sometimes the certificate merely states that they have participated in such and such a programme – it doesn\'t say that they have achieved anything, or even successfully completed the programme, but they are still so proud of it!

I have no doubt that a little encouragement, a daily regime that is supportive and a choice of meaningful educational or training opportunities would attract an almost 100% participation. As evidence of this, when judges handed down a sentence, with a review to be held after a given period of time in prison, many prisoners spent their time doing programmes which offered them certificates. They tried to accumulate as many certificates as possible to show the judge at the time of review. They wanted to show that they had spent their time in prison constructively and therefore deserved a chance. Despite the Supreme Court decision which effectively abolished sentence reviews, some legislation to re-instate them should be considered. They provided a wonderful, and necessary, motivation to use their time in prison constructively.

Similarily, temporary release, as part of a planned, personal educational or training programme, with links to outside agencies and services, could be an integral part of the management of offenders, providing a goal for the prisoner to achieve by means of an agreed set of achievements, with the knowledge that they will be recalled to prison if they fail to maintain their agreed programme.

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The Context
I would suggest three reasons why rehabilitation for prisoners is not on the agenda. There is an ideology, consisting of three concentric circles, as it were, which militates against rehabilitation.

1. First, money spent on rehabilitation is considered wasted money. The primary criterion by which rehabilitation is judged is whether prisoners, on release, will re-offend. With a current 70% recidivist rate, to pour money into programmes for prisoners is seen as ineffective and therefore inefficient.  However, with a paucacity of resources, an absence of programmes and no support on release, such a recidivist rate is only to be expected. Would a serious attempt at rehabilitation reduce recidivism? We don\'t know because it has never been tried. However, common sense suggests that it might. Research, if seriously undertaken alongside rehabilitative programmes, would inform the rehabilitiative process, making it more successful and cost effective. However, in my view, programmes of rehabilitation are first and foremost an issue of justice, an attempt to compensate for the failure of the educational and other systems which have been part of their lives before imprisonment. They ought not to be an optional add-on, to be provided, or withdrawn, at the political whim of a Minister, still less to be a pawn in a dispute between the Minister and the Prison Officers Association.

Secondly, over the past twenty years, there has been a growing movement away from rehabilitation of offenders to control of offenders, a movement that has been accelerated in the past ten years. Our criminal justice system has traditionally been characterized by a fine balance between the needs of the offender and the seriousness of the offence. Whether an offender receives a prison sentence or not, and for how long, depends not only on the seriousness of the offence, but also on the circumstances of that person – their childhood experiences, the level of deprivation they may have endured, issues such as addictions, mental health or low intelligence and whether they have shown any remorse or motivation to deal with these issues and so on.

Current policies have been shifting the balance away from the offender and on to the offence. It is a shift of focus from rehabilitation and re-integration of offenders to the control and exclusion of offenders. It is a shift from rightful intolerance of the behaviour of the offender to intolerance of the offender him/herself. Control measures such as more powers for the gardai, tougher legislation, restrictions on the right to bail, mandatory sentences, legislation to reduce the rights of the offender, and yet more new powers for the gardai  have been introduced. Most recently, the proposed introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, which can see people being imprisoned for behaviour which was not, in itself, criminal behaviour, continues this trend. This shift towards excluding offenders from society has widespread public support. This support arises because we live in an increasingly fearful society with little sign of it getting better. As long as an excessive desire to control offenders who disturbs us, by excluding them and keeping them apart from us, is dominant, then the desire to change their behaviour and thus to re-integrate them will be pushed into irrelevance.

3. Thirdly, the focus on the economy that has driven Governments for the past ten or fifteen years appears to see money spent on anything other than the economy as a waste of resources.   Those, like prisoners, who are of little value to the economy or who are likely to be of little value in the future, are seen as a drain on valuable resources. This is not entirely a cynical or hard-hearted perspective. The ideological justification for such a perspective is that the route out of poverty is through employment and so investing as much as possible into the economy is the most efficient way of lifting all boats. Diverting money into rehabilitative programmes for people who will be, at best, marginal to the economy is to slow down the process of eliminating poverty. However, in my view, this ideological position is deficient – while the Celtic Tiger has certainly lifted many people out of poverty, people who had never or rarely worked before in their lives, there remain those, including prisoners, who find it extremely difficult to secure employment, despite their best intentions and efforts to do so. Furthermore, some of those who do find employment can only find low-paid, insecure employment which does not lift them out of poverty. The need for direct investment into the lives of those on the margins to enable them to find a greater sense of fulfillment and self-esteem will always be necessary, particularly for those who will be marginal to the needs of the economy.

