Ireland needs brand-new prison to improve 'inhumane' conditions - McDowell

“We actually do need to tackle the problem of Mountjoy." - Michael McDowell on prison overcrowding.
Michael Staines
Michael Staines

13.04 28 Apr 2023

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Ireland needs brand-new prison...

Ireland needs brand-new prison to improve 'inhumane' conditions - McDowell

Michael Staines
Michael Staines

13.04 28 Apr 2023

Share this article

Ireland needs to build a brand-new prison in Dublin to improve the ‘inhumane’ conditions inmates are currently facing, according to a former Justice Minister.

Senator Michael McDowell was speaking after it emerged that hundreds of prisoners are being forced to sleep on the floors in Irish prisons due to a lack of bed capacity.

Yesterday, interim Justice Minister Simon Harris told the Prison Officer Association (POA) Conference he had sent a memo to Cabinet asking for approval for four capital projects that would deliver 400 new beds by 2028.


On The Pat Kenny Show this morning, Senator McDowell said the country needs to think bigger.


“The Irish State has not kept up to par with what has been happening in our population with overall numbers,” he said.

“You know it has gone up in recent years from 3.8 or 3.9 to 5.1 million people.”

He noted that changes in criminal sentencing were also having an impact – with judges handing down longer sentences, particularly for sexual crimes.

He said Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison is no longer capable of properly accommodating its prison population – and replacing it with a brand-new facility somewhere else would free up “20 acres in the heart of Dublin that could be used for something else”.

"Throwing good money after bad"

Senator McDowell noted that the Thornton Hall site which was purchased to build a new prison while he was justice minister is still lying idle.

He said plans to invest further in Mountjoy upgrades is “throwing good money after bad”.

“I mean, if you want to have, say, an outdoor football pitch, if you want a running track - these are for young offenders - if you want separation between different units in the prison, or the capacity to keep different groups of prisoners apart and different types of prisoners apart and if you want to build adequate hospital facilities, including psychiatric facilities, for a lot of prisoners, you simply can’t do it in Mountjoy.

“It is a waste of money doing what the prison service is now thinking of doing which is knocking down its isolation unit and building a replacement over the next few years.

“That is throwing good money after bad.”

The former minister said he agrees with the Irish Penal Reform Trust in its insistence the prison is not always the most effective response to crime – with sentences like community service often cheaper and more effective.


“I’m not in favour of just building prisons as the first option but I’m saying now that there is no option but to build a humane prison system – and the site is there,” he said.

“Rebuilding parts of Mountjoy is a mistake.

“Even the women’s system in Mountjoy - the Dóchas centre - is grossly overcrowded. There are five women there in one cell in some cases.

“To have people - you know 150 to 200 people - lying on the floor in prisons and to have bunkbeds piled up in cells is inhumane.

“We are going to get a fairly hefty rap on knuckles from the United Nations Committee on Torture if we don’t address these issues.

“Going ahead as we are, is not an option.”


Senator McDowell describes calls to reopen the Curragh army prison in Kildare and build modular housing in the country’s low-security prisons as ‘Elastoplast of Band-Aid solutions’.

“We actually do need to tackle the problem of Mountjoy,” he said.

“We need to have a prison campus near Dublin which is adequate to deal with the prison population that we have and that is likely to keep increasing no matter what anybody says.”

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