1,000 criminals freed to ease prison overcrowding
ALMOST 1,000 convicted criminals were allowed out of jail at the same time earlier this year to ease severe prison overcrowding, new figures reveal.
Prison Service records obtained by the Irish Independent revealed that 968 inmates were on temporary release on June 1 after a massive surge in the number of people being committed to jails.
This meant that almost a fifth of the prison population -- which stood at 5,224 at the time -- was actually free to walk the streets.
The figures highlight the pressure on cell space within the prison system, which has forced officials to push temporary release numbers to their highest levels in more than 15 years.
The revelation came just days after it emerged that a man jailed for the fatal assault of a teacher had 64 previous convictions and was on temporary release at the time of the attack.
Harry Dinan (31) was jailed for five years for the manslaughter of Brian Casey. Mr Casey was standing in O'Connell Square in Ennis, Co Clare, when he was punched by Dinan.
The blow broke Mr Casey's jaw and caused him to hit the back of his head off the ground, fracturing his skull. He never regained consciousness.
Garda union representatives have criticised the practice, claiming many of those being set free prematurely are career criminals with a track record of re-offending.
However, prison officials claim public safety is taken into account when decisions are made on who should be set free.
Records obtained from the Prison Service under freedom of information rules showed that temporary release figures had steadily increased since January 2008 -- when just 174 were temporarily allowed back into the community.
The records revealed overcrowding was most acute in Mountjoy's female prison, known as the Dochas Centre, as well as in Mountjoy's main male prison and Cork Prison.
The Dochas Centre, which had a capacity of 85, was housing 123 inmates on September 1. A further 82 prisoners were on temporary release.
The main Mountjoy facility, with a capacity of 590, held 671 inmates on the same day. A further 179 were also on temporary release. In Cork, some 312 inmates were housed at the Rathmore Road facility on August 3, even though its capacity was just 272.
A further 145 were on temporary release on the same day.
Fine Gael justice spokesman Alan Shatter described the figures as "very worrying".
"People are getting out who shouldn't be and they are committing further crimes. The whole system is in chaos," he said.
After peaking in June, the temporary release crisis has since eased slightly, with between 630 and 650 criminals out each day since the beginning of September.
The problem has been eased by the creation of 200 extra prison spaces at Wheatfield Prison in Dublin.
Work is also due to begin shortly on a new accommodation block at the Dochas Centre, which will provide 70 spaces.
However, with doubts hanging over the progress of the Thornton Hall superprison in north Dublin, any further cells may not come on stream until 2012, when 300 prison spaces are due to be completed at the Midlands Prison in Co Laois.
Work has also yet to start on a new 450-inmate prison in Kilworth, Co Cork, which was initially announced in 2006.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said measures had been introduced to cut back on prison committals.
New laws have been put in place which aim to ensure that people unable to pay fines and civil debt no longer end up in prison.
A spokesman for the Prison Service said each case was examined on its own merits before a prisoner was granted temporary release.
"One of the main issues taken into consideration when deciding whether or not a prisoner is suitable for temporary release is public safety," the spokesman added.