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Prisons full of people unable to pay fines

Six men crammed the tiny concrete cell, no larger than the bathroom of a Corporation two-up two-down.

Three were on a short concrete bench, two squatted on a ventilation pipe, while the sixth stood against the wall, tapping his toes impatiently. We were four hours into the admissions process at Cork Prison, we were bored, and we were worried.

There was a smell of stale urine in the cell, and a suspicious-looking puddle spread across the floor.

Then the door opened and an extra man joined us. We were the Magnificent Seven, the new admissions on Monday morning. Already the prison -- which holds 200 -- had 314 inmates. We would bring that to over 320.

And yet of the seven of us, five were men of unblemished character, without a criminal conviction. And all seven were in custody because of the recession; we couldn't pay court fines. Six of us were facing fines for minor traffic offences. Among all the new admissions, there wasn't a single criminal conviction.

Welcome to the new Ireland.

According to gardai, more and more people are being jailed over fines, choking up the prison system. Every night inmates sleep on the floors of overcrowded cells.

The Government has unveiled controversial plans to begin releasing 12,000 inmates over the next three years to bring the problem under control.

But the underlying issue of people not being able to pay fines will continue to grow, and people will continue to be jailed for non-payment. It is very simple; when you are fined you are given time in lieu, and if you do not pay the fine, you have to serve that time. It is normally five days, or 14 days for more serious offences. But the sentences run concurrently, so if you have 10 parking fines, each carrying a five-day sentence, that adds up to just five days.

If you do the time the fines are wiped out -- unlike debts. And you don't end up with a criminal record. With the overcrowding situation fine defaulters are normally released the same day, or held for a few days at most.

The seven in the holding cell were a fair cross-section of the new prisoners. One man was facing three months after Revenue Commissioners found €60,000-worth of illegal cigarettes in his house. He had been out of trouble for 27 years, but had spent 15 years in prison in his earlier life. Another man had spent a number of years in prison, but was in this time over traffic fines. Two had done a day for fines in the past. The other three were prison virgins, facing incarceration for the first time.

One had a pub until smoking bans, drink driving enforcement and rising costs put him out of business. He went to England looking for work, then returned to find he had been fined for traffic offences in his absence. Having no way of paying the €1,900, he chose the option of 14 days.

Another man was facing five days, again after being sentenced in his absence while he was in England looking for work.

The other three (myself included) were in to purge fines for offences as heinous as talking on a mobile while driving, speeding, or driving without tax.

The day began early. A garda warrant officer dropped me to the prison at 9.30am. I was placed in a small holding cell just inside the big double gates. It was about six foot by four foot, with thick bars facing on to the open, rain-swept yard. After two hours I had been joined by three others -- including the cigarette smuggler. We were finally brought into the main prison, where he was greeted like a long-lost friend by a dozen voices. The rest of us were ignored by the real prisoners.

We were placed in the small holding cell, with the urine-soaked floor, for another two hours. One by one more people joined us until the entire Magnificent Seven were assembled. At one stage we were given a carton of milk each, and a plate of coddle. The cutlery was plastic, in case we were tempted to start a fight.

Finally, around 2.30, we were brought upstairs and signed in. A warden weighed us, and then we were separated. The publican was told that he was not going to be released. He was marched to the showers.

After a shower he was put in a prison uniform (sneakers, jeans, vest and pale green jumper) and taken to the corridor, where he would spend the next few days, probably on the floor of a cell with two guys doing longer sentences for 'proper' crimes.

The rest of us were put in yet another holding cell for another couple of hours. Finally, around four o'clock, I was called out. A decision had been made in my case; I was being given a full temporary release. I signed the form. For the next 14 days I undertook to stay out of trouble, not to frequent licensed premises and not to associate with unsavoury characters.

Throughout the entire ordeal no one told us what was happening, or whether we would be held or released. It was a boring but tense day with doubt as to the final outcome right to the end. But the gardai and prison staff treated everyone with courtesy at all times. It is a day many more Irish people will go through over the next year.

Sunday Independent