A WORRYING growth in the number of gangs in the State's main juvenile centre is posing a major problem for the authorities.
Efforts to protect inmates, who are under threat because of gang involvement, are becoming "unmanageable", according to the visiting committee at St Patrick's Institution, Dublin.
The committee has now warned Justice Minister Alan Shatter that it is wrong to place young offenders under protection in cells alongside inmates who have been sent to the same wing for punishment reasons.
In its annual report, the committee said the C wing, which houses the protection and punished offenders, aged 16 to 21 years, is causing concern.
A senior prison official said last night that the problems in St Patrick's differed from the adult prisons where the difficulties were created by membership of criminal gangs.
In St Patrick's, he pointed out, the offenders tended to be aligned to regional rather than factional gangs, with inmates sticking together because of their county allegiances.
According to the director general of the Irish Prison Service, Michael Donnellan, the gang culture posed a serious challenge to the authorities.
He estimated there were 18 different factions operating in Mountjoy jail alone and a further 22 factions in Wheatfield prison in west Dublin.
The Prison Officers' Association wants tougher action against the culprits and believes they should be placed in isolation more frequently.
The committee also raised concern about the restrictions placed on the small number of inmates, who have to be kept separate from the rest because they come under threat as convicted sex offenders.
It said it understood the need to take every precaution to protect this group but believed those prisoners were also entitled to the supports available in the institution.
The report called on the Department of Justice to ensure the management was provided with sufficient resources to meet the group's needs.
The committee is less critical, however, of staff than the hard-hitting report, published last year, from the inspector of prisons Judge Michael Reilly.
The visiting committee argued that St Patrick's was an old prison and, because of this, required more maintenance.
"In these times of tight monetory controls, it can be difficult to manage a budget to meet all the requirements of the prison," it added.
Judge Reilly disclosed in his report that a number of prison officers were at the centre of disciplinary inquiries into allegations of bullying and ill-treatment of offenders.
The judge also said there was a culture of ignoring or violating the human rights of children and young adults in the institution.