Q: Are the problems in St Patrick’s typical of how the Irish prison system vulnerable offenders?
Prison is to be closed within six months
D Wing cells in St Patrick’s Institution, Dublin. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
The facility on the Mountjoy Campus in Dublin’s north inner city currently houses up to 191 prisoners in the 17-20 age bracket; until last year it also held 16 year olds.
Judge Reilly this week painted a picture of a filthy prison, with some cells so cold inmates were sleeping in their clothes to keep warm.
Last October his report said child prisoners were being moved to isolation cells using head and arm-lock restraint methods. Some were forcibly stripped, at times with the clothes being cut of their backs by staff using knives and leaving injuries.
St Patrick’s is not typical of the prison system. Perhaps the most neglected arm of the State under the last government, it is arguably the most improved under the current Coalition and new Irish Prison Service director general Michael Donnellan.
Progressive policies now offer incentivised regimes for prisoners who behave and rehabilitate. New capital building projects are under way or planned in the worst jails – Limerick, Cork and Mountjoy. The latter has been refurbished with special observation cells, a medical unit and in-cell sanitation.
However, the lingering concern for the system is its apparent inability to cope with housing the vulnerable: the young, the old, the mentally ill and women.
Just beside St Patrick’s is the women’s Dóchas Centre, once the jewel in the crown of the prison system. Women were placed in single berth bedrooms in houses rather than cells. The jail was free of violence, drugs and gangs. Suicide was unheard of, self-harm infrequent. There was constructive work to do, and education and training available. Designed to hold 85 women, it now holds 130, overloading services. Bunk beds have been put into rooms for one, undermining the purpose of the facility that had respect and dignity at its core when first opened.
Prison visiting committee reports have in recent years pointed to the inappropriateness of jailing mentally ill offenders and have outlined shortages of staff trained to assist the mentally vulnerable and mentally ill; some of whom are locked up 23 hours per day because they cannot not hold their own in the regular prison regime.
The number of older prisoners in Irish jails has risen by 70 per cent in the past six years, as gardaí have solved more historical crimes and the judiciary has leaned towards longer sentences.
In the past year, the number of inmates aged 50 or over increased by almost 30 per cent, with some in jail now over 80. Judge Reilly has said the prison service must accept the needs of elderly prisoners require a tailored approach.