From the online edition of The Irish Times, 15th Oct2009:
Fine Gael has today called for a radical overhaul of the State's sentencing system in the wake of new figures that reveal the number of prisoners in Irish jails has passed 4,000 for the first time in the State's history.
Prisoner numbers reached 4,009 last Friday. This is despite very few committals during the summer months when courts do not sit as normal. The fact the numbers are so high so quickly into the new law term indicates that overcrowding is almost certain to worsen considerably in the period to Christmas.
The new Irish Prison Service's figures do not include the estimated 500 prisoners on indefinite periods of temporary release in order to ease overcrowding.
In a statement today, Fine Gael spokesman on justice Charlie Flanagan call for community based, non-custodial sentences to be considered so serious offenders can be kept in jail
“Our prisons are dangerously overcrowded, posing a threat to the safety of prisons and staff. Last year, there were 759 incidents of violence among prisoners and this figure will only rise as the Government opts to pack more and more prisoners into out-of-date jails like Mountjoy. It is clear that we cannot continue on this path without serious injury or loss of life becoming a feature of our prisons," he said.
“I am calling on Minister Ahern to radically overhaul his approach to incarceration and to focus on community service for minor offences. With each prison place now costing almost €100,000 annually, the Minister must review the benefit of handing down thousands of minor sentences annually.
“It is clear that prison in Ireland is enormously expensive and has little deterrent or rehabilitative value. Its effectiveness is further undermined by the use of early release as a means of facilitating the committal of ever more prisoners. Ireland has a revolving door prison system that sees almost 50 per cent of prisoners back inside within four years of their release. This is not sustainable," Mr Flanagan said.
He called for alternatives to custody in the case of non-violent offences, such as non-payment of fines, on the basis that community service "is less expensive for the taxpayer and allows offenders to put something back into the community".
Speaking in the Seanad, Labour Senator Ivana Bacik said: “We are dehumanising and brutalising the populations in our prisons by subjecting them to the inhumane conditions caused by chronic overcrowding.
“Clearly we need an urgent debate on prisons; not just on reform of conditions in prisons, but on why we are sending so many people to prison for minor non-violent offences and even non-payment of fines.
"The proposed building of the hundreds of extra prison places at Thornton Hall, or ‘McDowell’s Folly’, will not solve the crisis in our prisons - it will merely lead to more people being sent to prison unnecessarily,” she said.
News of the record numbers of inmates comes three weeks after the inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, presented a report on Mountjoy Prison to the Government, warning lives were being put at risk due to chronic overcrowding in the Dublin jail.