Prison overcrowding allows bullies to thrive, conference hears

The return of overcrowding in Irish prisons is creating an atmosphere for the “bully to thrive” and to pressurise vulnerable inmates to smuggle drugs and weapons, according to prison officers.

Speaking at the start of the annual conference of the Prison Officers’ Association in Sligo, president Tony Power said figures show that prison numbers have risen from 3,745 in April 2017, to 3,890 a year later and to 4,049 in April 2019.

“Prisoners sleeping on mattresses on floors is becoming an all too common sight again,” Mr Power said.

“Taking one landing at the Midlands, initially designed to hold 38 prisoners, it regularly has prisoner numbers in excess of 65 and this is mirrored in many of the prisons.”

Mr Power said rising prison numbers was having serious knock-on effects.

“Overcrowding provides the perfect atmosphere for the bully to thrive and exert huge pressure on vulnerable prisoners in particular to traffic in contraband, including weapons and illegal drugs.

“Serious violence is often part of the scenario here and we prison officers pay the inevitable price. Overcrowding puts both prisoners and prison officers at unnecessary risk — and this is totally unacceptable.”

He said overcrowding creates major challenges for prison officers on the ground. Mr Power also said the Irish Prison Service strategy statement referred to the reopening of the Training Unit in Mountjoy.

“Not one red cent has been spent on it since the decision was taken to close it in 2016. We need clarity on this issue as a matter of urgency,” he said adding no one wanted a return to the ‘pack ‘em, stack ‘em and rack ‘em’ days of the past.

Mr Power said overcrowding in the closed prisons was happening when numbers at the open centres “remain below capacity”. 

Mr Power will be raising his concerns with Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan when he attends the conference later today. 

IPS figures show that Loughan House open centre in Cavan is at 77% capacity. The average across the 13 IPS institutions is 94%.

Overcrowding is worst in the two female prisons.

Figures for April 26 show Dochas is 126% over capacity with 132 inmates in spaces for 105 people. 

Limerick female is 129% over capacity with 36 inmates in spaces for 28 people.

Limerick male is at 100% capacity, Arbour Hill is at 99% capacity, Midlands is at 98% capacity and Cork is at 97% capacity.

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