The continuing increase in prisoner numbers is mounting pressure on available cell space, services and escorts, the country’s top prison chief has warned.
Caron McCaffrey said that as well as ongoing rises in the number of people being sent to prison to serve sentences, there has been a sharp increase in those being jailed awaiting trial.
And given the seriousness of the charges many of these face – including for gangland offences – they are being detained for longer, adding to the pressure on space.
This growth in remand cases reflects the success of the gardaí in bringing charges against members of the Kinahan crime cartel, including for murder, conspiracy to murder and firearms charges.
The Irish Prison Service Annual Report 2019 also shows that after a dramatic reduction in the number of people being sent to prison for failing to pay court fines since 2015, the trend was reversed last year and the number almost doubled.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said he noted the rise in committals, including the increase in those being given sentences of less than a year, and said it highlights the potential of further expanding structured release programmes – an issue he would pursue with the new Judicial Council.
Key figures in the report show:
- There were 8,939 committals to prison in 2019, an 11% (+868) increase on 2018 (8,071)
- The daily average number of people in prison in 2019 was 3,971, compared to 3,893 in 2018 (+2%) and 3,680 in 2017 (+8%)
- There was a 3% rise in female prisoners on an average day in 2019 and a 2% increase in male inmates
- Remand prisoner numbers rose to 707 in 2019, up from 677 in 2018 and 584 in 2017
- There were 490 committals in respect of immigration issues involving 477 detainees (+18% on 2018)
The statistics also show there were 860 committals for the non-payment of a court-ordered fine, which represents an 90% increase (+405) over 2018. Of this 77% were male and 23% were female.
This represents a reversal of the dramatic reduction in fine committals – plummeting from almost 9,883 in 2015 to 455 in 2018 — a cut of 95%.
Ms McCaffrey, director-general of the IPS said that they had warned in 2018 of “significant increases” in prison numbers over a short period of time.
She said these increases were sustained in 2019, which she warned was “putting pressure on the system in a number of areas, including prisoner accommodation, the provision of services and the volume of prisoner escorts”.
She said while the daily average prisoner number was 3,904 in January 2019, it had reached a high of 4,068 in August.
She said 76% of all committals under sentence in 2019 were for sentences of 12 months or less in 2019, up 2% on 2018.
Ms McCaffrey said that as the country’s only remand facility Cloverhill Prison had a bed capacity of 431, that over 270 had to be put in with sentenced prisoners in other jails.
“A further recent feature of remand prisoners is the increasing seriousness of the criminal charges they face,” she said
“Many of these remand prisoners are required to be detained for much longer periods than was previously the case for remand prisoners, with increasing numbers of them requiring imprisonment at higher levels of security.”
The report said that the average annual cost of an available, staffed prison space during the calendar year 2019 was €75,349, a 2% increase on the 2018 cost of €73,802. This was mainly put down to an increase in staffing costs.
Commenting on the report, Minister Flanagan said: “I am very conscious of the increasing numbers in custody over recent years, and in particular the rise in offenders committed to sentences of less than 12 months.
These statistics underline the potential benefits and scope to extend the use of community service orders, which oblige an offender - if assessed as suitable - to address their offending behaviour by carrying out unpaid work in the community.
“This is something which I would hope the newly established Judicial Council might consider through its Sentencing Guidelines and Information Committee.” In relation to Covid-19, the Minister noted that no prisoner had been infected with the virus and that the IPS had been internationally recognised for its work in controlling its spread.
He said the IPS had now shared their experience with other countries through the submission of a paper to the World Health Organisation on its approach to the outbreak.
The Minister said that in line with the Government Roadmap, that the IPS has started to assess the ability of each prison to plan for the resumption of some family visits with appropriate safeguards in place.
He added: “The Irish Prison Service is committed to reintroducing physical visits as soon as it is safe to do so. While no date has been agreed, we all fully understand how important contact with family is.
"Arrangements that will be put in place have yet to be finalised, but our colleagues in the IPS will provide further information, and a date for the gradual recommencement of visits, to prisoners and their families in the coming weeks.”
He said the IPS will provide further updates on the measures that will be put in place to ensure that visiting a prison will be safe for prisoners, families, staff and other service providers, once those physical visits recommence.