IT would be a “retrograde step” to allow overcrowding to be an issue in Cork's new prison, according to prison officers.
Deputy general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, Jim Mitchell, was speaking at the annual conference of the association in Sligo.
Mr Mitchell told The Echo: “It would be a retrograde step to allow the new Cork prison to become overcrowded like the old prison used to be.”
In recent months, figures in the prison have spiked and the building is regularly at capacity or overcrowded.
On April 3 and 4, there were 305 in the prison, which was designed for a bed capacity of 296 prisoners. And on April 8, there were 303 in the facility.
The prison is currently operating just under capacity, with the numbers having fallen slightly in the past fortnight.
However, there were up to 80 nights last year where prisoners were forced to sleep on mattresses on the floor because of overcrowding.
Figures supplied by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan revealed that there were dates in July when the numbers sleeping on mattresses spiked over 20. On July 3 and 4, there were 21 inmates on mattresses on the floor.
POA president Tony Power said: “Prisoners’ sleeping on mattresses on floors is becoming an all too common sight again but yet our Open Centers remain below capacity. Prisoner numbers have continued to rise year on year from 3,745 in April 2017 to 3,890 in April 2018 and up again to 4049 in April 2019. Taking one landing at the Midlands, initially designed to hold 38 prisoners, it regularly has prisoner numbers in excess of 65 and this is mirrored in many of the prisons.”
He continued: “Overcrowding provides the perfect atmosphere for the bully to thrive and exert huge pressure on vulnerable prisoners in particular to traffic in contraband, including weapons and illegal drugs. Serious violence is often part of the scenario here and we prison officers pay the inevitable price. Overcrowding puts both prisoners and prison officers at unnecessary risk – and this is totally unacceptable.”
He added: “Over the last year overcrowding made an unwelcome return to our prisons – a problem, which always and ever creates major challenges for prison officers on the ground.” And he concluded: “All of us believed this was a historic issue. None of us want a return to the ‘Pack em, Stack em and Rack em days’ of the past, where both prisoners and prison officers pay a heavy price.”
Cork Prison opened in early 2016, replacing the older prison nearby.
Overcrowding had consistently been an issue in the old prison but it had been anticipated that the new prison would operate under capacity.
According to the Irish Prison Service, space is at a premium in Cork prison in recent times because of construction work at Limerick Prison, which means that offenders cannot be transferred from Cork to there. The IPS said it is not practical to send prisoners to other prisons because of proximity from families of the offenders.
However, there have been occasions where prisoners have been transferred to the Midlands to alleviate the issues in Cork.
The conference also heard concerns about staffing levels in prisons because of the number of officers who are retiring or are eligible to retire shortly.
Mr Power welcomed the recent recruitment of new officers but warned that the numbers retiring must be taken into account too.