The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) said there were 300 fewer prison places as a result of a ministerial decision to close three jails.
POA president, Gabriel Keaveny, said yesterday: “The shortage of prison spaces is the major issue facing the prison service and the Government and they appear to be doing nothing about it.”
Speaking on the eve of the POA annual conference in Killarney, Mr Keaveny said the country’s population was increasing, “yet we appear to have put the car in reverse when it comes to creating much needed prison spaces”, he said.
“Some prisons are bursting at the seams and overcrowding is back on the agenda again for one reason and one reason only — this minister [Michael McDowell] has closed down three prisons since he came into office, and as a direct result, prisons spaces have been reduced by 300.”
Mr Keaveny said the decision to shut down Shanganagh open prison, Spike Island prison and the Curragh detention centre had forced the rest of the prison service to reopen sections that had been deemed unacceptable: “Areas such as the A Division in Mountjoy Prison, which was previously deemed unsuitable and closed down, has had to be reopened because of the accommodation crisis.”
The Inspector of Prisons, Mr Justice Dermot Kinlen, confirmed this in his report on Mountjoy last year. He described base cells there as “inhumane and degrading”.
In a separate report, Justice Kinlen slammed the “gross overcrowding” in Cork Prison, saying it was the worst in the system, with 281 prisoners occupying space for 150 inmates.
He described as “unacceptable” the practice of slopping out in cells and the serving of food in the same confined space.
Mr Keaveny said: “‘Doubling up’ is now a common feature in many of our prisons as a way of easing overcrowding and the return of the revolving door syndrome is inevitable. Many of us will have previously experienced the intolerable working and living conditions, huge increases in temporary release, and hundreds of prisoners running wild on our streets, which resulted from a previous revolving door policy.”
The POA president said the pressure on prison spaces would worsen if the minister further restricted the bail laws, as he had indicated.
He said the minister had given undertakings to build a new prison on Spike Island and called on him to secure the funding.
The minister will address the conference today. He did not attend last year’s conference amidst a row over overtime. Prison officers accepted a deal on the vexed issue last August.