Built-in 1850, Mountjoy Prison was one of 16 penal facilities spread across Great Britain. It was based on Pentonville Prison, founded in London in 1842, where 420 cells were designed for single occupancy of four wings following the innovative solitary confinement known, at the time, as the ‘silent system’. The initial regime enabled prisoners to isolate themselves completely, not to be corrupted by each other.
A century before the construction of the largest Irish prison, in 1784, the 26 Geo law. III c 24 allowed the Irish government to follow the British example in prisoners’ extradition outside Europe as a legal form of punishment. Transports were organised to Australia until 1853, and over 26,500 convicts were received in the country.
At the time, Mountjoy Prison was considered a model prison. The prisoners were required to leave the cells one hour per day to exercise or attend religious ceremonies. They spent most of the day working in their cells, followed by education services. Mountjoy Prison changed over time. It accommodates now three different facilities: the Dóchas Centre, a female prison, followed by St. Patrick’s Institution and Training Unit.
“Many of the cells designed for single occupancy now accommodate two prisoners”, explains Paul O’Mahony in his study ‘Mountjoy Prisoners A Sociological and Criminological Profile‘ published in 1997. Mountjoy Prison now deals with overcrowding issues caused by the short terms of imprisonment. In Mountjoy Male Prison, there are 667 people in custody, 76 on temporary release and 43 on trial, where the bed capacity is 755, according to the Annual Report 2020 from the Irish Prison Service.
Overcrowding: an urgent issue
Mountjoy Prison is not an exception. According to the Irish Penal Reform Trust, the overcrowding problem in the Irish penal system is directly linked to the short term sentences where, in 2020, about 2.420 prisoners were serving sentences of less than 12 months. Along with this, the IRPT found that conditions behind bars worsened.
The Progress in the Penal System Report 2020 (PIPS) found a significant increase in the short sentences in Ireland’s penal system. The report says a rise by 12 per cent under sentences of less than three months, followed by 7.8 per cent of 3 up to 6 months, and 15.9 per cent under six up to 12 months sentence.
The numbers have been increasing at the same time as remand court cases and trials are taking place in the country. According to the Irish Prison Service, in 2021, 3.849 people were in custody in one of Ireland’s prison institutions, and about 32% of all the convicts were from Dublin county, with 1,692 people in total.