MORE than 1,300 people - many cash-strapped - were sent to Limerick Prison last year for failure to pay fines imposed for road traffic offences and non-payment of the TV licence fee.
It has emerged that a growing number are contacting a local debt support organisation in fear their children will be put into care when a prison sentence is the only option open to them.
Figures obtained by the Limerick Post show that 895 men and 448 women were sent to jail in 2011 for non-payment of fines imposed by the court, mostly for offences such as speeding and road tax.
And this figure may be even higher, as the Prison Service has yet to finalise information for 2011.
A custodial sentence ranging from five days to a month, can be applied by court judges to those who default in payment of a fine.
Prison Service sources confirmed that defaulters are usually processed and sent home the same day, but some do spend a night in custody.
One Limerick man spent a day in a holding cell with six others who had defaulted on fines.
The man - whose business collapsed in the recession - said he simply didn’t have the €600 to pay a fine. The holding cell, he added, smelled of urine.
“Of the seven of us, five were of unblemished character, without a single criminal conviction. And all were in custody because of the recession; we couldn’t pay court fines. Six were in for minor traffic offences”.
Said Seamus Sherlock, founder of Life After Debt, the Limerick Organisation for people in financial trouble.
“I have calls from people terrified about the prospect of prison. I try to tell them that it will more than likely be for a few hours, but all they can see is the word ‘prison,’
“I had one from a woman who was petrified. She saw herself in jail, her children in care and her family home gone. She was frantic with no way of paying the fines, and no matter how I tried to convince her those things wouldn’t happen, she was still terrified”.
Mr Sherlock says that something has to be done.
“The judges hands are tied but it would be much better if people were to do community service. It would be productive, at least”.