Sir, – “Prisoners sleeping on mattresses ‘wedged next to lavatories’ due to overcrowding” (News, September 25th) states that the Office of the Inspector of Prisons highlighted the degrading and inhumane conditions for people in prison to the Minister for Justice in June. Since then, we have seen the number of people in prison continue to increase further.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) is concerned that the increasing prison population – and the current State response, namely, to increase prison spaces – contravenes clear commitments in the Government’s own Review of Policy Options for Prison and Penal Reform 2022-2024 to reduce the number of people serving short custodial sentences of 12 months or less. While we understand the need to provide capital infrastructure investment to update and improve the prison estate, it is important that we do not simply create more prison spaces to fill. Budget 2024 provides a timely opportunity to invest in practical measures that will help to alleviate the current situation of chronic prison overcrowding.
In Budget 2024, IPRT is calling on the Government to invest in alternative solutions including the allocation of an additional €5 million to the Probation Service to support greater use of Community Service Orders and Probation Supervision.
While the Irish Prison Service has an obligation to accept all people sent to it by the courts, imprisonment should only ever be used as a sanction of last resort. Unfortunately, there continues to be an over-reliance on short custodial sentences for people convicted of less serious offences, despite its damaging social and economic impact on individuals, families, and communities. For context, four out of every five people sentenced to prison in Ireland in 2021 were sentenced to less than 12 months. Investment in community-based sanctions and alternatives to custody will not only save the taxpayer money – latest information suggests probation supervision costs around €6,000 a year while a prison space costs upwards of €84,000 a year – it will also ensure that justice is delivered in a more appropriate and proportionate way.
Additionally, non-custodial sentences are proven to reduce levels of reoffending and support individuals to turn away from crime, ultimately to the benefit of society.
Focusing on community-based sanctions will clearly signal the Government’s commitment to implement key progressive measures to reduce reoffending, support desistance from offending and avoid overcrowding.
Prison overcrowding is not inevitable – the number of people in custody in prison was previously reduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Taking a solution-based approach to the criminal justice system and assessing what works for an individual, is transformative and would ensure a more coherent, effective and humane penal system in future. – Yours, etc,
Irish Penal Reform Trust,