The Irish Prison Service (IPS) has warned of the return of the “revolving door” for prisoners if new jail accommodation for criminals is not urgently provided.
In a submission to the Department of Justice, the IPS said the number of people in jail had increased by almost a quarter in the space of five years, and was only going to rise further.
With more than 100 prisoners already sleeping on mattresses daily, the IPS warned of “increased tension and incidences of violence” between inmates, as well as higher risk of “violent assaults on staff”.
The service said this so-called revolving door for prisoners could return, with temporary release being offered in an “unstructured manner” early in sentences. This could have a knock-on effect on public safety and undermine the administration of justice if criminals were let go too early, the IPS added.
The submission also warned of the potential “widespread outbreak” of infectious diseases like Covid-19 and tuberculosis due to overcrowding in Irish prisons, also predicting increased levels of illegal contraband entering the system, including narcotics, mobile phones and weapons.
The IPS said this could lead to “drug related illness” and “possible death in custody” as a result of overdose due to difficulties in tackling smuggling.
The submission was sent to the department in March of this year amid growing concern about the levels of overcrowding in prisons.
A month later, then-minister for justice Simon Harris confirmed 620 new prison spaces would be provided over the next five years across four different jails.
In the detailed submission, the IPS had also warned of the higher potential for compensation claims from prisoners. They said this litigation could come in the form of personal injury claims from increased violence and accidents, or through cases for “human rights violations”.
It warned of a negative impact on prison staff with difficulties in retaining officers, increased absenteeism, and cancellation of training or development courses. Industrial relations issues were also possible with prison officers being asked to work in “potentially dangerous and unsafe working conditions”.
The IPS also detailed how rising Garda numbers were likely to lead to increased numbers of people in prison.
The submission stated: “Changing trends in the prison population have traditionally mirrored changes in the numbers of An Garda Síochána. Historical data bears out this potential correlation and it can be seen that Garda strength and prison population increase and decrease in tandem.”
With up to 1,000 new gardaí expected to be added to the force in the coming years, further strain on the prison system was almost inevitable, the IPS claimed, adding that the appointment of more judges would create even more pressure.
“This will lead to increased courts activity resulting in increased custodial sentences and higher levels of prison committals.”
Asked about the records, a spokesperson for the department said the Government and IPS are working together to identify short, medium, and long term proposals to tackle capacity issues.
“The Irish Prison Service must accept all prisoners committed by the courts and as such [it] has no control over the numbers committed to custody at any given time,” he said.
The spokesperson added that where numbers exceed capacity, the IPS tries to deal with it through inter-prison transfers and structured temporary release.