New body scanners and X-ray devices to screen for drugs in prison

When technology introduced in the North, 40% of prisoners checked had narcotics and other items secreted in bodies

The Irish Prison Service is set to roll out a new advanced system of body scanners and X-ray machines to find drugs that offenders have swallowed or “stuffed” into orifices when they are committed to the system or are returning after periods of release.

Director general of the prison service Caron McCaffrey said when new technology was introduced in Northern Ireland it detected drugs and other contraband inside the bodies of about 40 per cent of prisoners checked in the first week.

“They found they were coming in packed internally full of drugs,” she said. “In some cases they were for their own use but in many cases it was being done under duress to settle a drugs debt.”

The new body scanners being rolled out in Irish jails, which were already in use as part of heightened airport security across the world, would also be used to check prison staff and visitors.


Speaking in Mountjoy Prison at the launch of the new strategic plan and drugs strategy for the Irish Prison Service to 2027, Ms McCaffrey added that prison overcrowding was worsening and the service is now operating at 105 per cent capacity. However, it had made a business case for hundreds of new prison spaces and she said these would be delivered.

Last year, more than 200 prison spaces were introduced across the system and bunk beds — “which are not ideal” — had also been installed to help cope with the high number of prisoners being jailed by the courts. Some 260 bunk beds had been installed during the summer in Castlerea Prison in Co Roscommon and Mountjoy Prison, Dublin and Portlaoise Prison, Co Laois.

Ms McCaffrey said the new drugs strategy is being launched at the same time as the overall strategy for the running of the prison service because about 70 per cent of the prisoners committed to Irish jails had addiction problems.

A term of imprisonment should offer them the “time and space” to get off drugs that would not be afforded to them in their local communities. With that in mind, the Irish Prison Service is working with the Recover Institute and the Recovery Academy to develop a prison-led recovery model in Irish jails, under which prisoners who had gotten off drugs would help their peers do the same.

Minister for State for Justice James Brown said the Government was committed to funding an additional 600 prison places and also exploring alternatives to imprisonment for those being jailed for short periods.

He said some of the alternatives to imprisonment could involve extension of the youth diversion programme, which aims to steer minors away from the criminal justice system and imprisonment, to those in the 18 to 24 years age group.

“You [have] to think about that very carefully, some 20-year-olds are very immature, need a lot of help, and other 20-year-olds are hardened criminals,” he said.

That age cohort, from high teens to early 20s, also accounts for a very large section of the prison population as many young offenders were recidivists. Among that young group of offenders, many had undiagnosed learning difficulties, especially dyslexia and more needed to be done to bring about early diagnosis and interventions “to break those criminal pathways”.

Ms Caffrey said while the prison service faced challenges recruiting staff, but in a system where staff shortages often forced the closure of facilities for prisoners, some 200 recruits had been hired this year and a further 300 would join the service in 2024.

She added while segregating prison gangs was “disruptive” for staff and the general operation of prisons, it was done in a way that sought to maximise the engagement prisoners who needed protection could still have with services.

“People can come into prison and look for protection themselves, without having to satisfy any benchmark as to why they need that protection, or from whom [they need it],” she said. At present the prison rules were being reviewed because in jails across Europe placing prisoners into protection was based on risk, rather than the self-declared need for protection currently in place in the Republic’s prisons.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times