Three out of every four prisoners has a drug problem; one in seven are on methadone treatment; 30 are “psychotic” and waiting to be transferred to psychiatric hospitals at any time; and dozens would immediately become homeless if they were released, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.
Irish prison service officials revealed the scale of the difficulties facing the system as they confirmed that almost 500 prison officers have been seriously assaulted since 2012.
Speaking at the latest meeting of the Dáil public accounts committee, Irish prison service director general, Michael Donnellan, said the service is under-going a series of reforms which have been pushed through in recent years.
Citing a series of changes, Mr Donnellan said the practice of slopping-out at prisons has ended; new facilities are being built; and improved step-down services are being made available for those who have served their sentence.
However, despite the reforms, the prison service head confirmed there continues to be difficulties in the system. And in a clear sign of the issues facing both prison officers and the prison population, he said the facilities continue to face wide-scale drug problems and potential violence which is a threat to both staff and inmates.
Asked by unaligned Independent TD Catherine Connolly about the depth of prison drug addiction, Mr Donnellan said 70% of the 3,700 prisoners have serious drug problems.
He said that while traditional drug addictions are a problem, “synthetic drugs” are a growing factor and hundreds of prisoners are receiving methadone treatment: “There’s no doubt drugs in prison is a serious problem.
"The overall prison population is 3,700. About 70% of that would have a drug addiction problem. Usually what has brought them into the prison is that problem.”
Mr Donnellan said approximately 500 prisoners are currently receiving methadone treatment for their addictions and that the issue alongside mental health problems is increasingly receiving system attention.
However, despite the improvements, the director general said “30 people any week are psychotic and waiting to get into the mental hospital” — an issue which is putting the individuals, fellow inmates and prison officers at potential risk.
Asked by Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy how frequently prison officers are assaulted, Department of Justice general secretary Noel Waters, who was also present, said almost 500 have been attacked in the last four years. He said 107 were assaulted in 2012; 147 in 2013; 151 in 2014; and 91 in 2015 (the latest figures available); with “violence is becoming a feature” of the system.
However, despite the situation, Mr Donnellan said the first prison officer recruitment campaign since 2008 received 7,000 applications and is likely to lead to 80 new officers.
This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner.