The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) said the decision by Justice Minister Michael McDowell to close three prisons — including Spike Island in Cork — would mean the return of the “revolving door” in Irish jails.
Fine Gael Justice spokesman Jim O’Keeffe said the minister bore “huge personal responsibility” for the overcrowding problem.
Figures given to Mr O’Keeffe by the Tánaiste show 470 inmates were let go from Cork Prison before their remission date. All prisoners are entitled to a one-quarter reduction, or remission, off their actual sentence.
Mr McDowell said:
164 inmates were released with more than a month left before their remission date (35% of the total).
174 were let go in the final month of their remission date (37%).
131 were released in the final week of their remission date (28%).
“There is a problem in our prisons with overcrowding, particularly in Cork Prison,” said deputy O’Keeffe. “It arises because the minister did not plan for his closure of Spike Island two years ago, which had 100 spaces. This put appalling pressure on Cork prison.
“That prison was only built for 150, but from doubling up it accommodates up to 270. The conditions in Cork are grim, when capacity is up to full it’s dangerous.”
POA president Gabriel Keaveny said the minister was living in “cloud-cuckoo-land” if he did not think there was overcrowding.
“We already told the minister last year that the closure of three prisons — Shanganagh, the Curragh and Spike — had reduced prison spaces by 300. We told him that the revolving door was going to return.
“The minister has done nothing but make announcements about Thornton Hall and the new Munster prison, but we’ve not seen any more spaces.”
Mr McDowell said the safety of the public was the overriding issue in granting temporary release.
A spokeswoman for the minister said Cork prison’s overcrowding was the main reason for a new prison for Munster.
“Unlike the situation 10 years ago under the Rainbow government, prisoners are now granted temporary release by the Irish Prison Service as part of structured sentence management and only about 3% are currently on temporary release compared with 20% at the end of 1996,” she said.