Surge in inmates piles pressure on prison system
Prison numbers have soared again with an 11pc increase in committals in the past year adding to the overcrowding crisis in the nation's jails.
Plans to extend early temporary release to inmates serving lengthy sentences are being speeded up as the prison population is expected to rise again when the courts re-open after the summer recess.
The latest figures show that the number of committals to prison has increased to 17,170 in a year.
Publishing the annual report of the Irish Prison Service, Justice Minister Alan Shatter admitted yesterday that its greatest challenge continued to be the increasing number of prisoners committed to custody.
He said the increase created pressures in the system and led to the consequent high number of prisoners on temporary release, due to insufficient prison spaces.
The report showed there were 12,487 committals under sentence in 2010, representing an increase of 15pc on the previous year's total of 10,865.
A rise of 28pc in prisoners serving less than three-month sentences (from 5,750 to 7,356) is being attributed to people being jailed for non-payment of court fines.
The report also revealed that: l The daily average number of prisoners in custody last year was 4,290, up 10pc.
•The female jail population jumped by 19pc to 157.
•Temporary releases reached 732, an increase of 37pc on the 2009 daily average.
•Some 286 prisoners were serving life sentences, while a further 285 had determinate sentences of 10 years or more.
The average cost of a prison space dropped from €77,222 to €70,513 as a result of reduced expenditure and bigger bed capacity.
Mr Shatter said he agreed with the views of the Thornton Hall review group that jail overcrowding could not be solved solely by building more prisons and further steps were required to reduce the prison population, although this could not be achieved overnight.
New guidelines are being prepared by senior officials for the Parole Board to implement the early-release scheme. Officials told the Irish Independent last night that the qualifying group would not include prisoners jailed for offences such as sex crimes and would be comprised of inmates who had served most of their sentences.
Mr Shatter intends to introduce a scheme to allow them out of jail early to carry out community work under the supervision of the Probation Service and it will be introduced shortly on a pilot basis for inmates serving shorter sentences.
Executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, Liam Herrick, said it was increasingly clear the authorities must target measures to reverse the dramatic increase in prison numbers.
He called for safe custody limits to be set urgently for individual prisons to make it clear that prison governors could no longer be expected to fulfil the conflicting roles of catering for extra numbers and maintaining humane custody for inmates.