An Overview of Challenges Faced in Irish Prisons


By Peter McVerry SJ


I have been working, for the past 50 years, with homeless people and others in deprived neighbourhoods, so I have been a regular visitor to Irish prisons. In the 1980s, I was appointed to a Government commission on prisons (despite, I was told, considerable opposition from the Department of Justice!), known as the Whittaker Commission, which is widely considered the most important (and least influential!) report on the Irish Prison System. It recommended a reduction in the prison population, by reserving imprisonment for crimes of violence and serious crimes against property, with alternative sanctions for other crimes, and an expansion of training and educational facilities. Very few copies of the report were printed and it was not available online!

What the visitor would see:

Since then, major developments have occurred, some positive, some not so positive. A number of new prisons have been built, older prisons have been renovated and a new state-of-the-art Forensic Mental Health Hospital, with extra capacity, has replaced an old Victorian building which was unfit for purpose. A casual visitor to the prisons would be impressed by the spotlessly-clean landings (free labour!), in-cell sanitation, some cells with built-in showers, televisions and kettles in each cell and more recently, the provision of phones in some cells (though their use is restricted to a six minute call each day, to one of three phone numbers provided by the prisoner and which are vetted by the prison). The education and training services are generally of a very high standard and drug counsellors are employed in each prison.

What the visitor would not see:

However, what the casual visitor would not see is what is happening beneath the surface. Partly due to increased drug use in Ireland, (as elsewhere), along with a huge increase in related gangland crime, our prisons are now overcrowded, with prisoners sometimes having to sleep on mattresses on the floor. Despite the best efforts of the Prison Service (the use of drug sniffer dogs for visitors, nets over the recreational yards and airport-style X-ray detectors through which all staff and visitors must go), drug use is widespread within most of the prisons. Some of those I work with have stated that their first use of drugs was while in prison for non-drug offences. Prison life is boring, demoralising, and stressful which are conditions conducive to drug use. Being surrounded by drug users, being offered drugs by other prisoners, perhaps even sharing a cell with drug users, can lead to some people who are more vulnerable starting down the drug path. Drugs within prison are substantially more expensive than outside prison, and prisoners’ families often have to pay, with the threat that their loved-one will be beaten up in the prison or face slashed with a blade, if they fail to do so. Violence is also common in most of the prisons, either due to drug debts or in retaliation for real, or imagined, slights against another prisoner. An increasing number of seriously violent gangland prisoners has resulted in 14 competing gangs within the prisons, who seek to dominate and control the landings by violence or the threat of violence. About one-fifth of the prison population have chosen to go on protection, (in some prisons it can be one-quarter or even more) for their own safety, which means they are confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day and unable to access educational or training services.


Ireland, with a population of 5 million, has a prison population of about 4,000, costing €80,000 per prisoner per year. Nine out of ten are male, most of whom are sentenced to 12 months or less; the majority of females are also serving short sentences for non-violent crimes. Those on short sentences are less motivated to seek education or training facilities and the prison is less motivated to offer them, so they simply “do time,” at a huge cost to the taxpayer.

There is one dedicated remand prison with a capacity of 431, but there are currently 950 prisoners on remand across the entire prison estate, some of whom are on remand for over a year.

While there are two “open” prisons for male prisoners, where life is more normal and security minimal, there is no such facility for female prisoners, despite the fact that most of them pose no threat to society. Prisoners who have offended sexually now constitute 15% of the prison population and are segregated from the rest of the prison population for their own safety.

Addiction services

Due to the overcrowding, only a limited number of prisoners can access the educational and training services. The standard remission is one-quarter of the sentence; we have constantly advocated for a remission of one-third of sentence which would alleviate the overcrowding immediately. In our nearest neighbour, the UK, standard remission is one-half. However, any softening of policy towards prisoners is sure to make the Minister’s re-election campaign more difficult!

With one drug counsellor for every four or five hundred prisoners, it can take months to get an appointment to see them. Although about 70% of the 4,000 prison population have an addiction issue on admission to the prison, less than 15 places are available on the drug detox and treatment unit, although methadone is widely dispensed to those with a heroin problem. Most prisoners come into prison with an addiction issue, receive little or no help with their addiction, and leave prison with the same addiction issue. And we are surprised when they reoffend!

Mental Health Services

Many prisoners also have a mental health problem. Report after report has acknowledged that they do not get a comprehensive mental health service when they enter the prison system. Indeed the reports state that they would not be in prison if an adequate mental health service had been available to them in the community. Many have committed less serious offences, but the courts feel helpless when it comes to finding a suitable community mental health service, and prison is being used as a substitute. However, in prison, they spend most of the day locked in a cell, can be bullied and victimised, and sometimes forced to take illegal drugs. While in prison they cannot be forced to take medication, (unlike those in the Forensic Mental Health Hospital) and so they remain untreated and become even more unwell. Some with more serious psychiatric illnesses and who have committed serious crimes (including murder) may have lengthy waits in prison to access the Forensic Mental Health Hospital, which, while it has expanded the number of places available, are finding it difficult to recruit suitably trained staff and hence are operating at less than full capacity. While most prison staff are very kind and caring people (sure aren’t they Irish!) who do their best for prisoners in very difficult circumstances, they are ill-equipped to deal with the complex needs of prisoners with mental health issues.

Prison is a form of social exclusion, separated from the rest of society. For many, that exclusion from society began long before they went to prison. The majority of prisoners are born into deprived neighbourhoods, characterized by poverty, chronic unemployment, drug abuse, family disruption, poor and overcrowded housing, homelessness, and severely curtailed opportunities for social and economic advancement. Sadly, most prisoners are resigned to the fact that, on release, they will return to the same deprived circumstance, of poverty, unemployment and homelessness. As many say, “being out of prison is the same as being in prison, except there are no bars.”

And their exclusion is not just for the duration of their sentence, but for life. A person who has been in jail faces huge barriers to employment and to accommodation. Society does not allow their crime to be forgotten. Their imprisonment is a community sanctioned rejection of them and becomes a permanent, socially acceptable, devaluation of them as a human being.

Most people in prison want to improve themselves. But the sense of exile that they feel, and their sense of hopelessness at what awaits them on release, may undermine even the few rehabilitative efforts the prison may offer. The experience of many prisoners leads them to believe that society doesn’t care. There is real public fear of being a victim of crime and it is matched by outrage at prisoners who visit that fate on other people. There is precious little room for sympathy to their plight. “If society doesn’t care about me, why should I care about society” may be the unexpressed resentment of the prisoner. Indeed, it is not lost on prisoners from deprived backgrounds that prison is the only public service available to them for which there is no waiting list!

Because of the punitive attitude of much of the public, the priority for the Prison Service has become control and security. Prisoners, even on short sentences, will rarely be allowed out for the funeral of a close family member, perhaps a parent or child, leaving them to mourn alone in their cell. In the past, a significant number of prisoners were given temporary release for Christmas, but that has now been reduced to a trickle. The fear that a prisoner might abscond or commit a further crime while on release must keep the Minister of Justice awake at night!

This article was provided by the International Jesuit Prison Network, which connects people working with prisoners globally.