The average daily number of prisoners in custody in Irish prisons in 2020 decreased by 3.7 per cent on 2019, according to new figures from the Irish Prison Service.
The annual report for the Irish Prison Service for 2020 showed that the overall average daily number of prisoners in custody during the year was 3,824, of which 148 were female and 3,676 were male.
Committals under sentence decreased in all areas except life sentences in the year. There was a 29 per cent decrease in the number of committals in 2020 compared with the year previous. There was also a reduction in the number committed for the non-payment of a court-ordered fine.
People who declared they had “no fixed abode” accounted for 7.1 per cent (375) of all committals to prison in 2020.
The number of people receiving a sentence of less than three months meanwhile declined by almost half on the previous year. However, the report shows that the number of people receiving a life sentence increased by 33.3 per cent over the period.
There was a 4.4 per cent increase in the average number of people being held in remand last year, which the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has described as a "worrying trend in prisons".
Pre-trial detention “should be used as an exceptional measure, but it appears that it risks becoming a default response”, the trust said in relation to this.
IPRT legal and public affairs manager Molly Joyce said that while the report gave "clear insight into the hard work by the [Irish] Prison Service to keep people in prison safe from Covid-19 infection", robust action was required to "mitigate against the negative effects of long-term restrictions in prisons".
Mental health was “one of the most pressing issues in Irish prisons before the pandemic” and the pandemic has “exacerbated this need”, Ms Joyce said.
However, the ratio of psychologists to prisoners in 2020 “remained far off the recommended target, despite the additional need brought about by the pandemic”.
The lack of published prison inspection or monitoring reports during the pandemic had been a "major gap in accountability", the trust said, noting that several Covid-19 thematic inspection reports have been submitted to the Minister for Justice by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons.
These reports “should be published by the Minister without delay” , as the data was “essential for the effective monitoring of conditions in the Irish prison system”, the trust said.
The trust welcomed that Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton met with prisoners and staff in Castlerea Prison for the launch of the report.
Speaking at the prison on Friday, the junior minister said that “the efforts of the Irish Prison Service to control the spread of Covid-19 in prisons over the past 18 months have been phenomenal” and “helped control outbreaks and prevent loss of life in Irish prisons”.
No prisoner has died from Covid-19, or required hospitalisation due to the disease, since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Ms Naughton said the Irish Prison Service would be continuing to use virtual family visits, virtual service provision, tele-services, videolinks for court attendance, and electronic funds transfers to prisoner accounts, even after the pandemic ends.
Work was “well advanced” in the Department of Justice on a review of policy options for prison and penal reform, she said.