Irish Prisons are a Societal Disgrace

No escaping the truth about prisons
By Fiachra O’Cionnaith
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Fiachra O’Cionnaith examines the Prison Chaplains’ annual report
THE vast majority of people sent to Irish jails only become violent or involved in drug addiction after they enter the prison system.

The latest Prison Chaplains’ annual report has confirmed that a culture of serious overcrowding, failure to rehabilitate convicts and an out-of-control drugs crisis is crippling the prison service and condemning inmates guilty of even minor offences to a life of crime.

According to the report — drawn up by the 27 priests, religious and lay people working in a chaplain capacity at Ireland’s 14 jails — just 1,153 (10%) of the 10,865 people imprisoned last year were sent to jail for violent crimes.

Of this number, more than half were given sentences of less than three months.

However, once in jail and “exposed to a drug-filled, violent environment”, many of these individuals have become at risk of falling into a violent life.

The document says drug addiction is one of the major factors for this situation.

However, in many cases it is first caused by the housing of serious addicts with inmates who are either clean or only involved in minor drug-taking.

According to the document, despite a national drug treatment centre for Ireland’s prison service being called for 33 years ago in the 1977 Misuse of Drugs Act, there are still just nine detox beds in the service for the entire country, at Mountjoy prison in Dublin.

As a result, clean prisoners are regularly exposed to serious drug problems and often become addicted themselves.

The Prison Chaplains’ annual report said last year 27,227 random drug tests were carried out in Irish prisons, resulting in 7,309 positive results for heroin, 6,110 for cannabis, 675 for cocaine, and a number of positive tests for more than one substance.

In some jails, more than half of convicts tested positive for heroin.

“Ex-prisoners report that they never touched drugs before they went into prison but came out heroin addicts,” the report said.

Many convicts who enter overcrowded prisons such as Mountjoy or Limerick — both of which were considered by an EU report to be “unsafe” for both inmates and staff — also have to face the threat of violence from those living, eating and sleeping beside them.

According to the report, more than 800 assaults officially take place in Irish jails every year — a figure which is the equivalent of almost three attacks a day.

The most common form of attack is slashing someone with a blade from mouth to ear, leaving a long and permanent scar.

The assaults can lead to retaliation, but other violence also results from the stealing of small items such as cigarettes to outside vendettas being settled.

Due to this violence, in December 2009 a total of 972 inmates — 20% of the entire prison population — were locked up alone for 23 hours a day for their own protection, up from 832 the previous year.

Other inmates, mainly young men, also seek the help of “various drug gangs inside prison” to ensure their safety.

However, the report noted that “when they are eventually released, they cannot dissociate themselves from the gang without becoming victims of gang violence themselves”.

The current prison system structure has been described as “a disaster for both prisoners and society”.

“Making our prisons safer and drug free is in everyone’s interest. The only obstacle is political will,” the document concludes.


– Daily average Irish prison population jumped from 3,191 in 2006 to 5,456 last month.

– It is expected to break the 6,000 mark next year.

– Of last month’s figure, 1,000 prisoners were either on early release or “unlawfully at large”.

– Mountjoy, Limerick and Wheatfield prison have been described as “unsafe” for both inmates and staff due in part to serious overcrowding.

– Mountjoy was built to house 489 prisoners and the Inspector of Prisons said it cannot safely accommodate more than 540. However, it has a “bed capacity” of 630.

– On July 30 it housed 759 inmates, meaning 129 prisoners did not have a bed in which to sleep.

– Cork Prison was built for 146 prisoners, has a “bed capacity” of 272, but on July 30 housed 334 inmates.

– Wheatfield prison in Dublin was built for 320 prisoners, has a “bed capacity” of 470, but on July 30 housed 508 inmates.

– One of these Wheatfield prisoners was a 75-year-old man who had to sleep on a mattress on the floor of his jail cell.

– Dóchas Women’s prison was built for 85 people, has a “bed capacity” of 105, but on July 30 housed 180 inmates.

– Limerick prison was built for 185 prisoners, has a “bed capacity” of 209, but on July 23 it held 322 inmates.

This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Tuesday, November 30, 2010

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