Irish Prison Service reports challenges from a jump in prisoner numbers

Conor Ganly

Reporter:

Conor Ganly

Midlands Prison Portlaoise.

Midlands Prison Portlaoise

The number of prisoners at jails in Portlaoise and other parts of Ireland has risen by more than 10% since the start of last year while the challenge of managing inmates has also increased according to the Irish Prison Service.

The statistics and findings are contained in new Irish Prison Service Strategic Plan 2019 – 2022 which reveals that the population is now regularly over than 4,000. 

Among the issues highlighted is an increase in the number of women in jail, serious criminals, older criminals and sex offenders. 

In developing this strategy the service says it undertook a review of the operating environment to identify the internal and external factors which could significantly impact upon future Irish Prison Service capacity, priorities, strategy, implementation and delivery.

The strategy says the prison population rose gradually from 1994 with 2,141 prisoners in custody to 4,390 prisoners in custody in 2011 at its peak. From 2011 to 2017, the prison population stabilised and reduced slowly.

"However since January 1, 2018 we have seen a 11% increase in the number in custody from 3,646 on 31st December
2017 to 4,061 on 31st July 2019 with the numbers in custody now exceeding 4,000 on a regular basis.

"The challenge of managing the prison population has increased. The Irish Prison Service faces increased demand for the provision of effective interventions and support aimed at promoting desistance and reducing reoffending. This is largely
driven by the changing nature and needs of the prison population alongside the trend of increasing sentence lengths for some serious offenders," says the strategy. 

The service says there is an increase in the number of remand prisoners and length of time spent on remand. However, it says there is one facility in the State dedicated to remand prisoners - namely Cloverhill Prison.

The strategy says this prison has a capacity of 431. A snapshot of the prison population on 31 March 2019, identified that there were 741 remand prisoners in the system requiring remand prisoners to be ‘spread’ across the Estate.

The corresponding figure for 2018 was 693 and 589 in March 2017, an increase of 152 or 26% over 2 years.

A further recent feature of remand prisoners reported in the strategy is the increasing seriousness of the criminal charges they face. As a result, it is noted that many remand prisoners are now being detained for much longer periods than was previously the case and many require higher levels of security due to the nature of the offences or links with criminal gangs.

The Strategy says there has been an increase in the number of female committals. There are at present 133 spaces for women offenders within the Irish Prison Service estate. A snapshot of the female prisoner population on 31 March 2019 showed a total number of female offenders in custody of 179. The corresponding number in custody for 2018 and 2017 respectively are
163 and 148. This equates to an increase of women in custody of 31 or 21% in 2 years.

The services says the daily average number of women in custody has continued to increase year on year since 2015. The number of women committed to prison (excluding fines) has increased from 278 in 2017 to 442 in 2018, an increase of 59%.

The service says the age profile of the prison population is increasing and is projected to continue to increase. The number of older people (over 50) in custody has doubled over the past 10 years. 

It says this has implications for the prison estate and for the delivery of care, opportunities, learning and activities. The strategy says this cohort of prisoners can have complex needs, including healthcare needs, which need to be met both internally and external to the prison environment.

The Strategy says the prison population is becoming more complex, with increases in some populations having already occurred. It adds that this increases demand for intensive programmes.

In recent years we have seen an increase in the number of sex offenders who have been committed to custody and this cohort is expected to increase further over the next 3 years.

"Meeting the demand for specialist programmes and interventions may prove challenging to deliver efficiently due to the practical constraints of resourcing and providing specialist programmes. The Irish Prison Service needs to ensure that its delivery of programmes and interventions is efficient, effective and sustainable," says the plan.

The strategy that those presenting with or at risk of developing drug or alcohol problems have significant implications for prisons and staff and all those involved in the provision of health services.

It says there is evidence of an increase in the number of people committed to prison with severe and enduring mental illnesses, which presents challenges in providing appropriate access to mental health services and facilities.

The Irish Prison Service says people who are homeless upon release are more likely to reoffend and a lack of housing is one of the reasons cited for reoffending amongst those returning to the Irish Prison Service. Access to housing is key to securing access to wider public services, including health and welfare for those leaving our custody. 

"We are engaging with a wide range of service providers in order to further develop services to provide structured release planning which includes assistance with housing, social welfare and medical card provision," says the strategy.

The plan says the size and nature of the prison population is determined by the level and type of crime, detection rate, Government policy, legislation and sentencing policy and practice. It says the population includes some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our communities.

The Irish Prison Service says it has a wide range of functions and responsibilities. It says the new strategy sets out broad, outcome focussed strategic aims, which can each only be realised through contributions from the whole organisation. It says these will be supported by specific objectives set out in an annual business plan which will include specific outcomes and indicators for all actions.