The State’s independent inspector of prisons privately criticised the “degrading” conditions in some overcrowded prisons, where prisoners were sleeping on mattresses “wedged” into cells beside toilets, in correspondence to the Government.
Mark Kelly, the chief inspector of prisons, raised serious concerns about the conditions in Mountjoy Prison and Cloverhill Prison over the past year, warning overcrowding was leading to increased violence between inmates.
In a June 1st letter to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, Mr Kelly said prisoners in Cloverhill Prison were being housed in “degrading conditions”.
One third of the inmates in the remand prison were in overcrowded cells, with four people sleeping in cells less than 12sq m (129sq ft) designed for three occupants. In 38 of these cells, an inmate had to sleep on a mattress on the ground.
Prisoners had to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in the “highly-confined space”, which was also reported to be “intolerably hot” during the summer, he wrote. An inspection of Cloverhill Prison in May found temperatures in cells were “excessively warm” at above 27 degrees.
Mr Kelly told the Minister that one “serious” in-cell assault took place during the inspection, with further attacks between prisoners “almost certain” over the summer if changes were not made.
In a 26th June response, Ms McEntee acknowledged that the prison system was facing “a very challenging time”.
She said she would progress four construction projects to provide more capacity in the prison system, including one at Cloverhill Prison.
In a July 14th email, Tony Harris, governor of Cloverhill Prison, said fans had been bought for all multi-occupant cells to alleviate “the distress that prisoners were suffering” during hot weather.
The governor told Mr Kelly that along with chilled bottles of water provided to inmates with meals, conditions in the prison “are far better than before”.
In response the chief inspector said while the measures were welcome, it was still “completely unacceptable” that four men continued to be housed per cell “in cramped conditions with an unpartitioned toilet”.
In a previous December 23rd, 2022, letter to Government, Mr Kelly also criticised conditions in Mountjoy men’s prison, following an inspection.
The prisons watchdog said he had “serious concerns” with the practice of multiple inmates sleeping in traditionally single-occupancy cells.
“The size and design of many of these cells meant that mattresses had to be wedged at an angle next to the in-cell lavatories,” he wrote. There were on average 38 men a day in these “degrading” conditions, “often with minimal out-of-cell time”, he said.
Unless “urgent action” was taken to cap the number of people who could be held in each prison, problems in Mountjoy Prison would become “a grave problem for the prison system as a whole”, he said.
Following overcrowding observed in Cloverhill Prison earlier this year, the chief inspector again pushed the Government to introduce set caps on the numbers in each prison.
Latest figures from the Irish Prison Service show nearly every prison is at full capacity, with Cloverhill Prison currently the most overcrowded operating at 110 per cent capacity. Limerick men’s prison is operating at 108 per cent capacity, while Mountjoy men’s prison is at 100 per cent capacity.
In total there are 4,583 people in custody in the system, with just 4,515 beds across 13 prisons.
A department spokeswoman said recent years had seen a new prison built in Cork, the Mountjoy complex modernised and additional accommodation provided in Midlands Prison.
Four short-term construction projects would deliver at least an extra 620 beds between Cloverhill, Castlerea, Midlands and Mountjoy Prisons, she said. Ms McEntee was engaging with Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe to progress “an agreed schedule” for the works, she said.