Prison officers say overcrowding is on the rise in Irish jails while official figures show that committals to prisons have dropped dramatically in the past three years.
Overcrowding in jails has caused prison officers to demand action at their annual conference but official figures show that there has been a big drop in the number of people being put behind bars.
An information note published in January 2019 by the Irish Prison Service shows that there were 8,709 committals involving 6,496 persons in 2018. This was down on the previous year but a significant fall in the figures for 2016 and years up before that. In 2016 there were 15,099 committals involving 12,579 persons - a decrease of nearly half.
Most of the drop has been due to the scrapping of jail terms as a penalty for those who have not paid fines.
The annual Prison Officers Association Conference in Sligo heard that the issue of overcrowding is back on the agenda.
Tony Power, President of the Prisoners Officers Association, highlighted the issue at the conference.
“Prisoners’ sleeping on mattresses on floors is becoming an all too common sight again but yet our open centres remain below capacity. Prisoner numbers have continued to rise year on year from 3,745 in April 2017 to 3890 in April 2018 and up again to 4,049 in April 2019.
"Taking one landing at the Midlands, initially designed to hold 38 prisoners, it regularly has prisoner numbers in excess of 65 and this is mirrored in many of the prisons.
“Overcrowding provides the perfect atmosphere for the bully to thrive and exert huge pressure on vulnerable prisoners in particular to traffic in contraband, including weapons and illegal drugs. Serious violence is often part of the scenario here and we prison officers pay the inevitable price. Overcrowding puts both prisoners and prison officers at unnecessary risk – and this is totally unacceptable.
“Over the last year overcrowding made an unwelcome return to our prisons – a problem, which always and ever creates major challenges for prison officers on the ground. The IPSStrategy Statement refers to the reopening of the Training Unit in Mountjoy, but Minister, not one red cent has been spent on it since the decision was taken to close it in 2016. So we need to clarity on this issue as a matter of urgency.
He said the issue has to be raised with the Laois TD and the Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan.
“I regretfully must raise the issue of overcrowding Minister, as all of us believed this was a historic issue. None of us want a return to the ‘Pack em, Stack em and Rack em days’ of the past, where both prisoners and prison officers pay a heavy price – you simply should not allow this to happen on your watch,” he said.