The Irish Times view on the state of Irish prisons: A bleak picture
Overcrowding has become an issue at six of the state’s 11 prisons
Prison Service director general Michael Donnellan reported this week that “huge pressure” was being placed on the system because of the need to keep prisoners separated for their own safety. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Prisons have always been dangerous places for inmates and staff. But the activities of feuding gangs, many involved in drug-related activities, have made internal security more challenging. Prison Service director general Michael Donnellan reported this week that “huge pressure” was being placed on the system because of the need to keep prisoners separated for their own safety. The State’s 11 prisons are being forced to operate segregated regimes. Up to 14 gangs are said to be involved.
The annual Prison Service report paints a bleak picture. The number of prisoners has risen for the first time in seven years and now stands at 3,981. Overcrowding has become an issue at six prisons, including the Dóchas Centre for women. Hundreds of gang members have been imprisoned, but continue to operate. Fearful prisoners who owe money for drugs within their communities apply for protective lock-up, which may limit their out-of-cell time to three hours a day.
Only those who pose a serious threat to society should be sent to jail
The growing number of prisoners reflects recent Garda successes in targeting drug gangs and other groups involved in burglaries and thefts. An increase in sex-related prosecutions contributed to the rise, as did an increase in the number of female offenders. The gradual growth of gang-based influence within the prison system cannot, however, be ignored. Evidence of the likely outcome can be found in the United States, where gangs dominate a brutal prison system. That cannot be allowed to happen here. Additional resources and new technology will be required.
Reform measures have brought a significant reduction in prison numbers. These have involved the development of probationary and community services through co-operation with the courts and the Garda Síochána; an adult mentoring programme for young offenders and measures to reduce recidivism. Incarceration should be a penalty of last resort. Only those who pose a serious threat to society should be sent to jail. When they are, however, the State must ensure they obey the rules while protecting them from assault or intimidation.