Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

9: Single-cell accommodation (2019)

Standard 9:

Every prisoner has access to single-cell accommodation.


It is important that prisoners have the choice of single-cell accommodation. Access to single-cell accommodation promotes a prisoner’s right to privacy, and helps reduce violence.

Current context:

The importance of single-cell accommodation has been highlighted by the Mountjoy Prison Visiting Committee:

The value of single cell accommodation cannot be overstated, reflecting a commitment to the dignity and privacy of the person.[197]

Based on 2019 Census figures, Mountjoy Prison has retained its commitment to single-cell occupancy and therefore can be viewed as an example of domestic good practice.[198]

Overall, approximately 50% of the prison population have their own cell. However, as a result of prison overcrowding, in May 2019 the Director General of the IPS said a current audit would identify cells that were “capable of holding two prisoners that are only occupied by one”.[199] This measure is expected to give up to an additional 100 spaces across the prison estate.

Additional information provided by the IPS states that a: “Cell Audit is ongoing, the IPS have measured every cell (in closed prisons) in the country as a means of establishing where extra capacity might be created without the need for ‘new builds’.”[200]

Indicators for Standard:

Indicators for Standard 9

Indicator S9.1: Number and percentage of people accommodated in a single cell.

Census figures from April 2017, 2018 and 2019 show the number of prisoners in single-cell accommodation; this is presented in the table below.

Prisoners in single, double, triple and quadruple cells, 2017–2019[201]

2017 2018 2019
No. (%) in a single cell 2,040 (54%) 2,047 (53%) 2,021 (50%)
No. in a double cell 1,396 (in 698 cells) 1,364 (in 682 cells) 1,581 (in 791 cells)
No. in a triple cell 240 (in 80 cells) 333 (in 111 cells) 342 (in 114 cells)
No. in a quadruple cell* 74 (in 16 cells) 150 (in 38 cells) 99 (in 25 cells)


In order to ensure that single-cell accommodation becomes a reality, the number of people in prison needs to be reduced. Until 1983, it was required that prisoners be held in single-cell accommodation, when a decision taken by the Minister for Justice led to the removal of the relevant provision in the Prison Rules 1947.[202] Following an investigation into the killing of Gary Douch in Mountjoy Prison in 2006, a number of recommendations were made on the importance of single-cell accommodation, including the elimination of enforced cell sharing as a high priority.[203] Today, Mountjoy Prison has maintained its commitment to single-cell occupancy.[204] However, it is far from becoming standard practice across the estate.

IPRT acknowledges that the IPS does not see ‘new builds’ as the solution to overcrowding. However, neither should the doubling up of cells be used to address this issue. The CPT’s minimum standard for personal living space in prison establishments is six metres squared for a single occupancy cell, plus sanitary facilities, and four metres squared of living space per prisoner in a multi-occupancy cell, as well as a fully partitioned sanitary facility.[205] At a minimum, these standards should be met.

The overall objective of reducing prisoner numbers is critical to achieving single-cell occupancy, a goal laid out in many reports.[206] As recently as 2018, the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality recommended:

Prisons should aim for an accommodation policy of one person, one cell, and the necessary resources should be made available to realise this aspiration.[207]

However, achieving this goal requires an inter-agency response that addresses broader social issues for those coming into contact with the penal system.
If responsibility is not taken by other bodies, prisons will continue to detain people due to failed social policies, and the aspiration of single-cell accommodation will not be met.

Status of Standard 9: Regress

Progressive Practice:

Progressive practice regarding single-cell occupancy: Bodo and Ullersmo prisons, Norway

Bodo Prison is a closed prison and has one additional open unit.[208] It has an official capacity of 56 places, while Ullersmo Prison accommodates prisoners serving long sentences.[209] The latter has an official capacity of 213 places.[210] Most cells in both prisons are single cell and measure between eight and 10 metres squared, which is above the CPT’s minimum requirements.[211]

Actions required:

Action 9.1 The IPS should ensure it meets the CPT’s minimum standard for personal living space in prison establishments, and continue to work towards single-cell occupancy throughout the prison estate.


Irish Penal Reform Trust


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