The latest figures, released by Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, relating to last Tuesday, show 252 inmates were incarcerated 23 hours a day — roughly 6% of the prison population on that date.
The highest rates were in St Patrick’s Institution for Young Offenders which accommodates 16 to 21-year- olds. They were followed by Mountjoy, Wheatfield, Castlerea and Cork prisons.
In response to a parliamentary question by Labour’s Cork South Central TD Ciarán Lynch, Mr Ahern said protection prisoners are those considered to be under threat, or “at risk”, due to gangland feuding, drug debts because they gave evidence in a court case or because of the nature of their offence.
Liam Herrick of the Irish Penal Reform Trust said: “The figures, while shocking, are not surprising as the Inspector of Prisons has consistently reported that up to 25% of the juvenile population in St Patrick’s Institution is on protection for fear of their own safety.
“In particular, the use of single separation of children for reasons of protection, which can involve up to 23-hours’ lock up with limited access to education, physical activity, and association, is of very serious concern.”
He said the Whitaker Report of 1985 assessed the conditions of detention at St Patrick’s generally as potentially leading to “the psychological deterioration of the young offenders”.
Mr Herrick said the further impact of 23-hour lock up on the development of the boys and young men detained there was “an extremely serious issue”.
In a second reply to Deputy Lynch, Mr Ahern said 2,762 — or 63% of all 4,416 inmates — were sharing cells, with certain prisons most affected:
* Cork: 308 of 320 inmates sharing (95%)
* Cloverhill: 425 of 464 inmates (92%)
* Limerick: 224 of 296 (76%)
* Castlerea: 256 of 382 (67%)
Mr Herrick said that none of the cells in Cork had toilets and inmates had to “slop out” in front of each other.
He said most cells in Mountjoy didn’t have toilets, while two out of four blocks in Limerick also had no toilets.
“It is particularly ironic that on International Human Rights Day, 30% of prisoners in Ireland — about 1,330 men — are still ‘slopping out’ despite assurances by Government since 1992 that this grim, degrading practice would be eliminated. That many of these prisoners are also sharing cells, in some cases with up to 4 others, further exacerbates what are already inhumane conditions.”
Mr Ahern also revealed that due to staff shortages library services were barely functioning in many jails: including Wheatfield (23% open); Mountjoy (27%); Castlerea (28%). This meant the library was only open for six hours a week in Wheatfield and Castlerea and nine hours a week in Mountjoy.