Justice minister Dermot Ahern at the relaunch of the prison scheme

SERIOUS CONCERNS about the future of the Thornton Hall prison complex have been raised and the Labour Party – which once vigorously opposed its development – has now changed its position on the controversial jail.

In the recent budget, €35m was allocation for the development of prisons and the government said it was committed to building Thornton Hall, although on a much smaller scale than what was originally planned.

This €35m is not only set aside for Thornton Hall but it is also to fund renovations and development of new wings that are ongoing at several other prisons, including Mountjoy, Cork, the Midlands and Portlaoise.

Following repeated delays, construction of the access road at the north Dublin site began in August. Construction of the outer wall is due to begin in 2011 once a construction company from a shortlist following the tender process has been chosen.

A tender for the building of the prison itself has yet to be issued.

"With funding of €35m for the prisons set aside in the budget, this does not suggest that they are committed to developing it. That kind of money will really only get some of the renovations in the other prisons underway. With this sort of money, you certainly can't start building a prison," said Liam Herrick of the Penal Reform Trust, which has been opposed to the development of Thornton Hall.

"There are more questions than answers at the moment. Are they going to come up with more money to build it or are they looking at other options?

There is no clarity at the moment. The issue of Thornton Hall seems to be on the back burner for the government."

If there is a change in government early next year made up of of Fine Gael and Labour as predicted, the two parties must decide what to do about the proposed new prison. Fine Gael supported the initial plans for the proposed super prison but was critical of the amount the government spent on buying the land, which is now worth one-fifth of what was paid for it.