THE Government clashed with the Opposition last night over their interpretation of figures on the seizure of mobile phones in prisons.
Fine Gael's justice spokesman Charlie Flanagan said statistics showing there were 2,174 mobile phones seized in the jails last year and a further 88 already this year were an "appalling indictment" on the policies adopted by Justice Minister Dermot Ahern to tackle the problem.
Mr Flanagan said it was proof positive that the problem of criminals communicating with associates on the outside was ongoing and that they were continuing to thumb their nose at the law banning their use behind bars.
However, the claim was described as ludicrous by Department of Justice officials, who said the seizures showed that the tough search measures being adopted in the prisons were working.
One official said: "It would be far more worrying if there were no seizures as that would suggest that the measures were not effective."
He pointed out that prison officers were constantly foiling attempts to smuggle phones into the jails and also confiscating them from prisoners.
Gardai were notified of the seizures and their inquiries had already resulted in a number of prisoners, including high profile inmates, being prosecuted and brought before the courts.
The official said: "It's a bit like suggesting that an increase in drug seizures represents a failure by the authorities. It would be of much more concern if nothing was being seized."
But Mr Flanagan said convicted criminals were making a mockery of the penal system.
"The drug trade continues to fuel gangland crime and already this year five people have been murdered in what is an appalling crime spree," he added.
Special search squads have been set up in the prison service and airport-style screening measures installed at the entrances to the targeted jails.
And a database on all visitors to prisons is to be introduced in the coming weeks.
Visitors must book visits in advance and provide identification on each visit.
Testing and training on an electronic-booked visits databank has taken place and the aim is "go live" in the spring.
A pilot database was set up in Wheatfield last year and has proven to be a big success.
Apart from helping to counteract smuggling of contraband, such as drugs, weapons and phones, it has shown to be six times faster than its manual predecessor, catering for the same volume of visitors.