3rd February 2023
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has today voiced grave concern in response to published figures showing the number of beds across the Irish prison estate has reached capacity. Total numbers of people in prison in Ireland now exceed the number of beds available.
The official figures, published on the Irish Prison Service website this week, showed the combined capacity across prisons in the Republic of Ireland has now hit 100%. One prison – Limerick (Female) Prison - has reached highs of 164% capacity, as numbers continue to grow.
In total, 4,362 people were in prison across the prison estate in Ireland at the beginning of the week, with only 4,411 beds available. Yesterday, Thursday 2 February 2023, prison numbers have reached 4,416 (five more than the number of beds available).
To place this level of imprisonment in context, the number of people in Irish prisons was just 750 in 1970; 1,200 in 1980; 2,100 in 1990; and 2,948 in 2000.
As numbers continue to rise, news of almost 50 people sleeping on mattresses in prison in the last few weeks paints a picture of the extent of the issue.
IPRT is calling on the Minister for Justice to make immediate efforts to adequately resource the proposed actions in the recently published Review of Policy Options for Prison and Penal Reform to ultimately reduce the number of people sent to prison and support a move away from responses to offending that cause unnecessary further harm to people and their families.
IPRT Acting Executive Director Ms. Molly Joyce comments:
The Government have indicated that they are committed to exploring the policy of ‘prison as a last resort’ through providing alternatives to prison such as community-based sanctions where appropriate. The policy position is there but we can see by the growth in numbers of people in prison that the policy is far from reality on the ground.
While there were some welcome reductions in the use of imprisonment in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, more recent data suggests that this has not been sustained and we are back to business as usual. The amount of people in prison accelerated in 2022 and the numbers are continuing to grow into 2023.
This is a 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 continue.
Ms. Joyce goes on to say:
In the short-term the impact of these numbers is on overcrowding. But we risk reaching a point where rehabilitative services cannot be delivered effectively in prisons, which undermines one of the core purposes of imprisonment. The number of people in prison can be reduced now by careful and structured use of temporary and early release measures. In the longer-term, measures to reduce Ireland’s prison population need to be adequately resourced and implemented.
We welcome departmental commitments to move away from practices that rely heavily on imprisonment, but for people sitting in overcrowded prisons this week and communities who want to see meaningful change and safer societies, action is needed now.
There continues to be an over-reliance on imprisonment for people convicted of less serious offences, despite its damaging social and economic impact on individuals, families, and communities.
IPRT is further concerned that the continued delay in publishing the Prison Chaplain Annual Reports for 2021 misses an opportunity to shed light on what is happening on the ground in Irish prisons. Previously published chaplain reports have highlighted various issues within the prison system, including the impact of overcrowding.
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NOTES FOR EDITOR:
Current data on imprisonment in Ireland:
On 2 February 2023, there were:
4,416 people in custody in Ireland (797 of whom were on remand)
Limerick (Female) Prison was operating at 164% capacity
In October 2022:
47.6% of the prison population were accommodated in single cells – decreased from 49% in April 2022.
Other data from the Irish Prison Service Annual Report 2021: People who declared they had no ﬁxed abode accounted for 6.5% (339) of all committals (a decrease from 7.1% in 2020); 79% of all sentence committals were for 12 months or less; the average number of females in custody was 144 (a slight decrease from 148 in 2020); targets for attendance at prison education classes and blended learning were not met (28% of a target of 35%); and the number of prisoners seen by the Psychology Service exceeded targets (1,407 of a target of 1,200).
The pandemic offered an opportunity to reduce Ireland’s overreliance on custodial remand, however, the Irish Prison Service Annual Report 2021 shows a 4.4% increase in the average number of people being held on remand. In December 2020, 11.5% of all remand prisoners had been on remand a year or more, compared with 6% in December 2019. Pre-trial detention should be used as an exceptional measure but it appears that it risks becoming a default response. During the pandemic, those on remand were the most likely to have experienced harsher conditions within Irish prisons.
The proportion of people committed to prison on short sentences has also increased once again. In 2020, 78% of all sentenced committals were for 12 months or less. Effectively, four out of every five people sentenced to Irish prisons in 2020 were sentenced to less than 12 months, with a third of this group sentenced to less than 3 months.