Judge Michael Reilly’s comments come as new figures show record numbers of women are being jailed — more than doubling from 923 in 2001 to 1,902 in 2011.
The overcrowding crisis in the country’s two women’s jails is forcing management to release almost half of inmates early.
A seminar, held on International Women’s Day, heard 151 women were in custody last Wednesday, but that another 120 were on temporary release, or 44% of all female prisoners.
This compared with a temporary release rate of 12% among men.
“Prison is often a very expensive way of making vulnerable women’s life situations much worse,” Judge Reilly told the seminar which was organised by Depaul Ireland.
He is due to send a report on Dóchas Women’s Prison to the minister for justice in the next two months.
He said female inmates he talks to are worried about their children.
“In a lot of cases their children are taken into care,” said Judge Reilly. “They have nowhere to live when released. Their husband has gone off with some other woman, she’s pregnant. The whole pack of cards has fallen down. They have no world to go back to.”
The inspector argued for a system of community courts, for both women and men, based on resolving the problems causing crime and diverting offenders from jails.
“It would take a huge number of people out of women’s prisons,” he said.
Dolores Courtney of the Irish Prison Service said the number of women in custody rose consistently over the last decade, from 923 in 2001 to 1,902 in 2011.
She said with only two women’s prisons, they didn’t have the ability to move women around the system to ease overcrowding.
She said that last Wednesday, there were 151 women in custody: 122 in Dóchas, and 29 in Limerick Women’s Prison.
She said this compared to the capacity of 129 recommended by the inspector of prisons (105 in Dóchas and 24 in Limerick).
Ms Courtney said that in addition to the 151 in custody, there were 120 on temporary release.
She said the Irish Prison Services’s focus was not to build more spaces for women, but to look at alternatives to prison. She backed suggestions from David Carroll of Depaul, who called on judges to consider sending female offenders to residential services instead of jail.