Numbers of People Imprisoned in Ireland is Accelerating

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4,132 IN PRISON CUSTODY IN IRELAND

The number of prisoners in custody in Irish prisons was 4,132 on Monday 1st Feb, 2010. This is an increase of 11% on the numbers of custody the same week in 2009. (These figures do not include those out on temporary release.) This acceleration in prison population growth, in an overcrowded situation which is already at critical level, has serious consequences for prisoner and staff safety.

The increase in the prison population comes shortly after reports that a record 3,500 people were imprisoned for non-payment of fines in 2009; this is a rise of over 38% on the 2008 figure of 2,520.

Prison building will not and cannot address the problem. Extensive investment by the Government since 1997 in providing prison spaces has merely increased the numbers of prisoners, further increasing the burden on already very strained public finances.

Commenting on the figures, Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, Liam Herrick said:

“There is an assumption that increased prison population is some sort of achievement; that it is a measure of success in fighting crime and that it will increase public safety. On all counts, these assumptions are false. Since 1997, the Government has been engaged in a large prison-building programme, and we have seen no reduction in serious crime.

“The current prison-building programme was planned to solve the problem of accommodating 3,700-3,800 prisoners. Already the goalposts have shifted to make that redundant.

On policies that do seem to make a difference, Liam Herrick added:

“The recent success of our youth justice policies show how crime and detention can both be reduced if a broad approach is taken focussing on crime prevention and diversion.  If our adult crime policy is allowed to continue to focus on prisoner numbers, rather than on achieving public safety through crime reduction, further unaffordable prison expansion is inevitable.

“Without an effort to understand why our courts are sending more people to prison, any proposed new prisons such as Thornton Hall will not address overcrowding but simply fill up at serious social and economic cost to society.”

Instead of building more prison places, we need urgent resolution to issues such as the promised Fines legislation; continuing imprisonment for civil debt; and under-usage of community-based sanctions such as Community Service Orders.

IPRT provides a full factsheet on prisons, but here is a summary of the most relevant to the prison population.

Figures:

The numbers of prisoners in custody passed the 4,000 mark for the first time in the history of the State in October 2009; this number has now reached 4,132 (1st Feb 2010).

Figures released by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform show a sharp rise in imprisonment over the last 13 years:

    Source: Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform

Crime Patterns and Prison Population

A large body of evidence demonstrates that crime rates are generally not determinative of rates of imprisonment. In an Irish context, Prof Ian O’Donnell has demonstrated how imprisonment rates increased dramatically in Ireland during a period in the 1990s despite that fact that crime rates were falling. Over-reliance on custodial sentences along with changes in legislation – including the creation of new offences, mandatory sentencing, and the imposition of longer sentences – have all combined to the increases in the prison population. See the IPRT position paper Planning the Future of Irish Prisons.

Imprisonment for Fine Default

The Irish Independent (1st Feb 2010) reported that 3,500 people were jailed in 2009 for failing to pay court-ordered fines, including more than 60 who did not pay fines for not having a TV licence.

Super-prisons not a solution: Thornton Hall
IPRT has consistently opposed plans to build a ‘super-prison’ at Thornton Hall is a white-elephant solution to overcrowding. For more details on IPRT’s position on Thornton Hall, see our 2008 position paper on Thornton Hall.