Home > Keeping drugs out of prisons: a review of the Irish Prison Service drugs policy and strategy.

Connolly, Johnny and Foran, Sinead and Long, Jean (2006) Keeping drugs out of prisons: a review of the Irish Prison Service drugs policy and strategy. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 18, Summer 2006, pp. 13-14.

PDF (Drugnet Ireland, issue 18) - Published Version

A new strategy document published by the Irish Prison Service (IPS) entitled ‘Keeping drugs out of prisons’ proposes to tackle the use of illicit drugs in Irish prisons by focusing on supply elimination and demand reduction.1 To implement this new strategy, the IPS recognises the need for quality research on the extent and nature of drug misuse within Irish prisons. In his address to the annual conference of the Prison Officers’ Association in Killarney on 4 May 2006the Minister for Justice Michael McDowell reiterated his policy of ‘zero tolerance’ in relation to the use of drugs in prisons.2

Despite a lack of published data, a number of studies conducted with prisoners indicate that there is a readily available supply of drugs in some Irish prisons.3, 4, 5 Reports suggest that visits by friends and family and the throwing of drugs over perimeter walls are among the supply routes used in Mountjoy prison. Another possible source of supply is the trafficking of drugs by prison staff. Responding to a claim by the Inspector of Prisons Mr Justice Dermot Kinlen,6 Minister McDowell has confirmed that a number of prison officers are currently under suspension and facing criminal proceedings in relation to drug smuggling.7 Anecdotal evidence suggests that vulnerable prisoners are pressurised into receiving drugs from visitors or picking up packages of drugs thrown over the perimeter wall. The new strategy document recommends that searches after visits should not be confined to known drug users but should include prisoners who could be intimidated into receiving drugs on a visit.

Current measures in place in Mountjoy prison to prevent the supply of drugs during visits include CCTV cameras, screened visits whereby physical contact between prisoner and visitor is prevented and random searches of prisoners. Prisoners are required to nominate visitors, who must produce identification when entering the prison, in order to reduce the number of visitors giving false names in an attempt to smuggle in drugs. These measures have been included in the new IPS policy and strategy document and are to be extended to all prisons along with new initiatives, including a recommendation that physical contact between visitors and prisoners should not be permitted unless sanctioned by the governor and that any unscreened visits should be booked in advance. 

Mountjoy prison authorities and the Garda Síochána operate in partnership to prevent drugs being thrown into the prison grounds from outside; officers patrol yard areas to intercept packages and prevent prisoners collecting them; and efforts are made to arrest individuals attempting to pass drugs over the perimeter walls from outside the prison. Cases where a prison officer is suspected of smuggling drugs are handled by the gardaí.

A prisoner found to be in possession of illegal drugs is liable to a number of sanctions: evening recreation may be withdrawn for a number of days; future visits may be screened for a given period of time; or remission may be curtailed. The maximum punishment that can be applied is a loss of 14 days’ remission and the loss of all privileges for two months. Similar punishments apply where a prisoner commits a drug-related offence in prison, such as possession of a syringe, sharing a toilet cubicle for drug use or giving a false name to obtain medication.

Searches are a significant part of the attempt to reduce the supply of drugs into Mountjoy prison. Prisoners being committed to prison and those returning from temporary release are strip searched to ensure they are not carrying drugs on their person. Two random searches, where the prisoner and his cell are searched, are conducted on each landing within the prison every day. Prisoners are also sometimes searched after visits. However prison officers do not generally search visitors. Where a visitor is suspected of supplying drugs, the prison will alert the gardaí who handle the matter of searching visitors on their way into the prison. As part of the IPS strategy, passive canine units will be made available to all closed prisons to assist in the detection of drugs within the prison or in the possession of visitors.

The IPS strategy also provides for the introduction of mandatory drug testing (MDT) by the end of 2006.  This will involve 5% to 10% of prisoners being randomly selected for drug testing each month.  A prisoner who refuses to take the test or tests positive for drugs will incur sanctions.8

The IPS recognises that the best way to reduce the demand for drugs in prison is by providing a range of evidence-based treatment options. The prison service has outlined three core tasks to support drug treatment and rehabilitation:

1.   Identifying and engaging with drug users

2.   Providing treatment options

3.   Ensuring continuity of treatment and care following release. 


The core treatment options are:

·      assessment and through-care planning

·      information, education and awareness programmes

·      opiate replacement therapies

·      methadone detoxification and reduction programmes

·      symptomatic treatment options

·      mental health care

·      voluntary drug testing units

·      motivational interventions.

A number of specialised treatment options will also be available in designated prisons, including cognitive behavioural therapy, the 12-step Minnesota model, peer-support programmes and specialised programmes to address drug misuse and re-offending. The treatment approaches will be adapted for prisoners with special needs, including drug users with mental health problems or hepatitis C. The IPS strategy states that there will be a close link between drug treatment services and other health care services to ensure adequate management of mental illnesses and blood-borne viral diseases. The IPS has no harm-reduction strategy for those drug users who continue to use drugs.

At present there are no official statistics regarding the supply of drugs in Irish prisons and no studies have been conducted on the illicit drug market in Irish prisons. As part of its new strategy, the IPS aims to strengthen research in the area of drug misuse in prisons. This research will be based on partnership between the relevant statutory and non-statutory bodies. Policies will include:

  • commissioning and encouraging research on drug misuse in prisons
  • evaluating all programmes and interventions
  • making all research data available to and liasing regularly with the relevant bodies
  • investigating systems to identify and manage patient outcome data
  • evaluating the effectiveness of drug interventions using intervention outcome information.

Research will be used to inform policy makers and service providers in implementing the IPS strategy and to develop models of best practice.

1. Irish Prison Service (2006) Keeping drugs out of prisons: drugs policy and strategy. Dublin: Irish Prison Service.

2. Address by Minister for Justice Michael McDowell TD to the Annual Conference of the Prison Officers' Association, www.progressivedemocrats.ie/press_room/1787/

3. O’Mahony P (1997) Mountjoy prisoners: a sociological and criminological profile. Dublin:  Department of Justice.

4. Long J, Allwright S and Begley C (2004) Prisoner’s views of injecting drug use and harm reduction in Irish prisons. International Journal of Drug Policy, 15: 139–149.

5. Dillon L (2001) Drug use among prisoners an exploratory study. Dublin: Health Research Board.

6. Lally C (2006, 6 May) Five prison officers suspected of drug smuggling. The Irish Times.  Retrieved 15 May 2006 from www.ireland.com

7. Bracken A (2006, 6 May) McDowell confirms suspensions. The Irish Times. Retrieved 15 May 2006 from www.ireland.com

8. For a review of mandatory drug testing, seeConnolly J (2005) Prison rules provide for mandatory drug testing. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 15: 15.

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 18, Summer 2006
April 2006
Page Range
pp. 13-14
Health Research Board
Issue 18, Summer 2006
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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