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jailhouse shock Increase in numbers jailed leads to Covid-19 concerns among prison population

'There are people within prison who don't actually need to be there'

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A rise in the prison population has increased fears of the spread of Covid (FILE PHOTO)

A rise in the prison population has increased fears of the spread of Covid (FILE PHOTO)

A rise in the prison population has increased fears of the spread of Covid (FILE PHOTO)

A steady increase in the number of people in custody since the beginning of the year has led to concerns around the spread of Covid-19 among Ireland's prison population. 

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) said that with figures slowly rising to nearly 4,000, there is a knock-on impact on both managing Covid within prison and also on rehabilitative opportunities.

Molly Joyce, deputy director of the IPRT, told Newstalk Breakfast that at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a relatively swift reduction in the prison population - by about 10 per cent in the first month in March 2020.

"That figure has remained relatively static since then, but unfortunately since the beginning of this year we've started to see a slow creep upwards,” she said.

"So we're now, in March 2022, we're seeing over 3,900 people in prison consistently this month.

"I guess the concern is that that's going to continue upwards and... the knock-on impact that that will have on both managing Covid within the prisons - but also on all of the rehabilitative opportunities within prison."

She says it is not clear why the prison population is climbing so quickly.

"We actually aren't clear about what the reasons are for the numbers increasing - we have a lack of information generally about our prison trends, and about sentencing trends in Ireland.

"It's not clear sometimes why the numbers are increasing.

"But the other aspect of this is that what we see in IPRT, and what we hear, is that there are people within prison who don't actually need to be there.

"Their offending could be better addressed within the community.

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"And in particular what we've identified is that between 2017 and 2020, the courts handed down more short-term sentences of less than 12 months than community service orders.

"But the difficulty is we don't know why that's the case".

And she says proposals for minimum sentences for serious crimes, contained in the 2022 Justice Plan, could actually be beneficial.

"Our view would be that that is something that potentially could actually be of benefit, in the sense that people sentenced to life at the moment currently don't know how long they're actually going to serve.

"So it could be of benefit to them to actually have a minimum sentence imposed - it means they know how long they're actually going to serve.

"But the key thing that we would say is that it shouldn't be set out in legislation, any minimum tariff, that it should be at the discretion of the judge."

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