HALF of the prison population takes drugs and there have been almost 700 seizures this year, according to the Irish Prison Service (IPS).
IPS director general Brian Purcell said an estimated 18% of all prisoners will experience lifelong problems with drugs.
Addressing the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, Mr Purcell rejected criticism by Labour TD Tommy Broughan that the IPS had insufficient information about the incidence of drug use among prisoners. He claimed there had been significant improvements in the collection of data on all health aspects of prisoners in recent years.
The PAC heard between 12% and 15% of the prison population between 2003 and 2007 were admitted to methadone maintenance treatment compared with just 8% in 2001. Mr Purcell said the average number of prisoners had grown about 8% in the past 12 months to the current level of about 3,900 inmates. However, he claimed prisoners themselves would admit that it was now more difficult to obtain drugs in prison than in previous years. Mr Purcell said the availability of drugs in prisons was now “intermittent and unpredictable”. Around 700 drug seizures have already been recorded so far in prisons this year
He claimed the IPS had committed significant resources since 2006 to both reducing the supply of drugs and drug treatment programmes for inmates. A total of 2,014 prisoners had availed of such programmes in 2008, he told the PAC.
Mr Purcell said a 170-strong team of prisoner warders were now involved in an operational support unit which had responsibility for the screening of people coming into prisons. The unit’s dog-handler division had been particularly effective in detecting individuals trying to smuggle drugs into prisons, he added. However, Mr Purcell stressed that use of mandatory drug testing in prisons did not mean all inmates were tested regularly.
“It is not a silver bullet,” he remarked. Instead he pointed out that prisoners were profiled and targeted for inclusion for such tests which are currently carried out in just five prisons. Mr Purcell confirmed that such testing would be extended to all prisons by the end of 2009.
The PAC heard €18 million of the IPS drug treatment budget is given to community-based supports for offenders. Methadone maintenance programmes are currently only available in eight of the country’s 14 main detention facilities which account for 75% of the prison population. However, the Department of Justice confirmed it will be expanded to Castlerea Prison next month and to Cork Prison before the end of the year. The department’s secretary general Seán Aylward said the unavailability of such treatment in the two prisons before now may be linked to the shortage of community-based facilities in those regions.
However, he said Ireland was well ahead of the US in terms of prison-based drug treatment programmes. Mr Aylward also observed that a drug-free prison would be cruel on inmates as it would require them to be kept in isolation without any contact with visitors.
The complete elimination of drugs from prison would not be possible in operating a humane system, Mr Aylward remarked.
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