The Irish Penal Reform Trust said there needed to be engagement with the judiciary in Munster to try and cut the high number of offenders being sent to Cork Prison, particularly for not paying court fines.
Figures published this week in the Irish Examiner as part of a special report on Cork Prison, show committal figures have risen sharply, from 1,739 in 2008 to 2,798 in 2012, with 2,599 up to the end of November.
The data shows an even greater rise in committals for non-payment of fines, increasing from 421 (24% of all committals) in 2008, to 1,669 in 2012 (60%), with 1,519 (58%) up to the end of November 2013.
“The numbers being committed is a particular problem in Cork,” said Liam Herrick of the IPRT. “There’s a very high rate of committals, particularly of fine defaulters. That requires a coordinated response and we need to engage with the judiciary.”
He said the committal levels put enormous pressure on Cork, which, has struggled to deal with chronic overcrowding for years.
“Cork Prison is facing a combination of very serious challenges, from a starting point of a completely inadequate building, with slopping out, overcapacity all the time and poor mental health services in the community,” said Mr Herrick. “It’s a perfect storm that faces the prison.”
He recognised efforts of governor Jim Collins and Prison Service director general Michael Donnellan to reduce overcrowding at the prison, dropping from over 300 in 2011 to around 230.
Mr Herrick welcomed the new prison, work on which is due to start in the coming weeks after local builder PJ Hegarty was awarded the contract, worth in the region of €35m.
“We always had the line that the situation in Cork was so bad, the building of a new one was an absolute priority,” said Mr Herrick, “Nothing I say can be interpreted as opposing the building of a new prison.”
He said their key concern was that new cells were designed to take two inmates, rather than single cells, as was the case with the redevelopment in Mountjoy. Mr Donnellan told the Irish Examiner that the cells in the new Cork prison were a lot larger at over 12sq m, and that while he would like the entire system to be single cell that would not happen in the short term, but it was his intention in the medium term, over 10 years.
“Doubling up is regrettable,” said Mr Herrick.
He echoed comments by Mr Collins and Mr Donnellan that prisons were no place for the mentally ill.
“Undoubtedly, there’s a serious issue with mental health in Cork Prison,” he said. “It’s not suitable for people who are well, let alone those who are ill.”