I am very pleased to be here today at Castlerea to see first hand this very impressive prison facility. It was only in April this year that I had the pleasure to visit nearby in Cavan and perform the official opening of the new facilities in Loughan House. I would like to thank the Governor, Mr Dan Scannell and the Director General of the Prison Service, Mr Brian Purcell, for their kind hospitality and extend my congratulations to them on the excellent facility.
This complex functioned as a psychiatric hospital and sanatorium for forty four years. The Estate and its adjoining lands were purchased in the mid 1930s by the Mental Health Board for the purpose of establishing a major psychiatric hospital or "asylum" as it was then called. The hospital continued to function until May of 1994 when a decision was taken by the then Government to locate a prison on the site.
As part of the prison development a decision was taken to house low security prisoners in the "village" or Unit A as it became known. This area of the prison is currently referred to as the "Grove" in reference to a Grove of trees which are inside the perimeter fence. The first prisoners were transferred to this area on 23rd December 1996.
The provision of the facilities being opened today represents just one aspect of the major prisons capital programme into which this Government is, and has been, investing significant resources.
Since 1997 in excess of 1,400 prison spaces have come on stream in the prison system. These include the new prisons here in Castlerea, the Midlands, Cloverhill, the Dochas Centre and a refurbished wing in Limerick Prison.
In 2008, over 30 extra spaces were introduced at the open centre in Shelton Abbey and a further 40 spaces were introduced at the open centre in Loughan House.
The new prisoner accommodation block here in Castlerea, which accommodates approximately 100 prisoners, is the realisation of my promise to deliver extra prison spaces in 2009. Current developments will provide a potential 450 further prison spaces by the end of this year by means of:
• New blocks in Portlaoise and Wheatfield Prisons which will both accommodate approximately 200 prisoners and will open shortly and
• The refurbished Separation Unit in Mountjoy which will provide an additional 50 spaces.
• All these new spaces will have in-cell sanitation.
I have also recently reaffirmed this Government's commitment to the replacement of the four prisons on the Mountjoy campus to a 140 acre greenfield site at Thornton Hall, North County Dublin, and the replacement of Cork Prison at Kilworth. Between them, these comprise nearly 40% of the entire prison estate.
When this programme is completed, the Irish prison estate will be comparable to best international practice in terms of accommodation facilities and services for the rehabilitation of prisoners and their reintegration into society. This will put the Irish Prison Service in good stead for the 21st century.
Developments in the prison system are not solely confined to improving the prison facilities. The Prison Service is committed to the development and improvement of the rehabilitation programmes for offenders in a way which encourages and supports them in their endeavouring to live law abiding and purposeful lives as valued members of society.
The Irish Prison Service places a strong emphasis on the provision of vocational training activities for prisoners. Training activities are chosen to give as much employment as possible in prison and to give opportunities to acquire skills which will help them secure employment on their release. A wide range of training opportunities are available in over 90 workshops across the prisons. These workshops can cater for in excess of 800 prisoners each day. In this regard, Head teacher Riona Finn and her fellow teachers in the Education Unit are to be acknowledged for their dedication and commitment. In addition, prisoners gain valuable experience through participation in essential prison services such as catering and laundry.
External accreditation of certified training is available for a number of courses and expansion of accreditation arrangements is being pursued. Partnership arrangements with FÁS, the Probation Service and other community-based organisations, such as the Linkage Programme and Pobal, are also in the interest of improving prisoners’ prospects of employability on their release.
Castlerea Prison operates 10 workshops engaging in activities such as: Catering, Laundry, Joinery, Fabric, Computer/Printing, Cleaning, Waste Management, Concrete Products, Garden Furniture and Horticulture. Upwards of 55 prisoners attend these workshops each day.
On my way to the sports hall I took the opportunity to visit the excellent kitchen facilities here in Castlerea Prison. The National Apprenticeship Programme in Professional Cookery delivered by Athlone Institute of Technology commenced in 2007 and concluded this year with 7 prisoners successfully completing the final year.
The very impressive range of modern facilities which we are opening today are a credit to all concerned. The new accommodation block has provided 52 double cells with in-cell sanitation plus a 12 single cell area for vulnerable prisoners. This has increased the overall capacity to 351. This additional accommodation is extremely important also in the context of alleviating the continuing pressure on prison numbers generally.
The new Recreation facilities including a sports hall and gym are very welcome additions and together with the provision of an all weather football pitch and are important from the perspective of providing meaningful activities for the inmates. The new library provides an opportunity and the environment to promote active learning, and reinforces the prison education ethos and I wish the new librarian, Matthew Gammon well in his new position.
I have seen also a number of other improvements which have been implemented here and I am extremely pleased to note that we can acknowledge a properly equipped modern institution.
I would like to thank the Governor and all his staff for their hard work, dedication and professionalism that they display on a daily basis here in Castlerea Prison and to wish them well going forward.
Finally, I am delighted to declare these facilities officially open.