The multiplier effect of prison overcrowding


When Covid-19 arrived in Ireland in 2020, key public health aims to slow its spread included minimising the general movement of people and reducing the number of people in our closed institutions. As the number of people in emergency homeless accommodation and of people in prison have followed the same trajectory in recent years, it was of vital importance at that time to reduce overcrowding in both. In housing policy, an eviction ban was introduced and in prisons, a structured temporary release system was put in place. Both were successful, to a degree.

The eviction ban lowered the officially-recorded homelessness figures, which fell from over 10,000 people to just under 8,000 in a short time. In prisons, the average daily number of people in custody in March 2020 was over 4,000, but the use of structured temporary release (assisted by a reduced court schedule), decreased this number to under 3,700 by September 2020, and it remained relatively flat for the period of court inactivity. But this was not to last.

Now, more than 11,500 people are in emergency accommodation [according to the last available figures] –  the highest number since recording began in 2014, and a stratospheric increase of almost 50% since the Covid-19 eviction ban.

Prisons have fared little better.  There are now 4,362 people in Irish prisons [figures from 25/01/2023],  more than were there when we began to reduce the population for public health reasons in 2020.

While the pandemic presented unique challenges to the State and exposed its lack of capacity in key areas of social provision, the upward trajectory in both homelessness and prison numbers reveals missed opportunities. Crises provide a chance to take stock, consider alternatives and to “build back better” as public support can be more easily won for change. Because no structural changes were made, things have become much worse, and look likely to continue to.

Our response to a 2020 Inspector of Prisons’ Annual Report, highlighted the opportunity the pandemic offered for the reform of prison policy and the potential risk of inaction:

“The reduction of over 400 people in the overall prison population, as part of the response to Covid-19, may gradually be reversed. There will be no explicit or stated policy position, muscle memory will likely kick in. If prisons were able to manage with over 4,200 prisoners before the pandemic, surely they can accommodate a few more after.”

So where are we now?

When the Temporary Becomes Permanent

Mattresses on floors are an obvious symbol of prison overcrowding. They are an unequivocal symbol of failure. Across the entire prison estate in 2022, an average of 39 prisoners slept on temporary mattresses each night. This suggests that the doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up of prisoners in cells designed for fewer people has been exhausted. The only remaining option for prison authorities is a mattress on the floor space of a cell, as they must by law receive all prisoners sent to their gates by the judiciary.

Towards the end of 2022, up to seven female prisoners a night in Limerick Women’s Prison had no bed.  Almost a fifth of the women were on mattresses. A prison wing with a capacity for 28 women had upward of 40 women at any one time. How can this intensity of overcrowding be reconciled with the Irish State’s compliance with the minimum standards of female imprisonment outlined in the Bangkok Rules, which states that prison for women should, as closely as possible, resemble their homes?

The growing permanence of “temporary” mattresses suggests that our criminal justice system is not bound by physical limits of space or capacity. Despite official capacity for the entire prison estate being less than 100%, overcrowding also exists in individual wings within prisons due to protection orders and intra-population tensions. Even with the severe overcrowding in our two women’s prisons, the judiciary continue to convict women for sentences of less than 12 months for petty theft and offences related to addiction. Over a third of the women in the Dóchas Centre have sentences of less than a year.

The Multiplier Effect

Why should we care about overcrowding in our prisons, when it affects less than 1% of the total prison population? Firstly, because it’s a human rights issue. The Committee for the Prevention on Torture and the United Nations have both criticised the Irish Government in the past due to overcrowding. But another reason to seek an immediate end to overcrowding in our prisons, is the impact it can have on prison life overall.

In economics, there is an idea called the multiplier effect where a relatively small stimulus can hasten a change of a much greater degree. For example, changes to taxation or Government investment can have a disproportionate effect, both good and bad, on the national accounts. This idea also holds for prison overcrowding.

The number of prisoners on mattresses may be small but it has a disproportionate effect on prison life, including on the wellbeing of prisoners, prison staff, and the ability of rehabilitative aims to be undertaken. Tensions among prisoners and staff will increase due to closer proximity. More security risks lead to educational classes and work programmes being cancelled as prisoners can’t attend. A higher workload will naturally lead to reduced staff morale and higher absenteeism due to burnout. Key connections to the outside world for prisoners including attending funerals or in-prison visitations can be reduced due to staff shortages. Within the closed system of a prison, small effects can have many unpredicted knock-on effects.

Conversely, the multiplier effect can also work in a positive direction. If community-based alternatives were taken seriously in lieu of sentences of less than 12 months, then the prison population would drop rapidly, with the potential for a prison system with some characteristics of providing humane custody. Prisoners would have increased privacy and space. The potential for violence and tension is reduced. Prison officers’ workloads are decreased as there are less prisoners to escort around prison and to court. Ability to attend education, work, appointments and social activities are unhindered.  The strain on stretched in-prison psychological and addiction supports is reduced. There are few, if any, downsides to having fewer people in a prison.

Just as there are physical limits to the safe and sustainable functioning of a prison system, there are ideological limits too. The continued imposition of short sentences leading to severe overcrowding, makes rehabilitation and restoration impossible, which lays bare this ongoing philosophy of punishment as redundant.