The Irish Prison System

Vision, Values, Reality

Imprisonment is the most severe penalty available to the courts in Ireland, as it is in most other developed countries. Given the far-reaching implications of removing an individual’s liberty, even where he or she has committed a crime, and the reality that imprisonment often has detrimental consequences for both the person imprisoned and his or her family, a society must give serious consideration to two fundamental questions: the extent to which it uses the penalty of imprisonment and the conditions that operate in its prisons.

Ireland’s prison population has been rising steadily for several decades, and has more than doubled since 1995. During the country’s economic boom, expenditure on prisons increased considerably and, in particular, additional spending was devoted to building new prison spaces and refurbishing existing prison buildings. Yet despite this extra expenditure and the marked increase in the number of prison places available, prison conditions overall have worsened.

In particular, overcrowding has become an over-riding characteristic of prisons in Ireland. That overcrowding affects every aspect of life in most Irish prisons. It has led to multiple occupancy of cells designed for one person, put pressure on services such as education and training, eliminated the possibility of increasing the amount of time prisoners spend outtheir cells, and hindered the ability of the prison authorities to deal appropriately with inter-prisoner tensions and violence, so that large numbers of prisoners now have to be locked up for their own safety for as many as twenty-three hours a day. Overcrowding and inadequate conditions also affect the people who work in prison, since this is their workplace.

In a very real sense, then, the question of the extent to which imprisonment is used and the question of the conditions of imprisonment have become closely intertwined in the Irish prison system over recent years.

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