FOURTEEN new cells have been added at the women's section of Limerick Prison since inspectors for the Strasbourg-based Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) visited Mulgrave Street a year ago.
Their report for the Council of Europe, published last week, criticised the practice of three women being held in cells designed for one. As well as overcrowding, the report said there was an inadequate range of activities for women behind bars in Limerick Prison.
But in its response to the CPT report, the Government outline a number of improvements. This notes additional activities for the women concerned, although women are not always willing to participate in prison programmes.
A spokesman for the Prison Service also told the Limerick Leader than 14 new cells, making 23 in total, had been opened on Mulgrave Street in early November.
When the CPT inspected the prison on January 30, 2010 they found 22 women incarcerated in nine cells designed for single occupancy.
"The 'single-occupancy cells' always appeared to accommodate two women and frequently held three, with the third inmate either sleeping on a mattress on the floor or sharing a bed with a cellmate," the report stated.
"A sliding modesty screen for the toilet provided prisoners with a degree of privacy from officers looking into the cell; however, it provided no privacy from other inmates with whom they shared the cell. Further, inmates complained about the state of hygiene in the cells, notably that the toilets had no cover seats and in some cases did not flush properly; the lack of detergent products hindered efforts to keep cells clean (especially given the bubble-like plastic flooring).
"Two showers were flooded due to drainage problems and only dispensed tepid water, deficiencies which had been brought to the attention of the prison management on numerous occasions."
In response, the Government stated that the 14 new cells opened in November were all "single occupancy and have been fitted with a toilet and wash hand basin combination unit".
"Two additional class rooms have also been provided as part of the refurbishment," it stated. All prisoners had access to cleaning products and detergents, it added.
Women who met the CPT inspectors last year also complained of having few activities to keep them occupied. Access to the prison school and gym were restricted in favour of the "much larger male prison population" and inmates said they hadn't been allowed their weekly one-hour gym session in the six weeks prior to the inspection because of staff shortages.
The Government responded that "every effort is being made to increase access female prisoners have to the recently constructed, purpose-built education block.Efforts are also continuing to encourage these prisoners to participate in the activities".
Activities now available to women included kitchen work and cleaning, art/ceramics, crafts, computers and gym classes.Women now had their own exercise yard and "can also now attend mass and the tuck shop on a Sunday morning in the main prison".
When female overcrowding was criticised in previous official reports, the Prison Service said a potential solution was moving all women inmates to the proposed new "super-prison" for Munsternear Kilworth, North Cork.
The Government response to the ICT acknowledges the funds are not there to build Kilworth and Thornton Hall and complete its modernisation programme.
Speaking in Limerick last week, Labour justice spokesman Pat Rabbitte said of the Kilworth project that the "Government has plans but no money".
Labour favours moving women prisoners and non-violent offenders into open prisons, which Deputy Rabbitte said would save €30 million a year.
New cells have been opened for women at Limerick Prison since an inspection by a European human rights group