Prison population rises for the the first time in seven years

Fewer prisoners are getting temporary release

The country’s prison population has risen for the first time in seven years despite recent legislation curtailing the jailing of fine defaulters.

Prison numbers had been falling since 2011 when a record 4,600 people were in prison, but they have started to rise again this year. Last week there were 3,981 people in prison, up from 3,710 on the same date in 2017.

Six out of the country’s eleven prisons are currently overcapacity. The Dóchas Centre, a women’s prison, is currently operating at 130 per cent capacity.

The Fines (Payment and Recovery Act) 2014, which came into operation in 2016, significantly curtailed the practice of jailing fine defaulters.

According to the Irish Prison Service (IPS) 2017 annual report, which was published on Monday, the act is responsible for a dramatic decrease in people being sent to prison by the courts. The number of people sent to prison fell 50 per cent in 2017, from 12,163 to 6,037.

However it has not translated into a drop in the prison population as most fine defaulters are held for a very short time before being granted temporary release, with some spending no more than a few hours in prison.

IPS director general Michael Donnellan said there were several reasons for the increase in prisoner numbers. Gardaí were charging more people with serious crimes meaning the numbers in prison on remand had increased.

There were also more female offenders and more sex offenders being sent to prison while the number of people being granted temporary release had dropped.

“Last year there were 242 on temporary release. Today it’s 201. We’re working with our colleagues in the Probation Service in planning every release so that society is safer,” Mr Donnellan said.

There has also been a significant decline in the number of people being accepted into other early release programmes such as the community return scheme.

“We have been working very hard that people released under the community support and community return schemes are targeted and are risk assessed,” Mr Donnellan said.

Deirdre Malone of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) said Ireland risked undoing the work it had engaged in to lower prison populations.

“Unfortunately, all of the progress that the Government was able to report in 2017 is at risk of being reversed unless immediate action is taken to reverse the drift upwards in prisoner numbers.”

Speaking at the launch of the IPS report, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said he was committed to ensuring prison was "the place of last resort.

“Prison is for dangerous criminals, those who have been convicted of the most serious offences. I would hope every effort will be made to move towards alternatives to prison.”