More than one third of these — almost one-in-10 of all prisoners — are locked up 23 hours a day, such is the danger to their lives.
Prison boss Brian Purcell also revealed that there were 10-12 gangs in the system, but rejected claims by the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) that gangs were controlling some prisons.
Speaking to reporters at the POA annual conference in Kilkenny, the head of the Prison Service said there were 150 assaults by inmates on prison officers a year and 760-770 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults.
“There’s a problem with gang culture in society — that’s merely reflected in prisons,” said Mr Purcell.
“I’m quite satisfied our management and staff are well capable of dealing with any issues. There’s absolutely no question of any control of the prison system by gangs.”
He accepted that it did create problems, including putting people on protection either because they are members of gangs or owe a debt built up outside prison.
“Where you have a situation where prisoners are under threat from various sources, sometimes you have no choice but to have them on 23-hour lock up for their own safety. I don’t see that as an indication the system is unsafe, I see that as an indication of measures taken by the Irish Prison Service to protect prisoners.”
He said that out of 4,500 inmates there were a little more than 900 prisoners on protection. About 360-370 of these are on 23-hour lock up.
“Really we have no other choice. If we didn’t have them in those conditions, there would be ever-increasing risk that they would not be safe,” he said.
Mr Purcell said 150 prison officers were assaulted by inmates on an annual basis.
“That’s roughly three a week and given the context of the type of people we have to detain, that’s not a huge number.”
He said there were 760-770 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults a year.
Mr Purcell said a solution was needed to address overcrowding and that the review set up by Justice Minister Alan Shatter to look at Thornton Hall and any alternatives to it was examining this issue.
He said internal projections estimate that the number of prisoners in the system (sentenced, on remand and those on temporary release) will rise from about 5,500 now to 7,000 in the next three-to-four years.
He hoped the Fines Act, the new Community Service Orders Bill and proposals to extend parole will help ease pressures on the system.
Mr Purcell said an electronic tagging pilot involving 30 prisoners had concluded and that a review had found the scheme to be a success.
He said while “going forward” a wider system would be put in place, he said a cost-benefit analysis had to be done before recommending it to the Government.
He said one prisoner — killer Geoffrey Evans — remained tagged in hospital, where he has been seriously ill for more than two years.
In what is a special case, he was tagged to avoid the cost — estimated to have been more than €1 million — of keeping him under constant guard.