Thursday, 29 January 2004

Questions (19)

Bernard J. Durkan


16 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the number of prison spaces currently required; if he expects to have adequate spaces in the wake of the closure of the Curragh and Spike Island prisons; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2512/04]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform)

The number of spaces required at any given time will clearly depend on the level of crime and the number and duration of sentences imposed by our courts and peaks and valleys will be experienced. As such, a definitive figure is not possible. However, given that crime figures have stabilised and are indeed reducing and that the numbers committed to the prisons from the court system are fairly static, there is no evidence of any strong underlying trend which would suggest a major increase in capacity is warranted. The number in custody on 27 January was 3,168 as against 3,186 for the corresponding date in 2003. However, that is not to say that there are no accommodation issues in the system. For example, some additional accommodation will be required for female prisoners. There is also an urgent acknowledged need to refurbish older facilities to provide both better accommodation and to reduce the usage of multiple occupancy cells.

With regard to the closure of Fort Mitchel and the Curragh, I want to put these matters in their proper context. At the start of this year, the Curragh Place of Detention had capacity for 102 prisoners in 52 cells. Following the closure of the institution, the vast majority of its prisoners were accommodated in single cells in an unused block of the modern Midlands Prison. Approximately 80 prisoners were transferred in this way. As such the closure was largely neutral in its effect. Spaces had been available in the Midlands Prison for some time but, until now, it had not been possible to bring this into operation due to lack of available staff under existing rostering arrangements.

Fort Mitchel Place of Detention also has a maximum capacity of 102 prisoners with many housed in multiple occupancy cells. The prisoners currently housed there are also being transferred to other prisons. The newly-built block in Limerick Prison has room for up to 100 prisoners and will shortly come into commission. Its opening will offset the loss in capacity as a result of the forthcoming mothballing of Fort Mitchel.

The overall position is that closure results in a combined reduction of 204 prison spaces which is largely offset by the opening up of new accommodation in Limerick, 100, and the midlands, approximately 80. The net effect will be to reduce the overall capacity in the system by approximately 25 spaces.

I do not take any reduction in prison capacity lightly and, in an ideal world, we would not have to close Fort Mitchel and the Curragh. We would, on the contrary, be developing new, modern facilities to the highest international standard and providing the long overdue refurbishment of some older institutions. However, we are not in this ideal world and it is frustrating in the extreme to see the money earmarked for these necessary capital projects being devoured by an overtime system which has spiralled out of control. The Government has now called time on this abuse of public money and the House will be aware of the measures which are being implemented to protect the financial future of the prisons and our future investment in the prison system.

In this regard, the Government is committed under its agreed programme to continue with the modernisation of prisons and to the provision of sufficient places so as to avoid serious overcrowding in the future. A review of prison space requirements and a new capital building programme to meet the requirements for the next ten to 15 years is under way. I hope to bring these proposals to Government in the near future.