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Focus should be on better conditions - not more prisons

There are currently almost 5,000 prisoners in Irish prisons, and the Irish Penal Reform trust says the Government should focus on making prison conditions better: not building more prisons.

Staff working inside Mountjoy Prison.
Staff working inside Mountjoy Prison.
Image: Paul Sharp/Photocall Ireland

THE IRISH PENAL Reform Trust says that the government should place an emphasis on improving the substandard conditions experienced in Irish prisons – not on building more of them.

Liam Herrick, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said that prison expansion will not and cannot solve overcrowding, and will not make our communities safer – “it will only serve to increase the prisoner population, putting further financial burden on the taxpayer”.

In response to a parliamentary question, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Alan Shatter, said that despite a prison building programme under the previous government, the number of prisoners in Ireland has doubled in the last 14 years.

He that the situation could have been avoided if action had been taken by the previous government.

As of 20 October 2011, there were 4,275 prisoners in custody and 755 on temporary release.

That means that 15 per cent of the total prisoner population is on temporary release.

Liam Herrick of IPRT said the latest prison numbers represent a drop from a peak of 4,587 in custody in April 2010, “which suggests that recent progressive measures such as the Community Service Order legislation are having some positive impact”.

Herrick added:

However, Ireland’s prisons are still chronically overcrowded and running far above design capacity, particularly in the prisons with the worst physical conditions – Mountjoy and Cork – where hundreds of prisoners have to slop out in shared cells.

He said that any prison building programme should address substandard prison conditions, rather than being used to expand the number of prison places.

Herrick also said that the failure to fully implement the Fines Act 2010 means that “thousands continue to be imprisoned for failure to pay court-ordered fines, putting further pressure on strained prison resources”.

The minister said that too many offenders convicted of minor offences who pose no major risk to the community are presently in the prison system and he is pursuing alternatives to custody.

These include a pilot community service scheme under which offenders in prison who have served a substantial portion of their sentence and who pose no threat to the community are offered earned earlier release in return for community service.

Minister Shatter admitted that the problem of prison overcrowding “remains a challenging issue which unfortunately cannot be resolved overnight”.

He said that there has been an ongoing capital programme with almost 600 additional prisoner spaces constructed and brought into use since January 2008.

There are also ongoing projects, including the construction of a new accommodation block at the Midlands prison, which will provide a potential 300 spaces and should be completed by mid-2012.

An administrative building on the women’s prison Dóchas site in Mountjoy has also just been converted into a new accommodation block which will provide 70 spaces. These will become operational next month.

Read: Plan to cut prison numbers by boosting community service>

Read: Government urged to address ‘sub-standard’ prison conditions>

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