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Prison stats are misleading, says Jesuit Centre

The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, on 5 December, called on the Minister for Justice to conduct an immediate investigation into why so many people in prison are sleeping on mattresses when the system is supposedly operating at 92-94% capacity.

Eoin Carroll, Deputy Director of the Jesuit Centre, said:

The Minister for Justice must now instigate a review to find out why so many people are sleeping on mattresses when the prison estate is operating at 92-94% capacity. The Inspector of Prisons is ideally placed to conduct this review.

The review also needs to examine how statistics are being presented. At worst the figures are intentionally misleading; at best, they are meaningless in assessing overcrowding. Advocacy groups like the Jesuit Centre rely on daily prison population figures in order to monitor overcrowding. There is an urgent need for the Inspector of Prisons and possibly the Central Statistics Office to step in.

To illustrate this point, the daily prison population figures for 17 July 2018 show that there were 865 prisoners in the Midlands Prison. Operating at 97% of its 870 capacity. Yet, there were 28 people on mattresses. In Cloverhill Prison people regularly slept on mattresses during April, May and July. On the 29 May, 33 were on mattresses, yet the prison was operating at 101% capacity, meaning there should only have been a maximum of six on mattresses. Similar examples can be given for the other prisons affected.

There are a number of potential reasons for such a large number of people on mattresses including prison renovations and prisoner management.

Ireland’s newest prison in Cork – where it is unlikely that renovations are taking place – in early July had large numbers sleeping on mattresses. While the daily statistics did show that there was a level of overcrowding, it did not show the extent of the numbers sleeping on mattresses.

The more likely reason for the large numbers on mattresses is prisoner management, including gang control. Whereby certain wings of a prison are being underused while others are being overcrowded. The growing numbers on ‘restricted regime’ highlights the increasing difficulty the prison authorities are having in managing gangs. Between July 2013 and July 2018 the daily snapshot figure increased by nearly 200, from 339 to 536.

Carroll said:

A crowded prison results in only the day-to-day management of prisoners. A settled prison with an appropriate population size allows for meaningful engagement. Prisons now need to have a maximum capacity figure, set by the Inspector of Prisons, which is dynamic and adjusts to the number of available beds. The 2024 commitment to single-cell occupancy now also needs to be reiterated.