Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Half of the State's prisoners have been homeless

A major report on the Irish prison system has shown that half of the State's prisoners have a history of homelessness, and that significant numbers of inmates are chronic drug-abusers who have been diagnosed as psychiatrically ill.

One in four inmates in Irish prisons were homeless when sent to prison and more than 80 per cent of these were using heroin and/or cocaine on committal, according to the report by the Department of Justice.

It confirms that disadvantaged petty repeat offenders, and not serious criminals, make up a significant portion of the prison .

The report raises doubts about the effectiveness of the judiciary's use of short prison sentences.
Its authors recommend that community-based sanctions be more fully developed, saying imprisonment should be used only as a last resort for many offenders.

The study, which involved examining the records of just over 10,000 individuals before the courts or in prison, also says that the youth justice system is having virtually no impact on helping young people escape a life of crime.

Half of the minors who served sentences in Trinity House detention centre, Lusk, Co Dublin, ended end up in St Patrick's Institution or an adult prison within six to 18 months of being released from Trinity House. While 90 per cent of the 22-strong surveyed group had reoffended within the same period.

The main findings of the report are :

25 per cent of a 280-strong sample group of prisoners interviewed were homeless on committal to prison and 54 per cent had been homeless at some time.

One-third of female inmates were homeless on committal to prison.

90 per cent of the prisoners homeless on committal were drug users, with the majority reporting serious drug problems.Some 82 per cent were heroin users, 82 per cent cocaine users and 91 per cent cannabis users.

Of the 25 per cent of the 3,200 prison population who were homeless on committal, one in three had been previously diagnosed with a mental illness and two in three had spent time in a psychiatric hospital.

Of those homeless on committal, 42 per cent were sleeping rough before prison mainly because of the poor condition of emergency hostels and the availability of drugs in such accommodation.

The report is titled: A Study of the Number, Profile and Progression Routes of Homeless Persons Before the Court and in Custody (2005).
It was funded by the Department of Justice and commissioned by the Probation and Welfare Service.

The research was conducted by the Centre for Social and Educational Research, Dublin Institute of Technology, by a team led by the report's authors, Dr Mairéad Seymour and Liza Costello.
A cycle of entrenched recidivism is identified in the report, with 59 per cent of homeless inmates stating they had been arrested at least 20 times in the five years before being sent to prison.
Some 78 per cent of those homeless on committal had spent more than two years in prison during their lives, with 54 per cent having spent five years or more in jail.
Despite these findings, the report's authors found the vast majority of homeless inmates were guilty of what they termed offences "not of a serious nature".

Over a six-week review period in mid-2003 the most common charges brought against homeless people in Dublin District Court were: intoxication in a public place, 30 per cent; threatening behaviour, 24 per cent; theft, 21 per cent; failure to appear in court, 15 per cent; begging, 6 per cent.

While the circuit courts deal with more serious offences, just 18 cases of homeless people appeared before those courts in the same six-week period.


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