Irish Prisons: Past, Present and Future Challenges

By Aylward, Sean; Mitchell, Jim | Corrections Today, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Irish Prisons: Past, Present and Future Challenges


Aylward, Sean, Mitchell, Jim, Corrections Today


the Irish Prison Service is one of the oldest public institutions in Ireland, dating back to the 1854 decision by the British administration to appoint three directors, under the chairmanship of Walter Crofton, to administer the convict prisons in Ireland. While the appointment of the board could be viewed as an attempt by the British government to have greater influence in the management of the convict prisons, in reality, it simply marked another stage in the trend toward reforming the country's prisons. That trend began with the appointment of Jeremiah Fitzpatrick as the first inspector general of prisons in 1786 (50 years before a similar appointment was made in England).

Crofton was the son of a British army major who died fighting along-side Gen. Arthur Wellesley Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Educated privately in England, Crofton served for some years with the Royal Artillery, where he rose to the rank of captain. He then took up a second career as an English magistrate, during which he began to research prison reform issues. His interest in the reform of prison administration, his army connections, and his family's historic links with Ireland (his father and his forefathers before him were all involved in the British civil administration in Ireland) led to his appointment first to a royal commission on Irish prisons and then to overall executive responsibility for the penal system in Ireland.

Launched Into Eternity

During the first half of the 19th century, the two main punishments for felonies in the British Isles were capital punishment and transportation, first to the American colonies and later to Australasia. Between 1837 and 1846, 27,258 people were transported to Western Australia compared with 11,979 between 1847 and 1856. The decline in the use of transportation was due in part to complaints from the colonies about the caliber of inmates being sent to them. This ultimately led to the abandonment of transportation as a secondary punishment. In 1853, the British Parliament passed legislation replacing transportation with penal servitude as a prison sentence. This new legislation meant that for the first time, inmates serving a long-term sentence would be held in Irish prisons. The authorities in Ireland were now faced with the immediate problem of providing accommodations for a substantial number of inmates. In 1853, there were 3,576 offenders in Irish government prisons and 187 in the county jails, while the capacity of the prison system was estimated at about 2,906.

Prisons at this time were regulated by the Prisons (Ireland) Act of 1826, which sought to codify the rules and regulations for the management of prisons and the classification of inmates, provide a statutory basis for the appointment of a surgeon, chaplains and apothecary, and set standards regarding inmates' bedding, dress and diet. However, this measure was deemed inadequate by the inspector of prisons, who stated in his 1850 annual report that, "the working details of the system subsist at present more on usage than by law; and serious difficulties frequently arise, which can only be obviated by assimilating the laws affecting the convict establishment in this country to those which have for some time existed in England." That legislation provided for the appointment of the Convict Prisons Board and enabled it to make rules for the regulation of convict prisons in Ireland.

Convict Prisons Board

Upon taking office in November 1854, Crofton and his colleagues on the new Convict Prisons Board sought to replicate in Ireland, albeit with considerable modifications, the system of separation that was employed in the prisons in England. This system involved the inmates being held in solitude and compulsory silence for the first nine to 12 months of their sentences, and then their transfer to public works prisons, depending on their health and/or physical ability.

One of the board's first tasks was to abolish manufacturing activities as a central focus of prisons and replace it with what it saw as the principal feature of imprisonment.

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