Irish prisons are struggling to provide "safe custody" for inmates due to overcrowding, the head of the Irish Prison Service (IPS) has revealed.
Caron McCaffrey, director general of the IPS, outlined her concerns in an interview with the Irish Independent.
"There has been a sharp increase in the numbers in custody since 2017, which is a concern for me as director general as overcrowding severely impacts our ability to provide safe custody and rehabilitative services," Ms McCaffrey said.
"In 2018 the average number in custody began to increase. We saw a rise in the number in custody from 3,646 at the end of December 2017 to 3,911 at the end of December 2018.
"This trend continued into 2019 with an increase between January and July from 3,904 to 4,061 on July 31, 2019. To date, as of December 23, 2019, our numbers are 3,948.
"The number of women in our custody has also increased over this period. On December 23, 2019, there were 178 women in custody and 66 on temporary release - a total of 244 in the system," she said.
Ms McCaffrey said the IPS is implementing a number of measures to tackle the increasing problem, including the introduction of a prison population management plan to address rising numbers, which will provide an additional 200 beds early in 2020.
"Additionally, a new replacement wing in Limerick Prison is currently under construction which will provide an additional 90 male beds and 40 female beds in 2021.
"We are currently adding an extra 60 spaces in Wheatfield Prison and 30 extra spaces in the Midlands Prison," Ms McCaffrey said.
Meanwhile the IPS has to manage feuds between dozens of different gangs in the country's jails, including criminals involved in the deadly Hutch/Kinahan feud.
Last year, it emerged there were 28 different gangs and factions operating within Mountjoy Prison alone, with more than 230 prisoners on protection within the prison.
Ms McCaffrey pointed out that the gangs within our prisons have been "identified, targeted and profiled".
"Gang members are being managed on a daily basis through segregation and separation throughout the prison system," she said.
Despite the huge problem of overcrowding in jails, Ireland still has a comparatively low rate of imprisonments at 78 per 100,000, compared to the European average of 127.9.
There has been a major increase in the use of drones to fly drugs and contraband into Irish prisons in the past two years.
Addressing this issue, Ms McCaffrey said: "The prevention of the flow of contraband continues to be a priority for the Irish Prison Service.
"Advances in technology, such as the use of drones, does give rise to additional challenges for the Irish Prison Service and the service is constantly reviewing security arrangements in this regard.
"The Irish Prison Service is currently testing an anti-drone system in one of our Dublin-based prisons.
"This solution has been in place for a number of months and initial findings of this test are positive.
"The operation of this pilot will be evaluated and, should the test prove to be successful, consideration will be given to rolling out this system to other prisons."
In July, it emerged that some IPS staff were breaching rules by being drunk on duty and failing to follow procedures for night checks and escorts.
This led to the IPS announcing that it would publish a new code of ethics - but this has not happened yet.
"We are currently finalising the code of ethical behaviour and hope to have it completed early in 2020," Ms McCaffrey said.