Irish prisons have become the “asylums” of the 21st century with large numbers of prisoners suffering from severe mental health issues, the prison service director general has said.
Speaking before a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Prison Service director general Michael Donnellan described the Irish prison population as "a massive problem" and said 30 people were awaiting beds in a mental health care facility.
He added that 70 per cent of the State’s prison population, which currently stands at 3,715 people, were suffering from drug and alcohol addiction issues.
“We need early intervention to stop people falling out of society and back into prison. People end up in the justice system and we have to pick up the pieces. It’s the education system, the housing system, we need a joined up government approach to drive down prison numbers.”
Representatives from the Department of Justice appeared before the PAC on Thursday to discuss appropriation accounts for the prison service with a specific focus on the annualised hours system which was introduced in 2005.
Under the system, prison officers can sign up for up to 360 extra hours, for which they are guaranteed payment even if they are not called upon. While the system was introduced in a bid to get €31 million worth of savings each year, the latest figures show the ongoing annual saving between 2006 and 2014 was just €5.5 million, totalling €48.5 million over nine years.
A lump sum, which represented a once off payment over the first three years of the scheme, reduced this amount to a total savings of €8 million over the period.
Mr Donnellan told the committee that while the majority of these 360 hours were being used up by staff in larger prisons such as Cloverhill, staff in smaller institutions were "getting the benefit of the write off" due to lower work demands.
He added that the Irish Prison Service sought to follow the model implemented in Nordic nations of developing prisons with smaller numbers.
Secretary general of the Department of Justice Noel Waters said the implementation of the annualised hours system had created more flexibility to respond to the demands of the prison service and that the use of the additional hours had increased with just 9 per cent of these hours left unused in 2016.
Asked to comment on the rise in levels of sick leave in 2015, Mr Donnellan described the average number of 15 sick days a year as “not bad based on the level of work prison officers have to do”.
He described the prison working environment as “completely different” to the office work environment and highlighted the huge pressure placed on staff.
Mr Donnellan said specialised counselling had been made available to prison staff free of charge, while his colleague, Caron McCaffrey, said the prison service was in the process of rolling out a “critical incident stress management policy”.
While the number of assaults on prison officers dropped 91 in 2015 from 151 the previous year, Mr Donnellan warned that assaults were always a worry for the service.
Under the current system, officers who have sustained injuries while on duty are entitled to six months full-paid leave and six months half-paid leave. Further measures recently introduced for officers who are injured in “a serious assault” provide 12 months leave on full pay.
Mr Donnellan also highlighted the importance of providing support to prisoners being reintroduced from prison life back into the community, warning that many were at risk of homelessness.
“The first 24 hours of the prisoner’s life in the community are the most dangerous. We have to put resources into not just finishing people at the gate but supporting people through the gate and into the community.
“Some people are not released because they would be released into homelessness. Our greatest wish list is that people who come out of prison have proper accommodation, get back on to social welfare, so they’re hooked back into society.”
Mr Waters added that homelessness among former prisoners more often than not would lead to recidivism. “Releasing a person into homelessness is simply saying go and commit a crime.”
The Prison Service currently operates 14 prisons across the State. In 2015 there were 17,206 committals to prison with a daily average of 3,722 prisoners in custody. The number of staff at the end of 2015 was 3,308.
Capital expenditure for 2015 came to €29 million of which more than €22 million related to the new Cork Prison.