Prison Service abandons electronic tagging for offenders

The Irish Prison Service has abandoned the use of electronic tagging for offenders 12 years after it was first introduced, citing concerns about value for money.

However, the Government is pushing ahead with separate plans to introduce tags to monitor sex offenders who have completed sentences and are back living in the community.

Prison officials decided to cancel the programme, which involved the tagging of prisoners on temporary release, following consultation with the Department of Justice. As well as tagging prisoners on long-term temporary release, it was also used for inmates released for hospital visits, which negated the need for a prison escort.

A spokesman said the service did not have any plans to use electronic monitoring in the future.

The service has spent more than €727,000 tagging prisoners since 2018 and had a contract with a private security company that allowed it to tag up to 50 prisoners at a time. It is understood that, on average, only about 20 tags were used at any given point.

“Following a review in 2020, the Irish Prison Service, in consultation with the Department of Justice, decided not to renew the contract in January 2021 for value-for-money reasons,” the service said.

The cancellation of the programme means there is currently no agency utilising electronic monitoring of offenders in Ireland. Legislation was passed in 2006 allowing judges to order the tagging of suspected offenders while awaiting trial in an effort to reduce prison overcrowding. However, the system was never brought to bear.

Sex offender

The Cabinet last month approved the Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill 2021, which will allow gardaí to apply for electronic monitoring of a sex offender to help ensure compliance with a post-release supervision order.

This could include ensuring that the offender stays away from schools or areas where their victims reside. The most recent statistics show there are 1,708 sex offenders subject to some form of monitoring.

The use of electronic tagging has a mixed history in Ireland. A pilot programme for 31 prisoners, which took place in 2010, was beset with technical issues. Most of the equipment malfunctioned and some offenders had to keep the devices in their pockets after the straps broke. Two female offenders had to cut the devices off after their legs swelled up.

A review of the pilot programme recommended the continued use of tagging but only on a small scale. The project lay largely dormant until 2017, by which time technology had improved and it was reactivated by the prison service.

Vivian Guerin, a former head of the Probation Service, said electronic tagging had its purpose but only when used in a targeted manner.

“The question is, is it adding any value at all?” he asked. “In some cases it can be used indiscriminately where I don’t think it adds any value.”

Mr Guerin said there were also sometimes “false expectations” about what tagging was capable of. “You sometimes hear, ‘Tag the whole lot of them’,” he said.

“But it won’t stop someone committing a crime. So I’m favour of its use but as an adjunct to probation supervision or early release conditions.”

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