FOURTEEN out of the country's 15 prisons are now operating at over normal capacity levels.
New figures show that all prisons except Portlaoise are overcrowded on a regular basis.
The problem has previously been blamed for raising tensions within the institutions but Justice Minister Dermot Ahern says that the prison service "does not have the option of refusing committals" once a judge has handed down a jail sentence. The figures show that the overcrowding problem is worst in Mountjoy prison, where wardens are dealing with nearly 700 inmates -- despite the facility having proper room for less than 600.
The Dochas Centre for women is also under considerable pressure with 133 prisoners registered there on June 18, when it should have no more than 85. On that date there were 4,304 prisoners in custody as compared with a bed capacity of 4,066. This represents an occupancy level of 106pc. The prisons that are over capacity include Castlerea, Cloverhill, Limerick and Wheatfield.
St Patrick's Institution, which deals with young offenders, is oversubscribed by five.
The situation across the country's prisons has deteriorated significantly over the past 12 months, during which time the number of people in custody has increased by 432 or 11pc.
"It is the case that there has been a consistent increase in the total prisoner population over recent years," confirmed Mr Ahern. But he argues that overcrowding was an international problem and "not just unique to Ireland".
"The Irish Prison Service has been engaged in an extensive programme of investment in prisons infrastructure which has involved both the modernisation of the existing estate and the provision of extra prison spaces," he said.
Since 1997 in excess of 1,720 new prison spaces have come on stream in the prison system. These include the new prisons in Castlerea, the Midlands, Cloverhill, the Dochas Centre and new accommodation in Limerick, Portlaoise and Castlerea prisons and at the open centres in Shelton Abbey and Loughan House.
There are also plans to provide a further 200 prison spaces in Wheatfield and 300 at the Midlands Prison.
Mr Ahern also says that the proposed Thornton Hall prison will help alleviate the problem.