PERSISTENT overcrowding of Irish prisons is leading to higher suicide rates, aggression between inmates and the spread of infectious diseases, prison officers claimed last night.
Speaking on the eve of their annual conference, the president of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) Jim Mitchell said some institutions had twice as many prisoners as they should have.
He said it was ridiculous to talk about possibly rehabilitating prisoners in jails with 19th century conditions, including the use of toilet chamber pots in small cells shared with other inmates.
“Overcrowding creates competition for limited resources, higher suicide rates, aggression between inmates, higher rates of illness and infectious diseases among prisoners, and provides a virtual training ground for bullying, and victimisation of vulnerable prisoners,” said Mr Mitchell.
“We speak in terms of rehabilitation for the prison population, but if we are to be really serious about rehabilitation we should house prisoners in 21st and not 19th century conditions.”
Mr Mitchell was speaking before the POA annual conference, which takes place in Kilkenny today.
Justice Minister Brian Lenihan will address the conference this evening, which will also be attended by Prison Service director general Brian Purcell.
“Overcrowding is still the issue which causes most problems for prison officers and most risk for prisoners. Cork prison, for example, houses 100% more prisoners than it should and this is totally unacceptable and creates risks for all the parties involved,” said Mr Mitchell.
Mr Mitchell also said overcrowding was a huge problem in Mountjoy prison, where conditions remained extremely poor.
“There is also serious overcrowding in Mountjoy, where the ‘bed capacity’ is constantly changing as management continue to play around with the figures. I know for certain that Mountjoy is not designed to hold 600 prisoners, which it was housing in a recent assessment by the POA.”
Poor physical conditions in the older prisons and the problem of overcrowding across the system have been repeatedly aired by independent inspectors, both international and domestic.
Last year, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture again criticiseed the conditions in Mountjoy, Cork and Limerick. The Prison Service has admitted the conditions in Mountjoy and Cork, in particular, are not acceptable and say that is why they are replacing them with modern new prisons at Thornton Hall, north Dublin, and Kilworth, Co Cork.
Thornton Hall will replace all four institutions on the Mountjoy complex — Mountjoy Prison, Dochas Women’s Prison, St Patrick’s Institution and the Training Centre. It will be designed for 1,400 inmates. Kilworth prison will replace Cork prison, and will house about 450 inmates. Thornton Hall is due to open in 2011 and Kilworth about three years later.
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