Inmates on temporary release at record level
The number of prisoners let out on temporary release from the nation's jails for the weekend has reached the highest total for more than a decade.
Intense pressure on cell space has forced the prison authorities to set free 822 inmates to prevent an accommodation crisis in the jails.
They account for over 16pc of the current prison population, which last night reached 4,957.
Last year the daily average figure for prisoners on temporary release (TR) was 519, representing 13pc of the overall total. During the year the total number in custody increased by 10pc, or 379 inmates.
But the pressure on accommodation has increased further in the first three months of this year because of the steady rise in sentenced and remand prisoners.
This has resulted in TR numbers reaching a height not seen since the late 1990s. The numbers rose to a maximum of 22.2pc in 1994 as the then cabinet was unable to make funding available to its Justice Minister Nora Owen for a prison-building programme.
The delays to the proposed new campus at Thornton Hall in north county Dublin -- replacing the Mountjoy complex, and the planned jail at Kilworth in county Cork -- has meant that the authorities have been struggling to cope with the influx from the courts in the past couple of years.
The rise in the strength of the garda force has led to an unprecedented increase in the number of suspects charged while reforms of the legislation and the judicial process have resulted in longer sentences being imposed for serious crime and trials being completed more quickly in the courts.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern has acknowledged that the cell-space problem in the longer term will not be tackled properly until Thornton and Kilworth have been built.
Fine Gael justice spokesman Charlie Flanagan said the weekend's temporary releases provided further evidence that the Government did not have a prison policy.
"Temporary release is being used by the Government in an unprecedented way as a valve to mask the overcrowding of the country's jails," he said.
A Prison Service spokesman said: "Temporary release arrangements operate similarly to a system of parole, which is a feature of prison systems worldwide."