‘It’s a great move forward for society’: Limerick Prison open new luxury women’s wing

“The transition has been like night and day,” chief officer Shane Kelly said of behaviour at Limerick Prison since a new multimillion euro wing for female prisoners opened this year.

“It’s great to see the advancement. It’s a great move forward for society.”

The spacious, bright, state-of-the-art facility, based on a trauma-informed Scandinavian model which aims to foster rehabilitation and thereby reduce recidivism, came in ahead of schedule and under budget, the Irish Prison Service said. The total cost of the B Division in Limerick’s male prison and the G wing for the new Limerick female prison was €70m.

Rooms with unbarred windows wrap around little gardens and courtyards, some with soothing water features, in the new female prison. Art by local artists adorns walls and hangs below a giant skylight in the bright communal area.

All 56 rooms are designed for single occupancy, with ensuite showers, TVs and telephones, although use of the latter is restricted to either one or two six-minute calls a day, depending on behaviour and engagement with services.

It has eight assisted-living apartments, and it is the first Irish prison with two-room apartments for one person.

Babies — permitted to remain with their mother for the first 12 months of life — can be accommodated.

Scissor Sister murderer Charlotte Mulhall is one of 51 prisoners currently at the new facility.

But many are on short-term sentences for crimes like theft — often fuelled by trauma and addiction.

‘Abusive background’

“Eighty–90% [of female prisoners] come from an abusive background. They’ve been used and abused and treated as a commodity — whether that be forced into the sex industry or used as mules to courier drugs, or to deal drugs for those further up the food chain. 

“There is serious abuse visited on these women that come into prisons, which is not manifest in the larger population of male prisoners that come into the system,” Mr Kelly said.

“[Women] tend to be on shorter sentences, a lot for theft trying to feed a habit. A lot turn to drink and drugs to block out pain after abusive backgrounds.

“A lot of them are finding this [Limerick’s new women’s prison] is the best they’ve ever had in life, which is a terrible reflection of the chaos they’ve endured.

“But if we can use their time here as a bit of a reset — to help them, give them better skills to better serve themselves when they get outside — we now have the facilities to be able to do that […] to try and rectify the issues in their lives and lead better lives upon release.

You judge a society by how it treats its prisoners.”

Mr Kelly worked in Mountjoy Prison from some 20 years before transferring to Limerick.

He remembers when cells had no sanitation or power, leaving prisoners — many of whom were illiterate — trapped alone with nothing but their thoughts in the cell all night, amplifying mental health problems and destructive behaviour.

Self-harm plummeted by some two-thirds after TV and power were introduced to cells, Mr Kelly estimates.

Improvement in behaviour

And with further improvements in facilities in the new women’s wing, behaviour has already improved significantly since women moved in from February.

The building represents a fundamental shift in thinking, technology and design, from the former women’s prison — the E wing — which was first built in 1822.

The old E wing was a 28-bed facility which was operating at 160%-170% capacity for the last two years, Mr Kelly said.

Overcrowding creates its own problems and conflicts.

“There’s frustration in cramped spaces. Here, people have relaxed, decompressed. And they’re more respectful of their own space, there’s greater ownership for their rooms/cells. They were sharing with two to three people in the old E wing.”

On Wednesday, women cycled exercise bikes and used treadmills in the gym — available three times a day seven days a week (men at the prison only have gym access two to three times a week). 

A room for hairdressing training was busy and buzzy, with women styling hair beautifully on mannequins; and a computer room — where women can learn everything from basic computer and literacy skills to Open University qualifications, was also in use, with some women at the prison studying for third-level degrees.

Prison governor Mark Kennedy said prisoners, even those convicted of murder, can be rehabilitated.

“Murder is normally a once-off offence and it’s usually brought around by a certain amount of emotions.

“The female prisoners here, long-term and short-term, there has been trauma in their lives.


“The vast majority of female prisoners that we get come from a background of domestic violence, sexual violence and coercive control, so rehabilitation is the foundation,” Mr Kennedy said.

And we have to work with people because all of the prisoners are going to get out at some stage.

“They’re going to be sitting beside you on the Green Bus or the Luas out to Dublin Airport going on holidays.

“So if we don’t do our job right, and we just lock them up and throw away the key, we’re sending out a different person than if we have a bit of rehabilitation.

“We have 350 prisoners here today [across the male and female prisons], all of them are going to get out at some stage.

“So it is our duty [….] to make sure that we do the best we can with them inside to leave them out into the community.” 

And as the model in the new women’s prison is around rehabilitation rather than heavy security, it has been cheaper to provide than a heavily-securitised model would have been, he said.

Some 24 cells in the former women’s prison wing are also to be refurbished and brought back into use by the male prison. These may be reserved for a certain prisoner cohort, perhaps older male prisoners, as most committals in Munster are aged 18–-26, he said.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee and director general of the Irish Prison Service Karen McCaffrey at the opening of the new women's wing at Limerick Prison. Picture: Brendan Gleeson
Justice Minister Helen McEntee and director general of the Irish Prison Service Karen McCaffrey at the opening of the new women’s wing at Limerick Prison. Picture: Brendan Gleeson

Justice Minister Helen McEntee opened the new facility.

“The opening of Limerick Female Prison marks an important step forward in increasing capacity across the prison estate and helping us build stronger, safer communities,” Ms McEntee said.

“This modern facility reflects our determination to provide an environment that enables prisoners to address the underlying causes of their offending behaviours and helps them reintegrate successfully into society”.

In addition the opening of the new wing at Limerick Prison, more than 200 spaces were provided across the prison estate in the last year, with an additional 96 spaces provided with the reopening of the training unit in Mountjoy, an additional 90 cell spaces with the opening of new male accommodation in Limerick.

Ms McEntee also intends to prioritise four additional short-term capital projects at Castlerea, Cloverhill, the Midlands and Mountjoy that could provide accommodation for a minimum of 620 additional people over the next five years, she said.

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