Notorious no more? Mountjoy project template for humane, safe jail system
An overhaul is transforming Mountjoy Prison from a byword for chaos into what could be the jewel in the crown of the prison system
In the circle of Mountjoy Prison you can stand and look down the length of all four three-storey wings just by turning your head. It is the hub around which prison life revolves.
Bunches of oversized keys rattle as a small army of officers marches backwards and forwards going about their work. The thick reinforced steel doors creak open and slam shut as prisoners yell out to each other across the landings.
Above it all is the sound of a busy building site. The A Division, or wing, is the latest to undergo a complete refit. It is the next chapter in efforts by the Irish Prison Service to transform a jail that has become a byword for everything that is wrong with Irish prisons.
Prisoners have been stabbed to death here. There have been riots. The flow of drugs and mobile phones into the jail is constant and prison gangs have emerged. A quarter of prisoners are locked into cells for between 21 and 23 hours a day for their own protection.
Prisoners have been piled into cells – sometimes three at a time in a 7sq m space built for one. They have urinated and defecated in chamber pots in the same cells where they eat their meals. Their pots have been emptied in the areas where they wash and source drinking water.
The prisoner population in Mountjoy has exceeded 700 in recent years. Yet the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, has said it has a design capacity of 489 and should hold no more than 540.
Staff have simply had to put mattresses down anywhere they can: cell floors, showering areas, offices, and even basement holding cells intended to house prisoners for the hour or two it took to be processed on arrival.
In August 2006, 21-year-old Gary Douch was put into a basement cell with six other inmates, because he was under threat of attack in the main prison. During the night he was punched, stamped and kicked to death by another prisoner, Stephen Egan.
Egan was mentally ill but did not have access to his medication because he had just been transferred to the jail. He was in the basement because the cells in the prison proper were crammed beyond capacity.
However, such has been the progress here in the past 12 to 18 months, one can say with near certainty a prisoner could not be murdered there now in the manner Douch was.
The practices around new committals have been reformed and the basement area in C Division, for decades used as a storage area, has seen its 28 cells reinstated with modern accommodation, each sleeping one prisoner only.
Every new committal to the prison spends his first night here. He is given a full physical and mental health check by medical professionals and administered methadone to treat any heroin addiction.
Prisoners’ gang affiliations are established during staff interviews, information that is used to house them away from most of their enemies.
The new cells have been fitted with larger doors. The corridors have been painted, re-rendered, floors recovered and new fire alarm and CCTV systems installed.
But it is inside the cells – the heretofore infamously smelly, overcrowded, run-down living spaces – that the most visible transformation has occurred.
They have been fitted with a toilet and sink, meaning slopping-out is a thing of the past. Gone are the steel free-standing bunk beds and mattresses on the floors of broken lino. Each cell now has one built-in bed, with a new tiled floor and freshly painted walls. And each now houses one prisoner only.
There are new window units containing blinds and vents behind reinforced plastic. There are also panic buttons to summon staff outside.
The cells are finished with a unit where a small 12 or 14-inch flat screen TV is fitted, along with a kettle to make hot drinks or snacks such as pot noodles. A desk and chair are supplied and a cork notice board for prisoners’ family photos.
The door can be opened both out and in by removing a small section of the frame with Allen key tools. This means prisoners cannot barricade themselves in, as in the old cells where the doors only opened inwards.
The three floors in the B and C division above the basement area have also been renovated, with work under way on the A wing and the D not yet started.
When The Irish Times visited the cells in the D Division last week, that area of the prison looked darker and more run down, and felt oppressive. One had to crouch when walking through the smaller doors. The cells were depressing, furnished with just steel-framed free-standing bunk beds, a chair and small locker unit.
The chamber pots and mattresses on the floor to absorb the overcrowding had been put away for the day but will remain a part of prison life until these cells are revamped.
The work is due for completion in September 12 months; when slopping-out and overcrowding in Mountjoy will end and the prison will house 540 prisoners.
Prison officers say conditions have improved, not only for prisoners for also for them. “You still have tension there, it is a prison after all, but the mood among the prisoners in the areas that are already done is definitely better,” said one source.
Even small positive changes had a major impact on prisoners, said another, because many were confined here for years. “Management and the prison service have put the resources in and it’s paying off. Even the fact we’re not slopping-out; that’s a major improvement for everyone.”
It is a significant turnaround for a facility condemned decades ago as unfit for human habitation and due to close until the proposed new Mountjoy at Thornton Hall, north Co Dublin, was mothballed at the start of the recession.
As well as the physical transformation, a raft of changes have been phased in at Mountjoy in the past number of years.
Nets have been placed over prison yards to help minimise contraband being thrown in from the inner-city streets that surround the prison. Metal detectors have been erected in corridors in a bid to find blades or knives prisoners may be carrying out to the yards.
Airport-style security and a sniffer dog detect visitors carrying drugs or telephones in for prisoners.
When The Irish Times was entering the prison last Friday, a man and woman had just been caught trying to smuggle in tranquillizer tablets and were waiting in the entrance area for gardaí to deal with them. A little later, officers carried out an intelligence-led search of a cell and found a block of cannabis and a smuggled mobile phone.
Some sources say there is still a long way to go to improve facilities such as education courses, workshops and drugs rehabilitation.
Fr Peter McVerry, who runs a hostel and support services for disadvantaged people in Dublin’s north inner city, has visited his clients in Mountjoy every week for decades now.
He has been a fierce critic of conditions in the jail down the years but is hopeful a rebirth is under way.
“The C wing that has been refurbished is a wonderful place to have to spend one’s sentence. If the other wings are refurbished and the policy remains one person, one cell, it could be the model for all our other prisons.”