Prison population increases sharply following years of decline

Total numbers incarcerated on daily basis regularly breach 4,000

 Of particular concern is the persistent overcrowding in women’s prisons. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

Of particular concern is the persistent overcrowding in women’s prisons. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times


Ireland’s prison population has increased sharply in 2018 following years of decline and stability.

For the first time since 2014, the total numbers incarcerated on a daily basis have regularly breached 4,000.

While this figure does not necessarily point to overcrowding in every prison, it reflects a creep in the general population over the last seven months.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), which monitors the statistics closely, said it is particularly alarmed by persistent overcrowding in women’s prisons. The female population did not experience the same decrease in numbers as the male population between 2014 and 2017.

Acknowledging a reversal in trends, the Irish Prison Service (IPS) said it had “witnessed a sharp increase” since October 2017.

However, there are only theories as to why this has happened.

Deirdre Malone, executive director of the IPRT says: “It seems crazy that we are engaged in speculation as to why the numbers are increasing when it’s so fundamentally important that we understand.”

According to the IPS, there was a gradual decrease in the prison population between 2011 and 2017. Between those years, the average daily figure of 4,390 fell to 3,680, a decrease of 16 per cent.

“However, the trend of reducing numbers in custody ceased in October 2017 (at 3,626) and since then we have witnessed a sharp increase in the number in custody with the current number recorded at 3,947, an increase of 9 per cent in six months,” the service said, citing a figure for May. That figure, which fluctuates daily, has since risen to above 4,000.

The IPS said numbers are generally within the system’s capacity. “However, there is pressure being experienced in a number of areas particularly in the female accommodation.”

The impact

The increases of 2018 followed a period of decline. In January 2014 there were 3,973 people in custody, falling to 3,661 the following January. After that there was a period of relative stability of between 3,600 and 3,700 prisoners.

However, according to IPS census population statistics, the number hit 3,751 last January and had climbed to 3,894 by April, rising further over the summer months.

“The most disturbing thing is that we have hit 4,000 again,” says Malone. “The reason that is so significant is because once our prison numbers get to this level, it has an exponential effect on what happens within the prisons.”

This, she said, can include a reduction in the ability of prison staff to manage numbers, with a knock-on effect for access to educational and other programmes. Tension between prisoners can also increase.

“It has huge impacts for access to services that are intended to reduce behaviour that keeps people in the prison system,” Malone says.

Following an appearance by the prisons trust at the Oireachtas Committee on Mental Healthcare in Irish Prisons in May – during which it referred to “exploding” prison numbers – the IPS acknowledged there was “pressure” in women’s prisons and in Cloverhill remand prison. It said it hoped ongoing refurbishment works would help address those problems.

The number of women at Mountjoy’s Dóchas centre and Limerick Prison has remained relatively stagnant over recent years, and usually above capacity.

Dóchas has an operational capacity of 105.

According to quarterly IPS census reports, its occupancy rate between 2014 and 2018 was at its lowest in January 2015 at 103, having reached its highest level the previous April at 134.

Over 18 census reports, its average was 114.6 prisoners. It was only below or at capacity on three occasions.

Capacity issues

Limerick Prison has an occupational capacity of 238, including both male and female prisoners. Over the 18 quarterly census reports its average was 248.5 and was below or within capacity on three occasions. The female population in the prison is typically about a 10th of the male population.

By contrast, Portlaoise high security prison is consistently within its 291 prisoner capacity. The census reports between 2014 and 2018 put its average population at 218.3, not once above capacity.

However, last June six of the country’s 11 prisons were over capacity.

The IPRT has also expressed concern about what it sees as a low number of community service orders given to women. These are supposed to be automatically considered by judges when contemplating sentences of 12 months or less to reduce incarceration levels.

However, the trust says that between 2012 and 2015 they fell from 229 to 175. They increased after that but there are no figures yet available for 2018.

“The point was that that legislation [covering community service orders] was supposed to drastically reduce the number of short-term prison sentences because we know that short-term prison sentences do not work,” says Malone. “[Because] there is not enough time to do anything approaching rehabilitation.”

Explanations for general population increases are numerous and complex. The IPRT counts among the possible causes an increase in garda numbers, more detentions on remand and people waiting longer on remand, and less use of community return schemes, particularly among women.

Sexual offences

Central Statistics Office (CSO) data published in June showed a previous fall in crime had come to an end and the 12 months to the end of March showed increases in all crime types except homicide. Sexual offences rose 15 per cent and robbery by 16 per cent.

Tom O’Malley, a senior law lecturer with knowledge of sentencing and penal policy, says prison populations are always products of three factors – the number of people being sentenced, the length of sentences and the duration of detention.

He suspects an increase in the number of serious sexual offences cases coming before the courts in recent times may have played a significant role in rising numbers.

“The people who get these heavy sentences for sex offences are staying in prison for longer,” he says.

“Over the past 10 or 15 years the number of sexual offences cases... a lot of really very serious ones... have been coming before the courts that wouldn’t have come before them in the past simply because they wouldn’t have been reported.”

However, he says the pattern should be viewed over a significant amount of time. “It could be well into the second half of 2018 you see a decrease on that,” he said. “At the same time it’s a very valid question to ask why it has been increasing.”

The Department of Justice said regular monitoring and discussion of prison numbers takes place. In a report on penal reform and sentencing released last May, the Oireachtas Justice Committee recommended the capping of prisoner numbers and the need for a “clear strategy” to reduce the prison population by half.