Overcrowding ‘predominant’ in prison system

A new report on the Irish prison system has branded the policies of successive governments on imprisonment as “bankrupt”.

The study by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice claims that overcrowding is the predominant characteristic of Irish prisons and the most significant indicator of the failure of such policy.

In a hard-hitting report, the organisation makes 15 recommendations including calls for the abandonment of plans to build large-scale prisons such as Thornton Hall in Dublin, in favour of smaller detention centres.

The report also urges the Government to adopt a policy of minimising the use of imprisonment and of minimising levels of security within prisons as well as calling for the introduction of comprehensive drug and alcohol treatment services for prisoners.

The report, The Irish Prison System: Vision, Values, Reality, claims nearly every prison is accommodating numbers far in excess of their original capacity which creates a “pressure cooker” atmosphere in most facilities. It also condemns the growing practice of multiple occupancy of cells designed for one person.

More than 60% of prisoners share a cell, compared to just 28% in 1994.

There was an average of 4,290 people in Irish prisons in 2010, compared to 2,141 in 1991.

A total of 13,758 people were committed to prison in 2010 — almost a 50% increase on the numbers imprisoned a decade earlier.

While Ireland has signed many UN conventions relating to the treatment of prisoners, the report said it there is a “considerable gap” between espoused principles and the reality of prison experience for offenders.

It called on Justice Minister Alan Shatter to take immediate measures to improve the situation including the ending of “slopping out” and to increase remission from one quarter to one third of the sentence.

The former governor of Mountjoy Prison John Lonergan said another huge failure in policy related to drug use within prisons.

He claimed expensive and intrusive measures to control the entry of drugs into prisons would have little effect while the demand persisted.

“It is essential that there is at least an equal emphasis on providing treatment and support to prisoners to address their drug use,” said Mr Lonergan.

Launching the study, the former prison governor said it was amazing the recent policy of doubling up of prisoners was largely being allowed to go unchallenged politically.

He claimed prisons like Mountjoy failed to provide adequate privacy and space for prisoners. “It is a fundamental policy issue which needs to be addressed,” Mr Lonergan added.

Campaigner Fr Peter McVerry said overcrowding remained the most serious problem of the prison system and the problem had undermined improvements in conditions in recent decades.

Fr McVerry said he knew 40 young offenders who had no history of drug-taking who had emerged from prison as addicts, largely due to being forced to share a cell with other drug users.

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