There are fresh concerns about overcrowding in Irish prisons, with 45 inmates on average having slept on mattresses on the floor of cells every night so far this year. The problem is confined to six jails that take remand inmates, with the issue most pressing in Limerick female and Limerick male prisons.
Prison authorities have repeatedly highlighted a sharp rise in non-fine-related committals to prisons in the last 18 months and the strain it is putting on the system. The average daily prison population rose from 3,738, in November 2017, to 3,962 last November, and stood at 4,025 on July 5.
Irish Prison Service figures show that Limerick male, Midlands, and Limerick female have the highest numbers of people on mattresses, followed by Cork, Cloverhill, and Castlerea.
An analysis, by the Irish Examiner, of daily figures over four months (February to May 2019), shows that the two prisons with the highest incidence of mattress use were Limerick male (16 per day) and Midlands (11 per day), with Limerick female third, with six per day.
But based on the average daily population of the prisons recently, Limerick female (40 inmates) had a mattress use rate of 15%; Limerick male (215) had a mattress use rate of 7.5%; and Midlands (846) had a mattress use rate of 1%.
Cork Prison had an average of four prisoners sleeping on mattresses per day. Based on its average daily prison population of around 290, the prison has a rate of mattress use of around 1%.
Supplying the raw data in response to a parliamentary question asked by now MEP Clare Daly, Justice Minister, Charlie Flanagan, pointed out that prison governors were required by law to accept all prisoners committed by the courts. He said:
The Irish Prison Service, therefore, has no control over the numbers committed to custody at any given time
Mr Flanagan said plans were “advanced” for the reopening of accommodation, including the training unit, which will provide 90 spaces, with an estimated 100 spaces coming from other places. He said the construction of a new female prison in Limerick and a new wing to Limerick male prison will provide 130 spaces.
However, the Limerick spaces are not expected to come on stream until the end of 2020, at the earliest. Jim Mitchell, of the Prison Officers’ Association, said they did not want the overcrowding problem to go back to the bad days of eight or nine years ago.
“Overcrowding makes prisons 100% worse, in terms of stress, fights, etc,” he said.
He said that while the building programme had helped, the decision to close the training unit was a “retrograde step” and called for greater use of open centres.
Fíona Ní Chinnéide, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said: “Prisoners sleeping on floors is a clear breach of the most basic human rights standards, including the European prison rules. It is unacceptable and undermines rehabilitation, with future implications for public safety.
“Crowding in prisons increases tensions, violence and drugs, putting the safety of staff and prisoners at risk. This will become worse in summer, when prison schools are closed for four weeks.”
She said two Oireachtas justice committees and a departmental penal policy review have called for a strategy to reduce prisoner numbers to a safe level, with increased use of community-based alternatives. She said it was “beyond urgent” this strategy be implemented.