Prisons in crisis as number of inmates rises 14pc
Tougher policies send more to jail
The prison accommodation crisis confronting the Government is underlined by unpublished figures showing a rise of almost 14pc in the number of people sent to jail in the past year.
The statistics, which are due to be publicly revealed shortly, confirm that prison numbers will continue to spiral upwards.
The rise is due, ironically, to the success of government policies which put more resources into the criminal justice system over the past decade.
Decisions to increase the strength of the garda force up to record numbers, reducing the backlog of criminal cases in the courts and judges handing down longer sentences for serious crimes, have all put pressure on prison accommodation.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern pointed out last night that there were now 1,000 more criminals behind bars than in 2006.
The figures show that there was a total of 15,425 committals to prison in 2009, which represents an increase of 13.8pc on 13,557 the previous year. This follows a 13.6pc increase in numbers from 2007.
The tougher sentencing policies being adopted in the courts have resulted in an increase in the number of inmates serving lengthy sentences.
Those serving 10 years or more are up by 7.7pc from 65 offenders to 70 and this follows an increase of 38.3pc from 2008 and a 114pc rise in this category from 2007.
In the three to five years category, numbers are up by a staggering 35.5pc from 346 in 2008 to 469 last year and a breakdown reveals that those locked up for drug offences in that category are up by 80pc from 77 to 139 last year.
Mr Ahern said the huge rise in committals could be attributed to a range of developments including the extra gardai resulting in more successful prosecutions in the courts.
In the longer term, he said the development of a new purpose-built campus-style prison development at Thornton Hall in north Co Dublin would provide about 1,400 cells on a 130-acre site and this would eliminate the accommodation problems.
He dismissed speculation that the Government might axe the Thornton project as part of its planned budget cuts of €3bn.
He said the Thornton plan would remain on course and this would allow for the replacement of the Victorian Mountjoy prison campus with modern, fit-for-purpose and regime-orientated accommodation.
The new facility would have operational flexibility to accommodate up to 2,200 prisoners in a range of security settings. The Thornton project, he added, was progressing on a phased basis and would stand the test of time.
In the meantime, he intended to provide a further 200 short-term spaces through a new block that was now ready to open in Wheatfield Prison in west Dublin.
Work was expected to start in the latter half of this year on a new 300-space block in the Midlands Prison complex in Portlaoise and that would provide welcome job opportunities in the construction trade, Mr Ahern added.