The Irish prison population has been "exploding" in the past year but staff are unable to offer adequate mental health services, an Oireachtas Committee has been told.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) said after a "period of relative stability" an increasing number of people convicted in the courts were being incarcerated.
"The alarming growth in the prison population over the last six months makes this situation [regarding mental health treatment] even more concerning," its executive director, Deirdre Malone, told the Oireachtas Committee on the Future of Mental Health Care on Wednesday.
Ten years ago about 3 per cent of the prison population had a severe, enduring and disabling mental illness such as schizophrenia, she said, but since 2015 that rate had more than doubled to 7-8 per cent.
At the Oberstown detention facility for young people, Ms Malone said there were "concerns" for 23 of its 50 residents regarding mental health last month. Prof Harry Kennedy of the National Forensic Mental Health Service (NFMHS) said four children at the facility were currently on anti-psychotic medication.
The committee was hearing testimony on treatment services in the general prison population and problems it faced, including a lack of appropriate secure beds, lengthy waiting times and problems with recruitment.
In her submission, Ms Malone said data secured under Freedom of Information legislation showed that of 51 prisoners held in solitary confinement in January 2016, nine had spent more than a year in isolation.
“This practice is detrimental to any prisoner’s mental health. The CPT [European Committee for the Prevention of Torture] has recommended that the maximum period an individual spends in solitary confinement is 15 days, and beyond this point, the psychological damage may become irreversible.”
She also told the committee that as of last April, 26 people were awaiting transfer from their prisons to the Central Mental Hospital (CMH) and that it appeared those on the lower end of the waiting list would be unlikely to ever get there.
Michael Donnellan, director general of the Irish Prison Service (IPS), said the management of people with severe and enduring mental illness posed a major challenge.
He said this month 323 people, from an overall prison population of nearly 4,000, were deemed to have been suffering from severe mental illness.
“The use of imprisonment is inappropriate for people with severe and enduring mental illness as prisons are not therapeutic environments,” he told the committee.
Castlerea Prison, in particular, was highlighted as a point of concern. Mr Donnellan said while the HSE granted approval for consultant-led mental health services there, as well as in Cork and Limerick prisons, in 2016, the HSE had been unable to hire anyone.
He said “very ill prisoners” had to be transferred from Castlerea to Dublin for treatment, a situation “less than ideal for those suffering from a major mental illness”.