Minister shocked by Limerick Prison conditions

Wed, Jan 18, 2012, 00:00

LOW-LEVEL INTIMIDATION of prisoners by some prison officers, overcrowding, filthy cells and broken windows are among the most serious problems in Limerick Prison, according to the inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly.

His latest report has just been published on the Department of Justice website, and the Minister, Alan Shatter, has said he was “disappointed and indeed shocked” that deficiencies the inspector previously identified were not addressed by prison management.

The director general of the prison service, Michael Donnellan, said an action plan had been put in place to rectify the issues raised.

Referring to the low-level abuse and intimidation of prisoners by a small number of prison officers, Judge Reilly said this included reference to prisoners’ ethnic background, shouting, threats of transfer to other prisons, not respecting confidentiality issues and goading of some prisoners.

He said this attitude was not confined to Limerick Prison. While it might be difficult to identify the perpetrators, this should not be an excuse for not dealing with such undisciplined conduct.

He said the prison’s condition was not due to its age. While A and B divisions, containing 55 cells, dated to 1821, the remainder, including 157 cells, a new school, medical centre, gym and recreation hall, were either of recent vintage or had been refurbished.

The older parts of the prison were physically in the worst condition, with no in-cell sanitation. Most areas in them were severely overcrowded, dirty and unhygienic. Windows in all the cells were broken, letting in rain. Despite this the air quality was still inadequate, as prisoners tried to block the windows in winter.

“This is exacerbated by the smell of sewage, which permeates most cells,” he said. In some cells there were no individual slop-out pots and prisoners had to share pots. The situation was worsened for prisoners in B division, who were effectively locked down for up to 23 hours a day. He acknowledged these conditions were exacerbated by the issue of gangs in the prison. “A and B divisions are not, in their present state, fit for purpose,” he said. “The continued incarceration of prisoners in these divisions is inhuman and degrading.”

Among immediate actions he recommended be taken were toilet patrols, escorting of prisoners in cells with no sanitation to toilets, repair and cleaning of toilets and urinals, cleaning and repair of equipment in A and B divisions and painting of cells.

He recommended three separate dedicated areas: one for prisoners entering the prison so their medical and other needs could be identified, so as to place them in the most appropriate area; a high support unit for vulnerable prisoners; and a drug-free support unit for prisoners who wanted to come off or be free of drugs.

The lack of recreation areas in A and B and the lack of time most prisoners spent in yards and at recreation should be addressed, he said. Reopening of the workshops should be reviewed and the regimes and services improved. The prison service should alleviate the overcrowding problem and the refurbishment or replacement of A and B should be examined.

While the prison could not be said to comply with best international practice, and whether it provided a safe environment for staff was questionable, he said if his concerns were addressed it could continue to play an important role in the Irish prison system.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust welcomed the speedy publication of his report, the Minister’s unequivocal acknowledgement of the problems and the fact an action plan was in place to address them.