We need a safer, more humane prison system
OPINION:Murders and slopping-out are facts of Irish prison life. Despite inquiries, our system prefers to defer action
DISCUSSIONS ABOUT imprisonment are often couched in terms of numbers, buildings and budgets. But it is important not to lose sight of the people behind the statistics. One such person is Gary Douch, the young man who was brutally murdered in Mountjoy Prison on August 1st, 2006.
Douch died in a sustained attack in a communal cell. Several other prisoners were present but, according to media coverage at the time, none of them raised the alarm. It was only when they vacated the cell the following morning that the body of Douch was found among the mattresses on the floor.
A commission of investigation was established in May 2007 because the government deemed Douch’s death to raise matters of significant public concern. This followed a report by a former civil servant that identified a number of serious deficiencies.
When then minister for justice Michael McDowell set up this commission, he announced that he expected it to report before the end of the year.
The commission’s final report has yet to appear, 4½ after it was expected.
Not to bring such a tragic set of circumstances to a timely conclusion, for whatever combination of reasons, sends out a powerful negative message about priorities.
The absence of sustained debate that follows events such as the savagery and degradation that characterised Gary Douch’s final hours suggests a deep reservoir of public and political apathy.
By contrast, an inquiry into the murder of a young offender, Zahid Mubarek, by his cellmate in a Young Offender Institution in England was initiated in April 2004. The inquiry’s 700-page two-volume report was published by the House of Commons in June 2006. This followed previous detailed investigations by the prison service and the Commission for Racial Equality.
The UK government committed itself to providing a full response to the report’s 88 recommendations within two months of the publication date.
The time span from the start of the process to the deadline for implementing all of the report’s recommendations was 28 months. This compares with 61 months, and counting, for Douch.
When it comes to prisons in Ireland, there is little follow-through even when clear recommendations are made.
To give just one example, a Prisons Hygiene Policy Group was set up in September 1993. When its report was finally published in 1997, it contained strong language about the necessity for decent conditions.
The group noted that it was planned to provide in-cell sanitation across the board by 1999. It recommended that this deadline should be brought forward and that, in the meantime, 24-hour access to toilets should be provided. Today, one in four prisoners continues to slop out.