Prisoners sleeping on floors due to overcrowding

Prison Officers’ Association wants spare capacity in the minimum security prisons used

Conference heard that remand prisoners and female prisoners had become two “pressure points”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Conference heard that remand prisoners and female prisoners had become two “pressure points”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Overcrowding has returned to the prison system and prisoners were again sleeping on mattresses on floors because the Irish Prison Service would not use all of the facilities available to it, prison officers’ have said.

The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) wants the spare capacity in the open, or minimum security prisons used. It has also called for the Training Unit prison, on Dublin’s Mountjoy campus, to be reopened as soon as possible.

Delegates at the association’s annual conference in Kilkenny have been told the overcrowding issue, which had dissipated for 10 years, was adding to the complexity and danger associated with keeping apart rival factions in jails.

Overcrowding had been at crisis point in the prison service for decades, forcing the early release of prisoners daily to make room for new committals. The issue became so acute about a decade ago that many people arriving at jails from the courts were processed into the prison system and immediately released, having spent just hours in a jail.

Other prisoners were granted what was dubbed “temporary release”. But it was effectively early release because they were never obliged to return to prison because for the lack of beds.

However, the situation eased as recorded crime fell after the peak in 2007-2008. But with crime now rising the impact is being felt once again in jails.

POA deputy general secretary Jim Mitchell said Shelton Abbey, an open prison in Co Wicklow, had spare capacity but it was not being used. Yet the single-cell occupancy – one prison per cell – the Irish Prison Service had claimed to have achieved in recent years was being sacrificed.

Instead the much-criticised and dangerous practice of “doubling up” – putting more prisoners in a cell than it was designed for – was now common.

“Unfortunately we are back to a situation in all of our prisons are full to capacity. This causes problems on a daily basis to all of our staff.

“You’re relocating one prisoner from one landing to the next to ensure his safety as he cannot associate with a different faction.”

Director General of the Irish Prison Service Michael Donnellan conceded prisoner numbers had increased over the past months.

“But today we are operating at about 92 per cent capacity. So we have 8 per cent vacancies,” he said.

Remand prisoners and female prisoners had become two “pressure points”. “The numbers have gone up. But on top of that; in our remand prison in Cloverhill and in our two women’s prisons, we’re doing refurbishment work.”

Mr Donnellan said it was unclear why the number of women being sent to prison was increasing. A new 50-bed unit was under construction in Limerick for women.