The Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Dermot Ahern TD, this week announced Government approval for the building of the first phase of a new prison at Thornton Hall, Co Dublin.
Phase one will involve the construction of the first two prison blocks planned for the site, which will initially contain “400 high grade” cells suitable for accommodation of up to 700 prisoners.
According to the Minister, the phased construction was decided on so as to get part of the prison's capacity online earlier than would have been possible if the project had taken the path of the previous Public Private Partnership tender.
It is planned that ultimately the prison at Thornton Hall will provide 1,400 cells with a capacity for 2,200 prisoners, and phase one would see the delivery of the first 400 cells by 2014.
Minister Ahern said: "The Government has opted to press ahead with the Thornton campus on a phased basis through a traditional procurement process. The previous Public Private Partnership tender competition envisaged that the entire prison campus with all 1,400 cells would have been constructed as one job, and no cells would have entered into operational service until the entire campus was complete and handed over to the Irish Prison Service."
The Minister continued by saying that the phased approach would allow for the prison to be built in stages and will result in an earlier opening of the first cells. “My aim is to provide new spaces at the earliest date possible. I have instructed Irish Prison Service senior management to proceed to implement this decision in the shortest possible timeframe.”
The Minister acknowledged that the contracts for the infrastructure surrounding the new location have not been signed yet. However, he expected them to be finalized this week.
The construction of the perimeter wall has yet to be tendered. “An invitation to tender for the construction of the perimeter wall will be issued in September,” said Minister Ahern. Once this section of the prison is finished, work can commence on the main campus.
As for the reasoning behind using a tendering process for the construction of a prison, Mr Ahern said "Going to tender for the work makes sense in an environment where construction costs have fallen significantly. It also will allow us to deliver on badly needed prison spaces earlier than relying on a more protracted PPP timescale.”
"The building of the Thornton Campus is a cornerstone of our prison policy. It will deliver lower annual operating costs and much better prisoner facilities when opened. In addition we will continue to provide additional cell spaces. Since 1997, almost 1,800 spaces have been provided," concluded Minister Ahern.
In a statement released by Labour Party Spokesperson on Justice Pat Rabbitte TD, Mr Ahern's announcement was criticized and denounced as “one of the most expensive, misconceived and poorly planned projects in the history of the state.”
“What Minister Ahern’s announcement means is that almost ten years after the project was first announced by his predecessor, Michael McDowell, and after the expenditure of vast sums of taxpayers money, we will have, at best, less than one third of the number of prison cells originally promised,” said Mr Rabbitte.
Mr Rabbitte offered an alternative view when he said “The Justice Minister has shown no interest in penal reform and alternatives to prison that would require many prisoners, for example, to do community service rather than contributing to dangerous overcrowding at Mountjoy.”
Fine Gael's spokesman for Justice and Law Reform, Mr Alan Shatter TD also criticized the announcement. “The type of money wasting and time delay that has characterised the Thornton Hall project from the start makes it difficult to believe any timeline this Government puts forward.”