Chaplains raise concerns over prison overcrowding


Overcrowding has become such an issue in Irish prisons that as many as five men can be locked in one cell at Mountjoy for up to 23 hours at a time, according to a new report published today.

The 2008 annual report from the country's prison chaplains expresses grave concerns over overcrowding, which it said causes severe stress on all the services within the prison system and "is one of the most urgent problems needing to be addressed".

The report calls for the postponement of the construction of a new prison at Thornton Hall in Dublin in order to consider other ways of dealing with offenders and says that a rethink of the entire prison system is essential, not just for prisoners but also for the wider society.

In the annual report, prison chaplains argue that smaller more rehabilitative prisons are the way forward.

"Smaller prisons, situated in local communities as close to home as possible for those needing to be imprisoned, would facilitate a more humane approach for prisoners and their families," it said.

The study includes a number of other recommendations including the putting in place of alternatives to prison for those who fail to pay fines or are unable to settle debts, and the provision of rehabilitative centres for those who suffer with addictions. Prison chaplains also recommended offering proper health care for mentally ill prisoners.

"Prison is not the place to deal with addictions, secure treatment centres are. Research has shown that imprisonment may compound the issues that lead many to offend sexually. Treatment centres in the community are not only more cost effective but they are more beneficial to society in the long term. Homelessness is not addressed by imprisonment. It is merely a temporary solution and in many cases can lead to further homelessness," said the report.

"With the annual average cost of imprisonment running at, in the region of €100, 000 per person per year, with poor results the alternatives could be provided within the same budget and with greater effectiveness," it adds.

According to the study, the majority of prisoners are poor, uneducated and unemployed. It said the current system offers them little hope of improving their circumstances while behind bars, due to a chronic lack of rehabilitation programmes.

It adds that the introduction of new legislation on begging which includes a €700 fine or a month in prison will further criminalise the poor and add to an already over stressed prison population.

The report found that many inmates do not feel safe behind bars, with increasing numbers asking to go on “voluntary” lock-up.

It also said the illegal drugs trade was fuelling violence in prison and that overcrowding was further compounded by the use of prisons to hold illegal immigrants prior to deportation.

“If the prisoners fail to get a chance to improve their lives while being detained, we are not just failing them — but also their victims and wider communities,” said head chaplain, Sr Imelda Wickham at the launch of the report.

She said that prisons are necessary for those who commit serious crimes, but overcrowding, mainly with petty criminals, homeless and mentally ill people, was leading to an impossible situation where prisoners have no hope of rehabilitation.

Currently there are 21 full-time and five part-time prison chaplains including lay people, religious sisters and priests working in Irish prisons