Phones for prisoners? Let’s do it if it stops them re-offending

Inmates in some prisons here have analogue telephones installed in their cells - is this a good idea, asks Trevor Laffan
Phones for prisoners? Let’s do it if it stops them re-offending

Life in prison is not meant to be a picnic, but perhaps giving inmates landlines could help them break their cycle of offending.

THE subject of living conditions in modern prisons is something that can start many arguments.

On the face of it, life doesn’t seem that bad on the inside. For many of the inmates, living conditions in prison are an improvement on what they would be used to on the outside.

They have a roof over their heads, regular meal times, recreation, and access to education and health care so they are well cared for. They are in this country, at any rate, but they might be even better off in other jurisdictions.

RTÉ reported that the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO) called for a well-resourced, transparent, fair and expeditious repatriation system to allow prisoners abroad serve the remainder of their sentences in Ireland.

It is estimated that, at any one time, there are up to 1,200 Irish people in prison overseas in about 30 countries around the world.

I didn’t know that, and neither did I know that a significant majority of those are in prisons in the UK, with relatively high numbers in the USA, Australia and throughout Europe.

Those prisoners can apply to transfer to an Irish prison to serve the remainder of their sentence here, but it seems that many of them are happy enough to stay where they are.

The ICPO circulated 1,100 questionnaires to Irish prisoners abroad and received only 114 anonymous responses. That’s just over 10%, which suggests there wasn’t much interest in the survey, or else the prisoners don’t want to move.

Serving time can’t be easy though, whether it’s home or away, and some of those who did respond reported experiencing mental health difficulties, feelings of isolation and having little time outside their cell. The lack of visits was also an issue, which isn’t surprising.

I would expect prisoners to feel isolated and to have an issue with being confined in a small space with little time outside. That’s what prison is all about.

It’s also understandable that overseas prisoners might be suffering from lack of visits. If you end up in an Australian prison, the family won’t be popping over every weekend with a food parcel.

Unless you have a large circle of friends living in that country, visits are going to be few and far between, and that’s tough, but so it should be.

There has to be an element of discomfort associated with prison life. It is, after all, supposed to be a deterrent, so I was surprised when I heard that inmates in some prisons here were going to have analogue telephones installed in their cells.

I thought it was a step too far, but according to an article in the Irish Examiner, it has already happened.

Landline telephones have been installed in 804 prison cells, and work is underway to extend the convenience to every inmate in the State.

Four of the country’s 12 detention facilities now have an analogue telephone in every cell, meaning inmates in Castlerea, Cloverhill, Limerick and Midlands prisons can make phone calls without leaving their rooms.

The purchase and installation of the equipment has cost a total of €1,131,688 to date, and it’s intended to provide ‘in-cell telephony’ for prisoners in Cork, Portlaoise, Wheatfield, and the Dóchas Centre by the end of this year.

The system currently allows outgoing calls only, although a spokesman for the Irish Prison Service (IPS) said a ‘dial-in’ system may be considered in future.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee said maintaining contact with family and friends while in custody plays an important role in the rehabilitation of prisoners.

“The in-cell telephony project will enhance the prison service’s ability to provide prisoners with a platform to support this contact,” she said.

They’ve done the same thing in the UK, where they say family ties are a vital part of rehabilitation and maintaining those ties can cut re-offending by 40%, ultimately helping to reduce the number of future victims of crime.

We’ll have to wait and see how that works out.

Prisoners already have contact with their families through in-person visits and, during Covid 19, video calls were introduced, which many prisoners preferred because they got to see more family members that way than they would in person. It also saved their visitors from having to travel and from the security checks necessary in the prison system.

Prisoners are entitled to be treated humanely, but some argue that the prison system is too accommodating. Many of their victims want to see offenders suffer. They want payback and would prefer to see them locked up, fed on bread and water, and the key thrown away.

Others would welcome a return to the days of hard labour. Back to the chain gangs, where prisoners had to lay railway tracks or break rocks like Paul Newman did in the movie, Cool Hand Luke.

Regardless of the conditions though, it is the lack of freedom that tests prisoners most. Not being able to spend time with the family at Christmas, go for a pint, walk the dog or go to a football game are the things that challenge them. That’s the real punishment.

And that’s OK too. Prison isn’t meant to be a holiday camp.

Offenders are incarcerated as a punishment for the wrongs they have done, but the system is also meant to rehabilitate them. To prepare them for reintegration to society on completion of their sentence. But is it working?

The high proportion of inmates re-offending, and the demand for more prison space, would seem to suggest there is a weakness in the system.

If having a phone in a cell can change that outcome and help to break the cycle of life for inmates, then maybe it’s worth a shot.

If it works, we will all benefit, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all.

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