Women more likely to have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse prior to entering prison system

A general view of Cloverhill Prison in Dublin

Niamh McGovern

A new report has revealed that women in the Irish prison system are among the most marginalised people in the state, with an estimated 85pc having addiction issues.

Studies suggest women are also more likely than men to have experienced sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust launched the annual ‘Progress in the Penal System’ (PIPS) report for 2022, the sixth such report assessing Ireland’s penal system across standards set in 2017.

The report found the majority of women committed to prison in Ireland are committed on a short-term basis for non-violent offences, with 2021 figures showing that 85 percent of all sentenced committals of women were for 12 months or less.

Acting Executive Director of IPRT, Molly Joyce said: “Not only are Ireland’s two female prisons the most consistently overcrowded in the State, but women in prison are also often detained on shorter sentences for less serious crimes.

“These short periods in prison leave little time for rehabilitation whilst also disproportionately impacting their families, children, and ability to reintegrate back into communities afterwards.”

“We have further seen a significant increase in the average daily number of women in prison, from 104 women in 2002 to 173 women in 2022 (a 65 percent increase over the 20-year period).

“This persistently high daily population of women and subsequent overcrowding are cause for significant concern.”

IPRT has called on the Department of Justice, without delay, to take action to address this continued overreliance on short-sentences in the place of community-based sanctions and for a gender-sensitive approach to be adopted across all stages of the criminal justice system.

The report also identified a number of other issues in the penal system, showing that while there have been some pockets of progress in 2022, such progress, including in the areas of mental health and overcrowding, is at risk of reversal due to a lack of policy implementation.

Ms Joyce added: “There has been some significant progress around our approach to mental health in the criminal justice system in 2022, including through the work of the High Level Task Force to consider the mental health and addiction challenges of those who come into contact with the criminal justice sector and the opening of a new Central Mental Hospital that provides modern forensic mental facilities to patients.

“For too long prison has been the default option for people who experience mental health issues, or the challenges associated with addiction, and the Task Force’s focus on diverting these people from prison is accordingly very welcome.

“That said, mental health remains a deeply pressing issue within our prisons, with approximately 33 percent of prisoners on waiting lists to access psychology services at the start of 2023 and 18 people in prison on the waiting list for the Central Mental Hospital at of the end of December 2022.

“This situation requires urgent action by implementing the recommendations of the Task Force without further delay.”

The report also indicates significant regress on the issue of overcrowding in Irish Prisons, with people sleeping on mattresses and sharing of cells becoming a regular feature across the prison estate.

It was found that there was an 8pc increase in the annual average number of people in prison between 2021 and 2022.

“The increasing numbers of people in prison, and subsequent overcrowding across the prison estate in Ireland, is extremely disappointing,” says Ms Joyce.

“Concerted efforts to successfully reduce the number of people in prison as part of the Covid19 response have now been reversed, resulting in a prison system that is on its knees.

The 2022 report further notes that there was an average of 875 people held on remand in 2022: this compares to an average of 584 people on remand in 2017.

Ms Joyce said that of particular concern is the increasing number of people being held in pre-trial detention, with this year’s report recording a 23 percent increase in the average number of people held on remand between 2021 and 2022 as well as an apparent increase in the length of time people are spending on remand.

“It is important to remember that people who are ‘on remand’ are awaiting trial and have not yet been found guilty of a crime.

“Further information is needed to understand why the remand prison population is increasing and – more crucially – work must be done to expand the various alternatives to remand that are available. This could include, for example, expanding bail support schemes that enable a person to remain in the community while awaiting trial.”

Additionally, while the PIPS 2022 report acknowledges the progress made in strengthening Ireland’s inspection and accountability mechanisms, IPRT remains concerned that a number of reports submitted by the Inspector of Prisons in regards specific issues in the Dóchas Centre remain unpublished by the Minister for Justice.

“Refusal to publish these reports ties into bigger issues with accountability and transparency in our penal system, and IPRT reiterates our calls for the reports to be published without further delay,” added Ms Joyce.

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