The average daily population of women in prison has been up to 160 or 170 “on a consistent basis”, IPRT’s executive director Liam Herrick said on RTE’s Morning Ireland.
But the total capacity in women’s prisons is at around 130 places – with 105 places in Dochas centre in Mountjoy and up to 28 places in Limerick women’s prison,
Yesterday Judge Seamus Hughes in Athlone criticised the release of a woman described as a serial thief who’d been sentenced to six months but was released after just three days.
The judge called the women’s prisons a “carousel” or “revolving door” which gives “no protection to the people of Athlone”.
The governor of Dochas, Mary O’Connor said however that the prison was full “all the time”.
Mr Herrick said the number of women committed to prison and the number of people in prison on a given day has “risen steadily” over the last number of years.
The number of committals has risen by a third in the last three years, during a period when the number of men being sent to prison has levelled off, he said.
“It’s not an issue about crime; it’s not an issue about capacity. There’s an issue about why more and more women are being sent to prison.”
The majority of women – 80 per cent - are being sent to prison for non-violent offences, and 75 per cent are sent to prison for non-payment of fines.
Some 25 per cent of women are in prison on remand, awaiting trial. While in the general prison population, 13 per cent are on remand.
“There is a particular cohort of women that are being committed to prison, that are not getting bail because of very disrupted lifestyles to do with mental health and are also being committed to prison because they are committing a series – very often high numbers – of minor crimes which are linked to addiction and mental health and homelessness problems,” he told Morning Ireland.
He said prisons were forced to release prisoners to relieve overcrowding because “they have to accept prisoners from the court”.
Mr Herrick said one problem is that prisoners on remand can’t get temporary release, so even in the case of minor crimes, the prisoner will stay in prison awaiting trial.
He said there is a particular problem “concentrated” in Dublin and other urban centres of women who are homeless with mental health and addiction problems, who are not getting services in the community.
Courts are sending women to prison for short periods of time “through frustration” because they don’t have proper respite centres available to them, he said.
The solution is in social services centres, where prisoners will get a “one stop shop” for addiction, homelessness and mental health problems, Mr Herrick stressed.
Women are going into jail for respite and for problems in the community which should be addressed outside of jail, he said.