THREE-quarters of women serving short prison sentences have experienced violence and abuse as a child or an adult, according to a new study of female offenders.
The survey, which examined the personal life histories of women incarcerated at Dublin's Dochas Unit at Mountjoy Prison, also reveals high rates of homelessness, depression and substance abuse – with many hooked on drugs and alcohol from as early as 11 years of age.
Almost half of the 16 women serving short sentences – defined as between 12 and 24 weeks – who took part in the study have no formal education and had little or no history of employment.
Most had a history of substance abuse, according to the survey carried out by the Association for Criminal Justice Research and Development (ACJRD).
The majority of crimes committed were low-level addiction-related crimes such as theft, public order and drug offences. But re-offending rates were high, with more than half of the women having in excess of 30 charges.
The survey, aimed at tracking the needs for women ex-prisoners, was launched last night by Circuit Criminal Court Judge Mary Ellen Ring. Writing in today's Irish Independent, Judge Ring says many of the report's recommendations apply equally for male prisoners.
Judge Ring said the judiciary clearly had a role in the numbers of women in our prisons but "the lack of alternatives ties their hands".
"The consequences of limited drug rehabilitation provision, increasing challenges in relation to housing and social provision along with repeat offending are played out in courtrooms around the country daily," said Judge Ring.
The ACJRD has called for alternatives to custody and a gender-sensitive approach for female offenders.
Maura Butler, ACJRD spokeswoman, said the research – funded by the St Stephen's Green Trust – was an important opportunity to listen to the voices of women ex-prisoners. "Our research brings into sharp focus their enormous personal challenges," said Ms Butler.
Last week, the director general of the Irish Prison Service revealed that seven out of 10 people who enter Irish prisons are unemployed. Michael Donnellan also revealed that 50pc of prisoners have never had a job.