Overcrowded prison system an absolute disaster, report finds


THE REPUBLIC’S overcrowded prison system is an “absolute disaster”, and new measures such as giving prisoners a third of their sentences off for good behaviour need to be examined to ease prison violence and tension, according to a new report.

Social campaigner Fr Peter McVerry said the idea of increasing remission from 25 per cent at present to 30 per cent was “not all that radical” in an international context, and yet would significantly reduce overcrowding.

“In Britain, for example, they have 50 per cent remission and they would not exactly be well known for having a liberal prison penal policy.”

He was speaking at the publication in Dublin yesterday of a report into penal policy by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, The Irish Prison System: Vision, Values, Reality.

Fr McVerry said about half of the 4,400 prison population had addiction issues yet there were only nine drug-treatment beds in the prison system.

While a new drug-free wing was being opened at Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison, there was currently “not one single square inch” of the jail drug-free.

He was also critical of the practice of dealing with overcrowding by sleeping between two and four prisoners in a cell originally built for one person by installing bunk beds and putting mattresses on the floor at night.

“I have known people who never did drugs when they were going into prison and by the time they came out they were on heroin; that’s because they were sharing a cell with a drug user.”

Former Mountjoy governor John Lonergan said the Government needed to put a significant emphasis on “keeping children out of prison at all cost”, yet there were still 16- and 17-year-olds being detained at St Patrick’s Institution.

“Even back in the 1970s when research was done, it showed that more than 70 per cent of prisoners in Mountjoy at the time had been in St Pat’s, so the major alarm bell was going off even then.

“Once a young person ends up in the prison system it is very damaging for them.”

The report says the Government should enact a policy of reducing the prisoner population from 4,400 at present to 2,700.

This could be done by having fewer prison sentences for non-serious crimes, a greater use of sanctions like community service and increased remission.

The report also recommends that about one-third of the prison population be housed in open prisons.

These are much less expensive than the current high-security system and are also less damaging to prisoners, increasing their chances of rehabilitation.

The report says plans for the Thornton Hall super-prison should be scrapped in favour of a number of much smaller prisons with 100 inmates or less.

Among the other recommendations are that prison officers should no longer be “jailers”. Instead they should be retrained in “dynamic security”, meaning they would learn to care for, interact with and support prisoners.

Both Fr McVerry and Mr Lonergan also believed the effort and resources devoted to keeping drugs out of prisons should be matched in the provision of treatment and rehab options.

At least one facility in the prison system should be a “custodial drug-treatment centre”.

Key facts: Prison report

* Average daily number of prisoners in jails in 2010 was 4,290, twice the number of 10 years earlier.

* There are 96 people jailed per 100,000 population, or four times the level of 1970.

* Almost 90 per cent of prisoners are locked in cells for 16.5 hours every day.

* In November 2011, 178 people were on 23-hour lock-up, mainly for self-protection.

* The average cost of keeping a prisoner in jail in 2010 was €70,513.

* There are only two open prisons in the Republic, accommodating 5 per cent of the total prison population.