Jail ‘rarely’ cost-effective for short-sentence prisoners

Prison Officers’ Association told those jailed for less than year lack motivation to change

Spending €80,000 imprisoning a person for a year, or for other short periods, was not effective as very little could be done to rehabilitate them, the director general of the Irish Prison Service, Caron McCaffrey, has said.

She also believed when prisoners knew they were only going to be in jail for a year or less – some 80 per cent of the 4,000-strong prisoner population – they were “rarely” motivated to commit to a meaningful process of reform.

“If you come to us for less than 12 months we’re unlikely to be in a position to help you deal with your addiction . . . [or] mental illness or mental health issues. We’re not going to be able to give you a skill, so that means you are not more employable upon release. We’re not in a position to give you an education course.”

Imprisonment was a “very costly sanction, it’s over €80,000 a year,” Ms McCaffrey said, adding it had the “best effect” on those who were in jail for longer periods and so could engage with the services on offer for lengthy periods.


Ms McCaffrey was speaking at the annual delegate conference of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) in Sligo. Minister for Justice Helen McEntee told the conference the Irish Prison Service would soon have to set out weekly to annual plans detailing how they were helping prisoners to rehabilitate. That will be introduced when the prison service is placed on statutory footing, as a standalone State body while a new penal policy will offer judges alternative sanctions to short periods of imprisonment.

Prison gangs

Responding to concerns raised by the POA relating to the power of prison gangs, Ms McCaffrey said the prison service ran Irish jails, not crime gangs. However, she confirmed gangs had to be segregated from each other within jails and also from the wider prisoner population. At present there were 14 prison gangs in the Republic’s jails, comprising about 200 prisoners.

One of the traditional key goals of gangs is to control the flow of drugs into jails. Ms McCaffrey said there were dedicated teams of prison officers who were “constantly” gathering intelligence about how drugs were being smuggled in and also searching cells for narcotics and other contraband, such as smuggled mobile phones. She added in November 2020 a consignment of drugs valued at €170,000 was discovered in one prison and last October drugs valued at €140,000 were discovered in one operation.

A "next-generation body scanner" introduced at Shannon Airport was about to be trialed in Limerick Prison later this year.

Mattresses and overcrowding

Ms McCaffrey agreed with the POA when it said overcrowding was becoming an issue again in Irish jails, with a small number of prisoners now being accommodated on mattresses on floors. She added the number of prisoners had once again just climbed over 4,000 – back towards pre-pandemic levels of about 4,250.

Some of the overcrowding arose from the need to keep spaces free to isolate newly committed prisoners until they underwent a Covid-19 quarantine period. In 2015, there were 450 people on remand in Irish prisons – awaiting trial after being refused bail – and that had now climbed to 950. Yet there was just one dedicated facility for remand prisoners, Cloverhill Prison, Dublin, with a capacity of 431. Also in 2015, approximately 11 per cent of the prison population were sex offenders, which had now increased to 15 per cent.

These trends were putting pressure on the prison system, with overcrowding now an issue at Cloverhill, which was at 101 per cent of capacity, and the Midlands Prison, where a large number of sex offenders are held, at 99 per cent capacity.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times