We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

File image of the inside of a prison. Alamy
prison system

'Regress': Ireland's two women’s prisons 'consistently the most overcrowded', report finds

In December 2022, occupancy rates in Limerick Female Prison was 154%, and only in January 2022 was occupancy below 100%.

THE IRISH PRISON system has regressed when it comes to dealing with overcrowding, particularly in women’s prisons.  

That’s according to a report entitled Progress in the Penal System 2022 (PIPS), which is carried out by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT).

This is the sixth edition of PIPS, which aims to “set out a clear vision for the future of the penal system in Ireland”.

The report “takes as its starting point that as a small wealthy country, Ireland should work towards becoming a leading model of international best penal practice”.

However, Irish prisons are “regressing” when it comes to five of the 28 standards that are examined in PIPS 2022.

“Regress” is defined as “significant movement away from the attainment of the standard”.

Progress has been made in four standards, but there has been no change in nine of the standards examined.

There is “insufficient data” for two of the standards, while the outlook is “mixed” in eight standards.

“Mixed” is defined as making “progress towards the standard in some areas and regress away from it in others”.

While the IRPT said there has “been some welcome improvement during 2022”, it warned that progress has been minimal.

It added: “The pandemic response demonstrated that it is possible to fast-track change and showed that the reasons often given for delays in the implementation of ambitious and progressive policy are unconvincing.”


PIPS 2022 reports that “progress made in previous years is at risk of reversal as a result of continued overreliance on imprisonment and subsequent prison overcrowding”.

The IPRT said that the “solution to overcrowding lies not in more prison spaces, but in examining who, why, and how we sanction”.

The report noted that Ireland’s two female prisons – the Dóchas Centre in Dublin and Limerick Female Prison – “are consistently the most overcrowded in the state”.

In December 2022, occupancy rates in Limerick Female Prison was 154%, and only in January 2022 (93%) was occupancy below 100%.

Occupancy rates at the Dóchas Centre was above 100% for the last quarter of 2022 and ranging from 89%-98% between April and September.

The report also noted that 85% of women in the Dóchas centre have addiction issues.

It also cited research showing that 60% of sentenced women have a mental illness, compared to a figure of 27% for sentenced men.

The report also expressed concern that there were still no plans to develop an open prison for women, despite two being available for men, and open prison provision was cited as an area of regress.

The IRPT said prison should only be used as a “last resort” and noted that the majority of women in prison in Ireland are committed on a short-term basis of less than a year for non-violent offences.

In its PIPS 2021 report, the IRPT set a short term target for the Department of Justice to take “specific measures to address why short sentences continue to be handed down to women in place of community-based alternatives”.

However, the 2022 report found that this target had not been achieved.

The report also cited Traveller women as “a minority within a minority” who are “significantly overrepresented in prison”.

Though Travellers represent 0.7% of the national population, they account for 22% of female prisoners and 15% of male prisoners.

Women in prison

While keeping women out of prison was a widely shared priority among peer group discussions, access to gender-sensitive healthcare in prison, the trustworthiness of the complaints system, and family contact were also among the biggest issues.

Yesterday, it was reported in The Journal that specialised rape crisis counselling for female prisoners in the Dóchas Centre have not been in place since last summer.

They fell away with the retirement in August 2022 of the sole therapist providing the service at the Dóchas Centre, with efforts to hire a new practitioner failing.

The situation has caused alarm for those working in the sector, with the IRPT noting international research suggesting that between 50-60% of women in prison have experienced physical or sexual abuse.

PIPS 2022 also cites a recent report of the Dóchas Centre Chaplaincy Service and Prison Visiting Committee described the prison as a ‘dumping ground’ for mental illness.

In 2019, women in Irish prisons were found to be 8.2 times more likely to engage in recorded self-harm than male prisoners (there are no published statistics on self-harm during the pandemic).

A 2021 report by the Inspector of Mental Health Services also found that mental health supports for female prisoners were “under-resourced and under-staffed”.

Meanwhile, a recent study among women in prison found that 78% were mothers, and of these, 73% had children under 18.

However, many of these women had been separated from their children prior to being imprisoned and those who received visits from their children said that long journeys and searches made them reluctant to return.

Research also revealed that women in Irish prisons feel that submitting complaints could have negative impacts on family visits and progression within prison.

The research found that prisoners do not know if a complaint has reached its intended person when submitted.

Only one complaint, out of a total of 235 complaints by female prisoners in the Dóchas, were upheld between 2018 and April 2021.

The IRPT recommended that, as a “matter for the whole of Government”, improved provision of health, addiction and education services for women “both before and after they come into contact with the criminal justice system”.

It also called for imprisonment to only be used as a “last resort for women who offend, when all other alternatives are deemed unsuitable”.


Other areas of regress included the use of solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement increased in 2022, though PIPS 2022 notes that “information on the lengths of time people are held in such conditions is still not available”.

The IRPT said the “absence of this information frustrates proper prison monitoring and raises concerns about the upholding of rights” and called for “urgent action”.

The proportion of people accommodated in single cells also decreased in 2022 and the IRPT said a “best-practice prison system is one where single-cell accommodation is the default option”.

As of October 2022, only 47.6% of people in custody were in single cells.

This figure was 56% in 2021.

Another area of regress was in the usage of pre-trial detentions.

This is intended to be used as an “exceptional measure” but there was a 23% increase in the number of people being held in Irish prisons on remand between 2021 and 2022.

The IRPT said extended bail support schemes should be developed, in particular for women, young adults and repeat offenders who are committed on remand to prison for less serious offences.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel