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Number of prisoners sharing cells in Irish jails is 'worrying'

Particularly as the problem is exacerbated by slopping out, eating meals in cells and long lockup times.

Image: Prison Cell via Shutterstock

THREE DECADES AGO, Justice Minister Michael Noonan changed the prison rules to allow doubling up in jail cells.

Today, some prisoners share rooms with as many as three other inmates.

The practice has been deemed troublesome by human rights advocates.

“You’re seeing a worrying development here,” says the Irish Penal Reform Trust’s executive director Liam Herrick.

“Doubling up is being built into capacity numbers at prisons,” he explained. “But while there might be capacity in terms of cells, there are not enough services, education and training.”

As of October 2013, there were 4,086 prisoners in the Irish system occupying just over 3,000 cells. Of those, 1,799 prisoners were accommodated in single cells, while 1,756 sleep in double cells. Meanwhile, 399 inmates share cells with two other people, while at least 120 men are kept in cells with four or more prisoners.

The practice of putting more than one prisoner in a cell began long before the 1980s but was formally sanctioned by the government from 1983 following a court case.

A Cork prisoner took his objection to being held in a cell with another man to the State’s courthouses. The practice of doubling-up had to be abandoned or the existing rule changed, Noonan told the Taoiseach’s department at the time.

They decided to amend the rules to suit the practice of the time.

“There was a view at the time that the move was the single-most negative and detrimental developments to the system,” added Herrick.

At the time, former governor at Mountjoy John Lonergan was vocal in his strong opposition.

More recently, he wrote in the Irish Times that doubling-up was a complete reversal of earlier best practice.

“Back in the mid-1800s, it became the established standard in England and Ireland that the safest and most secure way of ensuring the well-being and safety of the vast majority of prisoners was to accommodate them singly in single cells. As recently as the 1970s if a prison officer allowed two prisoners to share a cell he would be in serious trouble with the prison authorities,” he wrote.

According to experts, putting the practice on a statutory footing allowed the overcrowding problem to become far worse.

Herrick singled out Cork as a particular problem spot.

“The accepted standard at Mountjoy now,” he said, “is single cells. But not in Cork. They are planning for doubling up. It is a question of logistics because the site is very small. If they were only to have single cells, then the prison would not be economically viable.”

Although other countries also continue with doubling-up, Herrick believes the Irish situation is exacerbated by the continuing problem of slopping out, longer lockup times and the fact that inmates often eat their meals in their cells.

“The combination of these can lead to tension, stress and undermine a person’s personal space and privacy.”

imageIrish Prison Service, October 2013

Read: Changes to prison accommodation rules raised concerns about homosexuality

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