Prison overcrowding and maximum security use criticised in latest Irish Penal Reform Trust report

Plans for significant expansion in capacity also causing concerns

Rising levels of prison overcrowding, pretrial detention and maximum security use are criticised in a new report evaluating progress in the Irish penal system.

Plans for a significant expansion in prison capacity have also concerned the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), the non-governmental organisation which campaigns for prisoners’ rights. It notes an apparent contradiction of Government policy that incarceration should be a matter of last resort.

Its sixth annual Progress in the Penal System (PIPS) report, published on Friday, found five of 28 standards have regressed during 2022, while only four improved.

Data quoted from the World Prison Brief showed the number of prisoners in Ireland decreased from 4,318 in 2012 to 3,717 in 2020. By the end of April 2023, however, there were 4,568 prisoners.


According to the IPRT monitoring, overcrowding has remained an issue, particularly in women’s prisons, while the average number of people held on remand has gone up by almost a quarter (23 per cent) since 2021. People sleeping on mattresses were a regular feature across the prison system, it said.

It found solitary confinement also increased but that information on the length of time people are held in such conditions remains unavailable.

The overall proportion of open prison space has dropped, as has that of single cell accommodation.

In other standards, nine recorded no change, eight were mixed and just four improved, including opportunities for family contact and a sustained focus on mental health – although access to services remained problematic.

In his foreword, Cormac Behan, chairman of the PIPS Advisory Group, noted the Government’s Review of Policy Options for Prison and Penal Reform 2022–2024 report held there should be a “sparing approach” to the use of imprisonment.

“However, during the final stages of the preparation of this report, it was announced that over 400 new prison spaces will be constructed over the next five years providing accommodation for a minimum of 620 additional prisoners,” he said.

The report noted the consequent effects of increasing numbers – a diminished ability to access single cell accommodation and longer waiting lists for often crucial rehabilitation services.

The IPRT’s Progress series was designed to track and assess developments in the system each year.

Its latest edition found while the “mental health crisis” in prisons has been somewhat addressed, there remains a “vast unmet need” for urgent psychiatric treatment in a therapeutic environment outside of prison, while learning difficulties, anxiety and depression continue to require tailored attention.

Although there has been increasing recognition of the needs of women in the criminal justice system, it said, this has not been the experience of those in contact with the penal system. Neither has there been any significant change in access to healthcare services or drug and alcohol treatment.

Following the pandemic years, in which the report noted those considered to pose low risk were kept out of the prison system, the IPRT said the State has yet to learn from both its mistakes and successes.

“The prison system does not exist in isolation,” Mr Behan said. “It is a product of wider penal and political systems. There is a disconnect between commitments to penal reform and proposals to expand the prison estate.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times