Conditions in Irish prisons have worsened, report warns

Concerns raised about overcrowding, mental health and use of solitary confinement

Many aspects of prison life, including overcrowding, mental health and time locked up in cells, have worsened in recent years, exacerbated by the failure of the courts to use prison only “as a last resort”, a hard-hitting report published on Monday warns.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) says solitary confinement and 23-hour lock-up are in greater use, the vulnerabilities of women prisoners are "disregarded", and many prisoners are waiting too long for transfer to the Central Mental Hospital (CMH).

Of “major concern” is a lack of reliable data about what’s happening in prisons. This “failure of the State to provide consistent, robust and public data” makes it “extremely difficult…to understand to what extent the rights and wellbeing of some of the most marginalised people in our society are being protected”.

The fifth annual report in a series from the trust, Progress in the Penal System (PIPS), focuses on 13 areas requiring urgent reform and finds a “fairly disheartening picture”.


On December 10th, 2021 there were 3,779 people in Irish prisons. “This has not changed significantly” since December 2020, when there were 3,762. The majority of committals (78 per cent) in 2020 were for sentences of less than 12 months. It is “likely” many of these could have received non-custodial sanctions, like community service orders.

“Prison is damaging to the individual as well as their families and wider communities…It is also clear that overcrowding is a risk if the courts continue to commit men and women to short-term custody…[which] undermines the ability of the Irish Prison Service to meet basic standards.”

The report finds “little change or regress with the worsening of many aspects of prison life such as out-of-cell time and the use of solitary confinement, family contact, education and life skills”.

Women in prison are “an at-risk group that differ substantially from men” says the report. Their needs within the criminal justice system tend to go “unrecognised and disregarded” and “women’s prisons have been the most overcrowded in the estate for many years”.

The IPRT “calls on all government departments and relevant agencies to commit to improving transparency in the criminal justice and penal system”.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times