By Conor Lally, Crime Correspondent, The Irish Times
The Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) has given its backing to claims by the head of Mountjoy Prison’s visiting committee, Stephen Langton, that prison overcrowding is at dangerous levels and could be relieved if the courts stopped sending petty criminals to jail.
It has emerged Mr Langton is to lobby the Chief Justice, Mr Justice Murray, on the seriousness of prison overcrowding, and to press for more non-custodial sentences to be imposed by the judiciary.
However, Mr Langton told The Irish Times while overcrowding was a major issue that was worsening quickly, many aspects of the prison service were positive.
“In the past 10 years conditions have improved. There are obviously drugs in the jails, but not all inmates are on them.
“Many prisoners are in education and other activities. The prison service and management in the jails are doing what they can to reduce overcrowding.
“They also bend over backwards to make sure prisoners not taking drugs are provided with jobs in the jails and are kept out of cells where other inmates are on drugs.
“It would be very unfair to assume it’s all bad news in the prison system.”
In a submission to the UN Human Rights Committee the IHRC said the number of inmates in some Irish jails had reached three times the level they were designed to hold. It said this level of overcrowding had led to the “inhuman treatment” of inmates.
The Irish Government’s pledge to build Thornton Hall super-prison in north Co Dublin, which will in the short term eliminate overcrowding, could not be used as an excuse for failing to act now to alleviate overcrowding.
The IHRC made its comments in a submission to the UN. That submission is aimed at keeping the UN informed of the Irish Government’s record on compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
IHRC president Dr Maurice Manning said: “It is a matter of grave concern that in the 12 months since Ireland last reported to the UN Human Rights Committee, overcrowding has reportedly increased to acute levels, increasing the potential for violence among prisoners.”
There had been a 13.6 per cent increase in committals to Irish prisons last year to 13,557 inmates. Some 43 per cent were committed for sentences of less than three months, 87.5 per cent were non-violent offenders, and there had been an increase of 88 per cent in jailings for non-payment of court ordered fines.
The figures underlined the need to develop alternative sanctions to imprisonment rather than the Government’s emphasis on building more prison spaces.
In its report to the UN the IHRC is also critical of the continued use of slopping out, where inmates use a bucket for a toilet in prisons without in-cell sanitation.
The IHRC’s criticisms of the Irish Prison Service come just days after Stephen Langton, in an interview with The Irish Times, said overcrowding, prison violence and continued prison drug taking were all serious issues.
Mr Langton is chairman of the visiting committee at Mountjoy and the national prisons visiting committee group. He said the overcrowding issue would only be solved if people guilty of minor offences were not imprisoned.
He planned to press for a meeting with the Chief Justice to discuss the matter. While the judiciary were independent of government so too were the prison visiting committees.
“Part of our brief is to liaise with outside agencies on prisoner welfare. To me it [overcrowding] is an issue of prisoner welfare.”
Read the original Irish Times interview with Stephen Langton here.