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The carnage on our roads
A rehabilitative programme which offers offenders early release, which gives offenders the opportunity to engage with outside agencies and programmes and which makes their time in prison more meaningful and constructive requires a willingness by the Minister of Justice to take risks.    Many will fail and the public are unforgiving when they do. The Department of Justice is one in which enlightened leadership can easily lead to political extinction. A major public awareness campaign would be required to demolish the myth that is so prevelant in the community that “longer sentences make communities safer.” A public awareness campaign would focus on the very obvious question: “What do communities want prisoners to be like when they leave prison?”

Most people have absolutely no idea of what life in prison is like and most people don\'t care. How do we change that? Some high profile persons, like Jeffrey Archer, who have unexpectedly found themselves in prison have subsequently talked about how the experience of prison has been a real eye-opener for them. They discovered, to their amazement and shock, a prison system that was destructive and dehumanising. They discovered that prisoners were much like themselves, a mixture of good and bad. And most telling of all, they discovered how their former apathy and lack of interest in what happens in prison had enabled them to preserve myths which they had grown up with and to insulate themselves, by their ignorance, from the uncomfortable questions which their time in prison opened up for them.   

The carnage on our roads is an issue that generates much discussion and much criticism of the lack of effective political action to reduce it. Perhaps it is time to consider much more drastic action.  
My suggestion is somewhat ironic in that I spend much of my time trying to keep people out of prison. But perhaps we should consider introducing mandatory 30-day imprisonment for drunk driving. Drunk drivers injure and kill far more people each year than joyriders – yet a conviction for joyriding will almost guarantee a prison sentence while a conviction for drunk driving will rarely do so. This minister seems to love mandatory sentences, so here is another opportunity for him. He is also building a brand new prison to expand the prison capacity so here is a way of making use of it. A mandatory 30-day prison sentence would send a strong message that drinking and driving is not acceptable in this society. As the deterrent effect of imprisonment is largely a middle-class concept imported into a criminal justice system which focuses predominantly on the poor, it might even work in reducing the number of people killed or injured on our roads, as many of the 9,500 people who were arrested for drink driving each year over the past four years are middle-class people who would never consider that prison was a possibility for them. If so many middle-class people were to experience the destructive, dehumanising effect of imprisonment, perhaps it might create a move for reform. If so many middle-class people were to live alongside, and get to know, prisoners from a very different social background, they too, like Jeffrey, might begin to question the myths that they have grown up with.

Is it only a coincidence that the most humane prison regimes in Europe are to be found in Scandanavian countries which have mandatory prison sentences for drunk driving?

I appreciate that a commitment to rehabilitation is a difficult issue for any Minister for Justice. The public doesn’t care what happens to prisoners, most don’t want their tax money spent on improving the lives of prisoners, money spent on rehabilitation shows few visible results (as you cannot see someone not committing a crime!) and the investment needed to really make a difference is very substantial. Nevertheless, rehabilitation is an issue of justice towards people who are amongst the most excluded and marginalized in our society and as such should be, as a matter of principle, a fundamental cornerstone of prison policy.

Still Waiting for Housing

on Friday, 21 April 2006. Posted in Issue 52 Mental Illness in Irish Prisons: A Solitary Experience?, 2006

Peter McVerry SJ
April 2006


Housing Need

The findings of the Local Authority Assessments of Social Housing Needs, carried out in March 2005, were released by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in December 2005.1

The figures show a reduction in housing waiting lists of 9.8% from the previous assessments in 2002 (Table 1).2

Editorial Comment - Second Report of the Morris Tribunal

on Monday, 13 June 2005. Posted in Issue 50 Housing the New Ireland, 2005

Editorial Comment - Second Report of the Morris Tribunal
Peter McVerry SJ

The Second Report of the Morris Tribunal, published on 1 June 2005, makes even more disturbing reading than the First Report, which was commented on in in November 2004. The Tribunal investigated the corruption that existed among some Gardai in Donegal, the manipulation of facts intended to deceive Garda Management, "gross integligence at senior level" and "appalling management". 

