There has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of people being sent to prison for sexual offences in the last five years.
According to figures from the Irish Prison Service (IPS), there are 646 people in prison for sexual offences, representing over 15 per cent of the total prisoner population. The IPS also said that 22 per cent of sex offenders in prison are under the age of 35.
The rise in people serving sentences for sexual offending has been identified as one of the factors driving overcrowding across the prison estate. In the last year, overall prison numbers have increased by 23 per cent.
In 2018 172 people were sent to prison for sexual offending, mostly for rape and sexual assault. By last year, that number had risen to 258.
The increase is being partially driven by number of people being sentenced to ten years or more, indicating an extremely serious sexual offence. Last year there were 26 such sentences handed down, double the figure for 2018.
The IPS has also noted an increase in young people serving sentences for sexual assault and pointed out that 22 per cent of sex offenders in prison are under the age of 35.
People with severe mental health problems who should be receiving treatment in hospital are also contributing to capacity issues. Last year a new, larger Central Mental Hospital (CMH) was opened in north Dublin to accommodate mentally ill people who have committed offences.
Despite this, there are 18 prisoners waiting on a bed in the hospital. Four of these prisoners are on what is known as “barrier handling”, meaning they can only be moved about the prison accompanied by a team of officers with riot gear and shields.
“The reality is those people are gravely unwell. They’re psychotic, they shouldn’t be in a custodial setting, we can’t provide them with the treatment they need to get better,” said IPS Director General Carol McCaffrey.
She said one of these prisoners has been on the waiting list for a CMH bed for two years.
“That has a hugely detrimental effect within the prisoner environment. It contributes to results, but it also diverts staff away from providing services to other prisoners”.
Ms McCaffrey said up to 50 per cent of prisoners are either engaging with psychiatric services or are on a waiting list. Just under 1,400 prisoners are on the waiting list to be seen.