Irish Penal Reform Trust

Number of prisoners in custody exceeds 4,000

15th October 2009

Record levels of imprisonment must act as alarm call for system growing out of control

The number of prisoners in custody in Irish prisons was 4,009 on Friday 9th October, 2009, passing the 4,000 mark for the first time in the history of the State. (Note: This figure does not include those out on temporary release.) Although the numbers have since dropped slightly to 3,980, this record level of occupancy is in a prison estate that is already chronically overcrowded and may worsen further in the coming months.

Reacting to this development, Liam Herrick, Executive Director of IPRT said:

“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 Irish prison population was just 750 in 1970; over 1,200 in 1980; 2,100 in 1990; 2,948 in 2000. The immediate consequence of this increase is to exacerbate an already critical overcrowding situation.

IPRT believes that urgent action must be taken by the Minister; failure to act in the face of recent Inspector of Prisons reports or allowing these problems to continue to deteriorate, is unacceptable. Liam Herrick stated:

“Overcrowding is an urgent issue that undermines any efforts at rehabilitation and places prisoners and staff in serious danger. 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.”

More long-term measures are also required. The revised Programme of Government speaks of ensuring that imprisonment is a measure of last resort. IPRT believes this welcome statement of policy must be backed up with actions to ensure that further unaffordable prison expansion is prevented.

  • The Government needs to deliver on the long-promised fines legislation.
  • Community sanctions, which are cheaper and more effective, must be resourced and supported.
  • Government must address the ongoing problem of District Courts imposing short sentences of imprisonment where community sanctions are clearly more appropriate.

In his Annual Report 2008, the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, stated his “serious concern for safety or life” due to overcrowded conditions in February of this year. Conditions have further deteriorated since then. The Inspector further made clear in his report on an inspection of Mountjoy Prison that delayed prison building can no longer be used as an excuse for “inhuman and degrading” conditions in Irish prisons.

For all media enquiries, or to arrange an interview with Liam Herrick, IPRT Executive Director, please contact:

Fíona Ní Chinnéide,
Campaigns & Communications Officer
Irish Penal Reform Trust

T: + 353 1 874 1400 M: +353 87 135 4107 E: W:



  • The number of prisoners in custody was 4,009 on Friday 9th October 2009; 3,984 on Monday 12th October; 3,980 on Tuesday 13th October. Source: Irish Prison Service.
  • The total bed capacity in Irish prisons is 3,947 (Tues 13th October, 2009.) Source: Irish Prison Service.
  • In October 2008, more than 360 offenders were on temporary release out of a population of 4,012 prisoners. This compared to 189 on the same date in 2007 out of a prison population slightly below 3,500.
    (Source: Sunday Business Post
  • More figures are available at:

Thornton Hall
IPRT has consistently opposed plans to build a ‘super-prison’ at Thornton Hall is a white-elephant solution to overcrowding. Our position is laid out in the IPRT Position Paper on Thornton Hall. See the IPRT Position Paper here.

15th Conference of Directors of Prison Administration: “OVERCROWDED PRISONS: LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS”
This Council of Europe-led conference took place 9-11 September 2009. For a snapshot of the current situation in prisons across Council of Europe members, see here.

The Nine Evils of Overcrowding:
The HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland identified nine ways in which overcrowding does harm in his Annual Report 2004-05:

[The following is taken directly from the report.]

  • It increases the number of prisoners managed by prison staff who, as a result, have less time to devote to screening prisoners for self-harm or suicide, prisoners with mental health problems and prisoners who are potentially violent. Risk assessments will inevitably suffer.
  • It increases the availability of drugs since there are more people who want drugs and prison staff have less time to search.
  • It increases the likelihood of cell-sharing: two people, often complete strangers, are required to live in very close proximity. This will involve another person who may have a history of violence and of whose medical and mental health history the prisoner will know nothing; and it will involve sharing a toilet within the cell.
  • It increases noise and tension.
  • It makes it likely that prisoners will have less access to staff; and that they will find that those staff to whom they do have access will have less time to deal with them.
  • The resources in prison will be more stretched, so prisoners will have less access to programmes, education, training, work etc.
  • Facilities will also be more stretched, so that laundry will be done less often and food quality will deteriorate.
  • Prisoners will spend more time in cell.
  • Family contact and visits will be restricted.

“These nine things are wrong in themselves. It is also very important to recognise, however, that they dramatically reduce the impact which prison can make to reduce re-offending [...] Every one of these nine points makes it more difficult for us all to live in safety. Defeating overcrowding in prison should be a goal of all those who want less crime.”

Read the full document here.

Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT):
IPRT is Ireland's leading non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of everyone in prison and the progressive reform of Irish penal policy, with prison as a last resort:

October 2009
September  November

Our work is supported by

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.



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