Prison population now ‘unsafe and unacceptable’ as it nears 5,000, prison officers say

‘Staggering’ increase in prisoner numbers has not been accompanied by similar rise in prison beds, Prison Officers’ Association warns

The surge in prisoner numbers to a record high over 4,900 is “unsafe and unacceptable” and it was time the Government stopped making false promises about dealing with the situation, the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) has said.

Association president Tony Power said officers in jails across the country were now fearful the 5,000-marker would be surpassed for the first time, before the courts went into summer recess.

The numbers were already “staggering”, with the prison population increasing by 760 in the last 18 months, though only 43 extra prison spaces were created during that period. And in one jail in Dublin, the prisoner population would soon exceed 1,000, which staff were very concerned about.

“Today the number of prisoners in custody is about to reach a staggering 5,000,” Mr Power said at the opening of the POA annual conference in Sligo last night. “That is an incredible 25 per cent increase on the figure of five years ago.


“It’s very clear that our attempts to highlight this issue continually fall on deaf ears, and despite the promises on real extra spaces made here year on year by successive Ministers – nothing happens – nothing. And this is a disgrace, let’s just call it what it is”.

Mr Power, who represents over 3,000 prison officers in 12 prisons in the Republic, said the practice of continuing to take in additional prisoners, at a time when there was no space for them, had to be examined and proper provisions made.

He pointed out more prisoners were now being crammed into cells designed for one or two, in a process known as “doubling up”. In Cork Prison, for example, 52 prisoners were sleeping on floors, with prisoner numbers increasing to 352 at present compared with 287 a year ago.

What is happening in respect to the management of our prisons is as unsafe as it is unacceptable – and the Minister of the day must take full responsibility

—  Tony Power

The Midlands Prison in Portlaoise, Co Laois, had a bed capacity of 870, though it was being used to house 983 men. The female prison in Limerick “now has 15 prisoners sleeping on camp beds”, Mr Power added. Furthermore, the bed capacity of Cloverhill Prison, Dublin, was unchanged since 2019 yet had 70 additional prisoners since then.

“What is happening in respect to the management of our prisons is as unsafe as it is unacceptable – and the Minister of the day must take full responsibility,” he said.

“In an overcrowded system, without adequate access to services, management are hindering our good work and impacting directly on the potential rehabilitation of prisoners. And they are directly contributing to an unsafe and unworkable environment.”

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee was due to address the conference on Thursday morning while director general of the Prison Service, Caron McCaffrey was also set to attend the three-day conference.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times