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Prison overcrowding and penal reform

Rehabilitation, and even less so reintegration, cannot happen in an overcrowded prison

Letters to the Editor. Illustration: Paul Scott
The Irish Times - Letters to the Editor.

Sir, – Last Thursday, the prison population in the Republic surpassed 5,000 men and women. This is a socially significant threshold, with no limit to this upward trajectory. Our prisons are chronically overcrowded.

There are widespread calls for prison expansion to resolve this. But historical data is relevant here. Since the beginning of 2021, the number of prisoners has increased by over 1,350 people, or 37 per cent. Within that, the number of female prisoners in the system has increased by an astounding 69 per cent. Despite a new female prison opening in Ireland last year, our two women’s prisons remain the most intensely overcrowded in the State. Did some new strain of criminality emerge in the last few years that the Irish justice system cannot cope with? Or has long-term inaction around rehabilitation come home to roost?

In reality, if a second new prison opened in the morning, each woman might have an actual bed (though not a private room) but overcrowding would inevitably endure. If we commit to new prison builds without altering our current culture, there will be no end for the appetite for new cells.

We only have to look over the Irish Sea to catch a vision of this dire future.


If we continue on the course this Government has set, we will be locked into this retributive penal culture. In April, the Minister for Justice announced that funding for almost ¤50 million had been secured to build an extra 670 prison spaces up to 2027. Regressive policies lead to reactionary interventions. It is not just the new build – and the generational spend that it commits us to – but the reactive responses we are increasingly seeing. The prison estate is to be increased by 15 per cent with more to come. The Minister finds themselves commenting on individual cases and sentences. Calls arise to limit the judiciary through mandatory sentencing. Incrementally, but quickly, Ireland is slipping into a culture of justice that looks more like Boston than Berlin.

When the State is dealing with multiple crises-homelessness, ecological breakdown, obligations to asylum seekers-some social issues can remain shrouded in the background but nevertheless deteriorate rapidly. We should be in little doubt that prison overcrowding is now a serious crisis that requires proper leadership, rather than political soundbites and electoral messaging. Politicians of all stripes must demonstrate restraint as the pre-election campaigning will soon begin in earnest.

The human costs are too high as prisoners are locked in inhumane conditions, longer periods of in-cell time, and limited access to services and supports. Many staff work in tense and unrewarding conditions, leading to burnout. When we pause and reflect, we know we don’t want penal inflationism. What we want is to prevent people entering prison, stop people returning to prison, and use the time which they spend in prison to prepare the ground for a flourishing life away from crime.

Rehabilitation, and even less so reintegration, cannot happen in an overcrowded prison. – Yours, etc,


Penal Policy Advocate,

Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice,

Dublin 1.

Sir, – With 5,000 prisoners currently detained and 500 more on temporary release, prison capacity is at breaking point.

With Limerick men’s prison currently operating at 111 per cent capacity, one wonders where judges can actually send people who are convicted of serious offences. – Yours, etc,



Co Louth.