This article by Cormac O'Keeffe appeared in the Irish Examiner on Thursday March 18th.
Internal prison figures suggest there have been 1,000 committals to the Dublin jail so far this year, compared with 800 in the same period last year and 600 in 2008.
A number of sources in the prison are predicting a "hot and heavy" summer, with rising prisoner numbers placing ever greater demands on the prison’s capacity, ratcheting up tensions between inmates and possibly also with staff.
The warnings follow another violent clash in the prison, last Saturday, in which four Limerick gangsters attempted to attack a Dublin criminal. A prison officer intervened and was cut in the process and has been on sick leave since. It’s the latest violent incident in the jail between rival gangs.
Sources said there was an average of 660 inmates in the prison last week. The number dropped over the weekend and stood at 636 on Tuesday. Last week’s figure did not include 248 inmates on temporary release.
"It will absolutely hit 700 by the end of the year. I’d say it will hit that by May," said one source. A second source agreed: "I don’t think anyone doubts the prison will reach 700 by the end of the year."
Last September, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said Prison Service director general Brian Purcell intended to keep numbers at Mountjoy to under 600. He made the comments following a report on Mountjoy by Inspector of Prisons Judge Michael Reilly. He had called for numbers to be kept to 540 and expressed fears that the level of overcrowding in the prison "could lead to possible serious injury or loss of life".
Prison sources yesterday said figures showed a clear trend for the first ten weeks of this year, compared with the same period in the last two years.
"Mountjoy two years ago was taking in about 60 committals a week. Last year, that rose to 80 a week. This year it’s 100 a week," said one insider. "All these prisoners have to go through the system, they all have to be taken in and there’s more prisoners staying. Services and staff levels are going down, so you have all the attendant risks."
He said the prison was struggling to handle the constant threat posed by gang feuds and the steady rise in prisoners on protection. There were now over 100 prisoners on protection, compared with around 80 two years ago.
A second source said: "The logistics of keeping prisoners separate and having separate visits and so on is a nightmare." With more staff required to handle increasing prison numbers and more protection prisoners, there are fewer to man the workshops, libraries and so on.
The service opened the separation unit on Tuesday on a phased basis, to house protection prisoners, with a capacity of 55-60.