Morris Tribunal Report and the Garda Siochana Bill 2004

on Thursday, 02 December 2004. Posted in Issue 49 The Garda Síochána Bill 2004 (Somone will be watching you!), 2004

November, 2004

Peter McVerry SJ*

1. Morris Tribunal Report

The Morris Tribunal\'s Report into corruption involving some Gardai in Donegal (1) has major implications for the Garda Síochána generally. The Report calls for radical reform of the structures within the Gardai, structures which have remained essentially unchanged since the foundation of the State and which are clearly in need of reform. This  is an opportunity which must not be missed.

Keeping The Scales of Justice Balanced

on Thursday, 18 September 2003. Posted in Issue 46 The Prisons and the Gardai: A Case for Independent Review, 2003

Peter McVerry SJ has worked with homeless young people for the last 30 years


Two critical elements of the Criminal Justice System have been in the news recently. The First Annual Report of the Inspector of Prisons(i) was published and the Minister for Justice announced the "most radical reform of the Gardai" since 1924, and promised new legislation giving the Gardai more powers.

Ethics, Compassion and Self-Deceit

Written by Peter McVerry SJ on Saturday, 05 July 2003. Posted in Issue 40 An Ethic for the Third Millennium, 2001

Peter McVerry, SJ

June 2001


There is a homeless person sitting in the street, begging.  Passing by, I wonder whether to give him money or not.   On the one hand, I feel sorry for him, no place to go, hungry, cold, bored.  On the other hand, maybe he isn’t really homeless, or even if he is, maybe he wants money for drugs or alcohol and I may actually be making his situation worse by giving him money.   It’s all very confusing.

In the Millennium, a sustained campaign was waged to abolish or reduce the debt owed by the poorest Third World countries, who were being crippled by the interest they had to pay on loans they had received from the economically developed world.  The campaigners argued that this repayment was preventing health and education programmes from being funded and was therefore costing lives and preventing development.   Others argued that corruption was so extensive in many of these countries and spending on arms and military so high that to simply cancel the debt would make their ruling elites even wealthier, their armies even better equipped and increase the oppression and suffering of the people, not reduce it.   It’s all very confusing.

A Rising Tide - but no boats to lift

Written by Peter McVerry SJ on Thursday, 10 April 2003. Posted in Issue 44 Ireland: Facing up to a Multicultural Future?, 2002

Homelessness revisited


Much has been written over the years about the problem of homelessness.  The causes of homelessness have been analysed and solutions proposed.   Working Notes has included articles on the issue of homelessness in the recent past.  In this article, I do not wish to repeat what has already been written but to look at the effects of the last five years of economic prosperity on the numbers of homeless people and on their prospects of escaping from homelessness in the future.

Twenty-Five Years of Homelessness

on Thursday, 31 July 2003. Posted in Issue 35 The Claims Industry and the Public Interest, 1999

Peter McVerry

June 1999

Then and Now

In 1974, I went to live and work in Summerhill, in Dublin\'s Inner City. In those days there was no such category as \'homeless children\'. There were a few children who frequently did not return home at night or who returned home only in the early hours of the morning, but they were so few in number that they did not constitute a separate problem category.

Juvenile Crime Re-visited

Written by Peter McVerry SJ on Sunday, 22 June 2003. Posted in Issue 43 Juvenile Crime: Are Harsher Sentences the Solution?, 2002

Reflection and Analysis on Social and Economic Issues
Issue 43 June 2002

Peter McVerry SJ has worked with homelesss young people for the last 25 years. In this article, he looks again at the problem of juvenile crime.
The problem explodes

A Blight on Many Communities
The recent death of two gardai in a so-called "joyriding" incident focused political and media attention once again on the problem of juvenile crime - for about five days!

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We tend to think that law defines what crime is. This makes sense because contemporary legal codes are concerned with marking out the territory where conduct is permissible by specifying the conduct that is outlawed. Yet the earliest bodies of law – consider for example, the Torah or Hammurabi’s Code – are at least as committed to articulating the good as proscribing the bad... Read full editorial

Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.