Ireland third highest in Europe for 'lifers' in prisons; Northern Ireland first

Ireland is near the top of the table of 47 European nations for the number of life sentence inmates in prison.

It is third, with Northern Ireland at the top, followed by Greece, a major report by the Council of Europe shows.

The Republic also has higher rates of escapes from penal institutions - all from Oberstown Children Detention Centre.

In addition, Ireland has higher rates than average of inmates serving sentences for rapes and other sexual offences.

The council's Annual Penal Statistics 2018 show that:

  • 11.8% of all prisoners in Ireland are serving a life sentence, third behind Northern Ireland (15.4%) and Greece (13.9%) and ahead of England & Wales (9.7%)
  • The Republic's rate is nine times the average (2.8%) of the 47 countries

The Council of Europe includes the 28 EU states and a host of neighbouring countries, from Iceland in the west to Ukraine in the east.

Using figures from 2017, the report shows there were 358 life sentence inmates, or 'lifers', in Irish prisons.

Life sentences are mandatory in Ireland in cases of murder and prison sources indicate that the number of life sentences has increased in recent years as a result of garda successes against gang feuds.

Another factor that might explain the high rate in Ireland is the option in other countries for courts to hand down minimum tariffs for different categories of homicides - something not available in Ireland.

The report shows that the average across the 47 countries for prisoners serving sentences of 20 years or more was 3.2% - which is significantly higher than Ireland, where it is only 0.2%.

In addition, the average for sentences of between 10 and 20 years is 12.4% across Europe, where in Ireland it is 7.9%.

Prisoners serving life sentences are legally entitled to apply for parole after serving seven years in Ireland.

Figures published by the Parole Board in its 2017 annual report show that the average sentence served by 21 life sentence prisoners granted parole was 18 years.

The Council of Europe said the percentage of prisoners sentenced for homicide and attempted homicides was similar in Ireland to the European average (14.1% v 13.6%).

The figures also show that more prisoners are serving sentences in Ireland for rapes (6.7% v 4.6%) and other sexual offences (6% v 3.9%).

And there are significantly greater numbers serving time for assault and battery in Ireland (13.7% v 7.6%) and more for terrorism (0.5% v 0.1%).

The report shows that Ireland has a prison population rate of 79.5 per 100,000 people, compared to an average of 123.7, with England & Wales in top position at 142.4.

Ireland's prison population rate has remained effectively unchanged compared to 2008 figures. But it has dropped dramatically from a high of 95.7 in 2010, after which it fell steadily, to 78.1 in 2016, increasing slightly in 2017.

The report shows that Ireland's prison density, which is inmates per capacity, stood at 88.9 per 100 places, just above the average of 87.6. There are 1.3 prisoners per cell in Ireland, compared to an average of 2.5.

It said there were 21 escapes from penal institutions in Ireland, translating to a rate of 54.6 per 10,000 inmates, compared to an average of 42.6.

The figure was higher for escapes from closed institutions – 52.4 compared to an average of 16.4.

The report said these 11 escapes were not from Irish closed prisons but from Oberstown Children Detention Centre. The other 10 escapes were from open prisons.

Elsewhere the report said the staff ratio in Ireland was higher than the average and that the cost of housing an inmate (€188 per day) was higher than the average (€128).

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