Ireland sending too many women to prison, UN hears

Fíona Ní Chinneide
Fíona Ní Chinneide

Ireland is sending too many women to prison for non-violent offences, including failure to pay court-ordered fines, a UN committee has heard.

This - along with the lack of provision of gender-specific alternatives to prison and the lack of open prison facilities for women - may amount to discrimination under the UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has said.

The IPRT gave evidence to the UN yesterday, highlighting the disproportionate number of female prison committals for non-violence offences when compared with males, as well as poorer outcomes for women on the Community Return Programme.

Around 60 per cent of women on the Community Return Programme return to prison compared with 10-15 per cent of men.

Speaking in advance of the hearing, IPRT’s acting executive director, Fíona Ní Chinneide, said: “In 1999, at Ireland’s last examination under CEDAW, the Committee highlighted its concerns about women on the margins of Irish society.

“In 2017, Ireland is still imprisoning vulnerable women but at increasing rates. There were 155 committals of women to prison in 1999, and 3,411 in 2015. Just under 90 per cent of female committals under sentence in 2015 were for fines default.

“Given the complex needs of female offenders, their caring commitments and the likelihood of their offences to be non-violent, prison represents an ineffective response and often has a detrimental impact on their families and communities.

“We need to radically rethink how Ireland punishes women, and invest in addressing the causes of offending behaviour, with particular focus on gender-specific alternatives to prison and wraparound post-release supports for the low number of women whose offences are so serious that prison is the only appropriate response.”

She added: “Women in the criminal justice system are most often characterised by poverty, social disadvantage, limited access to education and higher levels of unemployment. These women are more likely to have experienced trauma, domestic and sexual abuse, poor mental health, addiction issues and homelessness. In effect, prison is a place of respite for some women from chaotic and dangerous lives on the outside.

“In 2014, the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service acknowledged the lower risk presented by women offenders, and committed to developing a gender-informed approach to working with women offenders in custody and the community.

“We hope that the UN Committee will recommend Ireland acts on these commitments, within a set timeline.”

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