I have been informed by the Irish Prison Service that the number of prisoners in custody on 14 June 2012 was 4,493 while the numbers in custody on 22 June, 2011 was 4,433.
As the Deputy will appreciate, the Irish Prison Service must accept all prisoners committed by the Courts into its custody and does not have the option of refusing committals. It should be noted that this is the busiest time of the year for committals prior to the courts being in recess for the summer.
The average number of prisoners in custody in Ireland has risen in the last 5 years, from 3,321 during 2007 to 4,389 during 2011, an increase of over 32%. Likewise the total number of committals to prison has also risen sharply during the same period, from 11,934 in 2007 to 17,318 in 2011 — an increase of over 45%.
Rising prisoner numbers have placed enormous strain on the prison system across the board from accommodation to the provision of services including work training/education, healthcare and drug treatment services. During this period, as a result of the increase in the prison population, a number of prisons are operating well in excess of their stated bed capacities.
There does appear, however, to be a stabilising or levelling off in the increase in prisoner numbers being committed annually with 2011 recording only a 0.8% increase on the previous year. This compares to increases of 13.6%, 13.8% and 11.4% respectively year on year for 2008, 2009 and 2010.
As outlined in the recently published Irish Prison Service Three Year Strategic Plan, it is intended to align the capacity of our prisons in line with the guidelines laid down by the Inspector of Prisons by 2014 in so far as this is compatible with public safety and the integrity of the criminal justice system. In 2012 and the first quarter of 2013 priority will be given to reducing the chronic overcrowding in Mountjoy, Cork, Limerick Prisons and the Dóchas Centre.
Significant investment has taken place in our prison estate in recent years with in excess of 900 new prison spaces having been constructed and brought into use since 2007. A new accommodation block at the Midlands prison which will provide a potential 300 additional spaces as well as additional work training and education facilities is due to become operational in late 2012.
I am also committed to pursuing alternatives to custody. In conjunction with the Probation Service, the Irish Prison Service has commenced the roll out of the Community Return Programme, an incentivised scheme for earned temporary release under which offenders who pose no threat to the community are offered early temporary release in return for supervised community service. On 16 July 2012, 220 prisoners had participated in the scheme with 105 having completed their required periods of community service.