A confession of failure

Mon, Jul 8, 2013, 01:00

The closure of St Patrick’s Institution for Young Offenders and the sacking or prosecution of those prison officers who abused or assaulted inmates cannot come quickly enough. For decades, prison chaplains complained about worsening conditions in the prison system as successive governments pursued a “zero tolerance” approach to crime. Ten years ago, conditions at Mountjoy and Portlaoise were so appalling an Inspector of Prisons recommended they should be closed. Nothing happened. Now, Judge Michael Reilly has suggested a similar fate for St Patrick’s and Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has accepted the recommendation. It raises questions about standards of care in all prisons.

Governments closed their eyes to conditions in Irish jails and senior officials and managers presided over a gradual erosion in staff discipline as overcrowding became endemic and working conditions deteriorated. A culture of bullying, assault and a perceived immunity to censure was identified at St Patrick’s last year by Judge Reilly and, in spite of the appointment of new management and efforts to change those practices, the situation was finally regarded as hopeless. Closure and the transfer of inmates was adopted as the least damaging option.

This decision represents an official confession of failure. It acknowledges that a group of prison officers were so out of control they successfully resisted efforts to introduce necessary reforms and make them answerable for their behaviour towards prisoners. This belief in an immunity from inspection and sanction has worrying echoes within the Garda Síochána. An Oireachtas Committee was advised by the Garda Ombudsman Commission last week that changes recommended by the Morris tribunal had not been adopted and that gardaí were routinely unwilling to respond to complaints against them.

Transferring the inmates from St Patrick’s Institution represents a despairing move by the authorities. And it may not resolve the problems that have been identified. Drug abuse and gang tensions were greater there than in any other prison. A quarter of inmates were locked up for their own protection, many for 23 hours a day. And there was constant, low-level, official abuse of prisoners. If the officers responsible for those abuses move with the inmates to Wheatfield Prison, can any assurance be given that attitudes will change? And if they remain at St Patrick’s after it is incorporated into Mountjoy Prison, the same question arises.

Physical conditions within prisons have improved in recent years and important administrative reforms are under way. Success, however, will depend on support from that majority of prison officers who carry out their duties in a humane and caring fashion.

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