Prison Expansion: The Population Growth Fallacy

Always Money for Prisons

Yesterday, following months of groundwork and soft launches, the Minister for Justice finally announced that €49.5 million had been secured for the Irish Prison Service to increase current prison capacity by 670 spaces. The four key sites will be in Cloverhill, Castlerea, Midlands, and Mountjoy; with work commencing next year.

Minister McEntee reasoned that “it is important that we continue to review and plan for additional capacity, which may be needed given increasing populations, and the introduction of some higher maximum prison sentences.” This justification of increasing population growth has been doing the media rounds for the past year. I have written about it previously here, identifying that disconnect between planned prison expansion and future population projections.

With pressure going to likely mount from domestic and internal rights’ bodies, the Government wants to address overcrowding. Where can we look for examples of where prison expansion has not solved the problem of overcrowding? Fortunately, we don’t need to look very far. Recent changes to the female prison estate provide us with many lessons.


Expansion of Female Prison Spaces

In the inter-censal period between 2016 and 2022, the female population in Ireland increased by 8.2% whereas the official capacity for women in prison increased by 30.9%.



With the rate of prison expansion greatly outpacing the rate of population growth for women, we have to conclude that overcrowding in women’s prisons is now a thing of the past.

Yet, what we see is that overcrowding has remained. With the opening of the new women’s prison in Limerick last year—which brought total capacity for women up to 202 beds—we are actually seeing an intensification of overcrowding.



Fallacy of Population Growth

The new planned capacity will be for the male prison estate but, if evidence-based policy is how this Government makes policy decisions, they can draw and apply lessons from the female estate. Firstly, the deterministic linking of population growth to needed prison capacity is a fallacy. Between 2016 and 2022, the increase in prison capacity (30.9%) for women was four times their population growth (8.2%). When the new prison capacity of Limerick is added (51.9% increase), capacity outstrips population growth by six times.

Until the women of Ireland took a particularly crimogenic turn after 2016, population growth is not a rationale for prison expansion. For the increase in female prison capacity to align with population growth, Ireland would have had to witness an increase of three-quarters of a million women between censuses.

Secondly, the primary rationale of population growth is utilised to frame policy decisions as linked to other measurable social factors—such as demographics—thus obfuscating the fact that they are still linked to political choices. Demographic change is useful for planning schools, hospitals and homes; not so much for prisons. Finally, if the population growth rationale is entertained, then it cuts both ways. If, in the future, population growth plateaus and then declines, will politicians and policymakers begin to close prisons to reflect the new social demographics, or will a continued return on investment be sought for a capital investment of €50 million.



With local and European elections a few short months away and a General Election in 2025, we are entering a dangerous period for prison policy. The electorate, often with an amplified fear of being a victim of a crime, will have their fears stoked and confirmed in the coming months. Politicians want to not only be seen as understanding the needs of constituents but eagar to present simple, easily understood solutions. Solutions do not come more concrete than prison spaces.

Yesterday’s announcement of almost €50m to build an additional 670 prison spaces was timely for Fine Gael as they hold both the Office of Taoiseach and the Justice portfolio. Simon Harris, as the new Taoiseach, had previously referred to population growth as the primary reason for prison expansion, when he held the Justice portfolio. Similarly, the announcement is a welcome boon for a Justice Minister as questions were being raised over her handling of recent incidents and the overall direction of justice legislation.

Rhetoric will inevitably increase as a “tough on crime” arms race will ensue between the three largest parties, with Independents upping the ante from local townhall meetings. At the very least, politicians need to stop identifying population growth as a predictor of future prison capacity. Maybe, instead of motioning to the public that their hands are tied, an honest response is that they want to put more people in prison for longer.