Prison Service figures show that the number of people being remanded in custody, after being charged and awaiting trial, has jumped by more than 50% in the last three years — with the biggest increase taking place in the last year.
Official figures show there were 750 remand prisoners in the system on April 30 last (comprising 20% of the overall prison population).
This compares to 607 remand prisoners on the same date in 2017 (16% of the population) and 492 on the same date in 2015 (13% of the population).
Garda successes against organised crime, including the Kinahan crime cartel, as well as an apparent greater willingness of the courts to hold suspected burglars in custody on remand, rather than on bail, are believed to be fuelling the rising numbers.
The rise emerged at the launch of the Prison Service 2017 annual report, which detailed a 40% fall in overall prison committals, due to a collapse in the jailing of fine defaulters.
A fall of 75% in the imprisonment of people who refuse to pay court fines for criminal offences stems from new laws obliging the courts to exhaust other options, including payment by installment and community service, before imprisonment.
While overall committal numbers are down, the average daily population remained unchanged in 2017, compared to 2016.
It has risen significantly in 2018 — from almost 3,700 people at the end of last year to nearly 4,000 currently.
Michael Donnellan, director general of the Irish Prison Service, said the rise in remands was one of the reasons there has been such an increase.
We have 283 people in prison more today than this day last year,” he said.
“That’s reflected most in the success of the gardaí in relation to remands — our remand numbers are up.”
Garda successes against organised crime include the arrest and charging of suspected associates of the Kinahan cartel for a whole range of serious offences — from drugs and firearms seizures, to attempted assassinations, to feud-related murders.
The sharp rise in remand prisoners coincides with a 75% increase in protection prisoners (from 295 in April 2014 to 514 in April 2018) As reported in the Irish Examiner last May, the Kinahan-Hutch feud has caused an “explosion” in the numbers on restricted regimes (locked up in their cells for 21 hours) in Mountjoy, where numbers have trebled (75 to 222). One in three inmates in Mountjoy is now on protection, the vast bulk sought by the inmate.
Protection numbers have gone up in prisons because when they come into prison they seek protection in our prison environment,” said Mr Donnellan.
“There’s no doubt that is linked to drugs, linked to debts of money owed in communities for these illegal substances.”
He said prisons were doing everything they could to give them a proper regime, but added: “When you have that level of criminality in the streets, it is then reflected in a prison environment.”
He said they estimate there are 12-14 major criminal groups within the system, which they were managing on a daily basis.
Mr Donnellan said it creates “huge pressure” on the system and on staff as they have to run a number of regimes, rather than one, within prisons.
Eoin Carroll, deputy director of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, said almost a third of those on extended lock-up were not getting the minimum out of cell time of three hours per day to engage in exercise or activity.
“The number of prisoners on extended lockup, which continues to grow, is an indicator of how dangerous prison is to both prison staff and prisoners,” he said.