The Irish Times view on prison reform: A need to look to the long-term

It is best to consider the options now rather than wait for the inevitable prison overcrowding to return

One of the wings in Mountjoy Prison. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The pandemic has resulted in significant changes across the Irish Prison Service, some of them troubling. Reports by the Inspector of Prisons, Patricia Gilheaney, published for Mountjoy, Cloverhill, Wheatfield and Limerick prisons said solitary confinement was being used to house prisoners, in a bid to combat the spread of Covid-19. Those serving sentences were not getting "sufficient meaningful human contact" due to pandemic restrictions. Prisoners in quarantine and isolation were being denied their right to shower.

At the same time, the Irish Prison Service has been praised for the way it kept Covid-19 out of Irish jails for so long. It arranged for Netflix in cells,to alleviate the boredom of prison lock-down. When physical visits had to be cancelled, video conferencing visits were put in place. Phones were provided in cells for prisoners to contact support services , such as the Samaritans.

One notable development at the onset of the pandemic was the way the Irish Prison Service selected around 400 prisoners for early release. This created space in jails to deal with the pandemic.The report said the service could have gone much further and released up to 1,200 prisoners.

The pandemic demonstrated how the regime in any prison becomes intolerable and loses any capacity to rehabilitate when intolerable pressure comes on space . The suggestion that 1,200 prisoners could have been released is worth examination. Reducing Ireland’s prison population – usually between 4,200 and 4,400 – would have a transformation effective across the system.


Crime rates, and incarceration rates, are set to increase again as the economy recovers post-pandemic. Prison overcrowding – so acute during the surge in crime during the Celtic Tiger years – will be a factor in Irish prisons again in the short term.

The plan to release between 400 and 1,200 prisoners, though devised under emergency circumstances, could help to prevent that overcrowding. It is best to consider the options now rather than wait for the inevitable prison overcrowding to return.