Friday, April 24, 2009

Construction Delayed for At Least Three Years on Thornton Hall Prison Development

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr Dermot Ahern, has admitted that construction will not commence for at least three years on the highly controversial Thornton Hall Prison Development in North Dublin County.

Local Sinn Féin election candidate Fergus Byrne said “We in Sinn Féin strongly opposed this development in the first place. The controversy and murky dealings which surrounded the original purchase of the site at a cost to the tax-payer that was many times over its actual value has never been resolved, and as for the way planning permission was granted – it defies belief. Under new measures introduced by the Dáil last year, local authorities and An Bord Pleanála were by-passed and the Oireachtas acted as the planning authority in its place. The Department of Justice used Section 26 of the Prisons Act 2007 for the first time ever, which allows for the normal procedures in relation to planning to be circumvented to push through the provision of this super prison. The feelings of concerned local residents were largely ignored, although the Irish Prison Service is claiming that it will aim to be a “Good Neighbour”.

“The following question was put to the Dáil on Wednesday 23rd April by my Sinn Féin colleague, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:

To ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the status of the superprison project at Thornton Hall.

“The Dáil answer was as follows:

The Thornton Hall Prison development is not a superprison. It is a complex Public Private Partnership project which involves the construction of more than 30 buildings, including 8 prison facilities on the site, a major internal road network, extensive perimeter security and a vast array of security systems over a range of security and regime operational models. I am advised by the Irish Prison Service that negotiations with the preferred bidder are currently at an advanced stage. These negotiations are focused on progressing financial, technical and legal aspects of the project. They encapsulate the continuation of the design development and negotiations to enable the Irish Prison Service to contract with the PPP Company and commence construction of the prison facilities. While, as stated, negotiations on the contract are at an advanced stage they have not, however, reached the point that the Project Agreement can be signed. Construction will commence after contract award and should take no more than 3 years. This timeframe is subject, of course, to the successful completion of the contract negotiations. I can say, however, that if the current contract negotiations are not successfully concluded there are other options which can still be considered. Pressures on the international financial markets have the potential to impact on all major capital projects, including the Thornton Hall PPP project. It is the responsibility of the commercial consortium, under the PPP process, to arrange the funding and other resources to deliver the project. The Irish Prison Service is being advised by the National Development Finance Agency in relation to trends and developments in this area. The cost of the acquisition of the site for the prison development was 29.9 million. The cost of the site was largely offset by the sale of the prison lands at Shanganagh, County Dublin. An additional 8.7 acres has also been acquired to provide a dedicated access road to the main prison site. This was done following representations from the local community which reflected concern in relation to the effect of increased traffic generated by the prison development. The cost of the additional land was 1.3 million. A total of 10.3 million has been expended to end March 2009 on professional fees and preliminary site works including surveys, landscaping, security, site preparation and maintenance of the property. As is the case in all major infrastructural projects comprehensive geological, engineering and archaeological surveys were conducted at the site.

“Here we see that the Project Agreement hasn’t even yet been signed, and negotiations are still ongoing. How much more money is going to have to be injected into this? Will it even go ahead at all? Of course we in Sinn Féin never wanted it to go ahead in the first place, and local residents certainly didn’t. Concern was expressed about the project by residents, Fingal County Councillors, expert criminologists, prison chaplains, environmentalists….the list goes on and on. However, the Government, in its infinite wisdom, chose to ignore all of these voices. The area was originally agriculturally zoned with totally inadequate infrastructure to support this project. So much money has been spent on it so far, which could have been put to better use – it’s a proverbial “money-pit”, which is a disgrace in these times. The decision to purchase the particular lands for the prison seems to have been about real estate. Nobody disputes that Mountjoy Jail needs serious modernization and renovation, but we don’t need a prison on the scale of Thornton. Alternatives to prison such as community service orders and probation have been proven by the Comptroller and Auditor General's report and other reports to be more cost effective and they are also more effective in terms of reducing re-offending especially when tied to rehabilitation, education and family support services.

"I would urge the Minister to consider extending the use of alternatives to prison especially for those convicted for non-violent crimes. This is cost-effective but also better for society and the money saved could then be put back into the justice budget to be spent on measures to catch serious criminals such as extra resources for the Gardaí."

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