14th October 2009
Last Friday 9th October, 2009 marked another milestone in the Irish prison system, but not one that we should be celebrating: for the first time in the history of the State, the number of prisoners in custody passed the 4,000 mark. The official figure of 4,009 does not include those who were out on Temporary Release; it represents the number of men, women and children accommodated in already chronically overcrowded Irish prisons on Friday night.
This is yet another watershed moment for Irish prisons. We now have a prison population that is growing at a worrying rate and without strong action from Government the problems caused by this rapid rate of increase will soon be out of control. To place this level of imprisonment in context, the number of prisoners in Irish prisons was just 750 in 1970; 1,200 in 1980; 2,100 in 1990; and 2,948 in 2000.
In the short-term the impact of these numbers is on overcrowding. We are long past identifying the evils of overcrowding on these blog pages. What we need now is commitment to action.
The Prison Service must set clear safe custody limits in each of the prisons and ensure that dangerous overcrowding levels are not allowed to develop. In the short term, numbers can be reduced by careful and structured use of temporary release.
But with prison expansion now clearly out of control, long-term measures are also required. The revised Programme of Government speaks of ensuring that imprisonment is a measure of last resort. However, this welcome statement of policy must be backed up with actions to ensure that further unaffordable – in both economic and social terms - prison expansion is prevented.
It is nothing less than disgraceful that when services across all sections of society are being cut, one remaining growth industry is incarceration.