Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

3: Safe custody limits (2019)

Standard 3:

Every closed prison is operating at least 10% below its recommended maximum capacity.


Safe custody limits ensure the safety of both prisoners and staff. Prisoners should not be detained in overcrowded conditions as it is unsafe and may result in detrimental consequences.[140]

It is important that published capacity figures reflect the lived reality in Irish prisons, and that figures do not distort that reality – for example, the impact on capacity as a result of closures for refurbishments of prison wings. The impact of overcrowding is reduced quality of living conditions, as well as adverse effects on prisoners’ privacy.

Current context:

On 31 July 2019, official capacity of the prison estate was recorded as 4,244, including both closed and open prisons.[141] Prison occupancy levels based on official capacity was recorded at 95.7%.[142]

During 2018 and 2019, a number of prisons exceeded the OiP’s recommended capacity levels, on a regular basis.[143] Exceeding capacity has been a persistent feature for the two women’s prisons, Dóchas and Limerick Female Prison, which have operated at 110% and 163% respectively.[144]

In the UK, the Justice Committee defines ‘usable operational capacity’ as:

…the sum of all establishments’ operational capacity less 2,000 places. This is known as the operating margin and reflects the constraints imposed by the need to provide separate accommodation for different classes of prisoner i.e. by sex, age, security category, conviction status, single cell risk assessment and also owing to geographical distribution.[145]

Currently, both the OiP and IPS provide diverging capacity levels, as can be seen from Indicator S3.1. The OiP has not published or updated maximum capacity levels since 2013.[146]

According to information received by the IPS, close supervision cells and safety observation cells are not included in capacity figures.[147]

The IPS acknowledges that the actual number of beds in commission may not match official operational capacity figures due to factors such as renovation, window installation/replacement programmes and cells temporarily out of commission for maintenance reasons.[148]

On 16 April 2019, the number of usable operational cells across the estate was recorded at 3,149.[149] The prison population on the same date was 4,043.[150]

Indicators for Standard:

Indicators for Standard 3

Indicator S3.1: Each closed prison operating at least 10% below capacity:[151]

Prison Numbers in Custody 10th of April 2019 Prison Capacity % Bed Capacity Capacity per OiP[152] OiP Occupancy Rate
Arbour Hill 137 138 99% 131 105%
Castlerea 319 340 94% 300 106%
Cloverhill 421 431 98% 414 102%
Cork 299 296 N/A N/A Not provided
Limerick (m) 224 210 107% 185 121%
Limerick (f) 39 28 139% 24 163%
Midlands 854 845 101% 870 98%
Mountjoy (M) 691 755 92% N/A Not provided
Mountjoy (F) 129 105 123% 105 123%
Portlaoise 230 291 79% 291 79%
Wheatfield 505 550 92% 550 92%
Total 3,848 3,989

*Not Provided: refers to capacities that have not been set by the Inspector of Prisons.


On 10 April 2018, three prisons (Portlaoise, Castlerea and Wheatfield) were operating 10% below IPS capacity. On the same date in 2019, Portlaoise was the only prison of the three operating 10% below both OiP and IPS published capacity levels.

Given the capacity levels outlined above, the vast majority of closed prisons are operating at unsafe levels. The CoE, in its White Paper on Prison Overcrowding, demonstrates the need to treat capacity levels above 90% as urgent:

If a given prison is filled at more than 90% of its capacity this is an indicator of imminent prison overcrowding. This is a high risk situation and the authorities should feel concerned and should take measures to avoid further congestion.[153]

In the past, other countries such as Norway have placed a large number of prisoners on a waiting list before they could serve their sentence due to a lack of prison space.[154]

Unsafe custody limits or overcrowding conditions in prisons lead to an elevated risk of violence. Overcrowding was previously identified as a critical factor that resulted in the death of Gary Douch in Mountjoy prison[155]. The Report of the Commission of Investigation into the Death of Gary Douch concluded that measures should be taken to reduce and eliminate overcrowding within a definitive time period. This recommendation is a reminder of the urgent attention required to ensure that all prisons are operating at safe custody limits.

The Commission of Investigation also emphasised the importance of reflecting true prison capacity:

Statistics on prison capacity should be presented in a manner that accurately reflects the capacity of a prison to house prisoners in accommodation which meets acceptable standards.[156]

As the limits set by the OiP were established in 2013, IPRT believes that these limits now need to be revised and updated. IPRT believes that the ideal safe custody limit should be one person per cell.

Status of Standard 3: No Change

Progressive Practice:

Progressive practice on overcrowding

In 2019, the CoE held a high-level conference on prison overcrowding.[157] A key finding from the conference was that collectively, participants considered reducing overcrowding in prisons as a shared responsibility among prosecutors, judges, prisons and probation services, as well as members of the government responsible for the prison service.[158] A number of solutions were offered by the Nordic and Latvian experiences in addressing overcrowding, summarised below.[159]

Reducing prison populations is possible. Doing this requires long-term work, political will, careful law planning and drafting (including impact assessment on costs and benefits), as well as effective implementation among practitioners and effective follow-up mechanisms.

Reducing prison populations requires effective alternatives to imprisonment such as community sanctions and other measures.

Reducing prison populations requires measures to prevent recidivism and facilitate reintegration – for example interventions based on the ‘normality principle’, such as education and vocational training and treatment programmes.

The approach also requires multi-agency cooperation, including co-operation between prison management and other authorities.

Actions required:

Action 3.1 In 2020, the OiP should review prison capacities and set safe custody limits for each prison.
Action 3.2 Legislators should consider introducing legislation that would allow governors to refuse to take prisoners once a prison exceeds safe custody limits.
Action 3.3 The IPS should publish figures that reflect actual prison capacity, taking into consideration the impact of closure of cells and wings.


Irish Penal Reform Trust


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