Irish prisoners, like much of the rest of the country, took to the drink in a big way during the coronavirus lockdown.
Figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request show seizures of illicit homemade alcohol, known as “hooch”, increased almost threefold across the country’s 12 prisons in the first half of 2020.
Between January 1st and July 11th, 541 litres of alcohol were seized, an average of almost 90 litres a month. This compares to 395 litres for the whole of 2019, or an average of 33 litres a month.
Prisoners typically make alcohol in their cells by fermenting large amounts of sugary fruit obtained from the canteen or prison shop. Yeast is added using bread or already rotten fruit before the mixture is placed by a heat source – typically a radiator or kettle – for several days. The result is a strong, wine-like drink.
Mountjoy was the thirstiest prison with 190 litres seized followed by Limerick (133 litres). No alcohol was found in the Dochas women's prison or Loughan House, an open prison in Co Cavan.
The increase in prison alcohol seizures can be attributed to several factors relating to the coronavirus lockdown, according to prison sources.
The cancellation of court sittings meant prison officers who would typically be assigned to escort duty were available to search for contraband. And strict movement restrictions meant prisoners spent more time in their cells, leading to increased boredom.
Ban on visitors
It also became much more difficult to source drugs within prisons due to a complete ban on visitors.
Although the amount of drugs smuggled in by visitors dropped to zero between mid-March and late July, the number of “throw-overs” –drugs being thrown into prison yards – increased significantly.
However increased staff numbers meant many of these throw-overs were intercepted. There were 653 drug seizures in the first half of 2020 or almost 108 a month. This compares to 104 a month in 2019.
The number of mobile phones seized also increased, from 80 a month in 2019 to almost 107 a month this year. This is also believed to be down to increased searches by officers. Nearly half of these were seized in Wheatfield Prison..
Weapons seizures – typically homemade shivs – decreased from 45 a month last year to about 25 per month during lockdown.
Assaults on prisoners
There have also been 18 complaints of alleged assaults on prisoners by staff members this year, an average of three a month. In 2019 there were 36 complaints, also three per month. Data was not available for the number of prisoner on staff or prisoner on prisoner assaults.
Between March and July the entire prison system was effectively locked down due to the pandemic. All visits were banned and prisoner movement was severely restricted.
Elderly or vulnerable prisoners were forced to cocoon in their cells 23 hours a day and prisoners awaiting tests for Covid-19 were quarantined in a dedicated unit in Cloverhill Prison.
The strict measures meant Ireland was one of the few countries to keep the virus out of its prison system.