Prison policy 'disaster' with drugs and overcrowding rampant, say chaplains

Tue, Nov 30, 2010, 00:00

CURRENT PRISON policy in Ireland is a “disaster”, the State’s prison chaplains have said.

Making the State’s prisons safer and drug free was in everyone’s interest, the chaplains concluded in their annual report for 2010, published yesterday. “The only obstacle is political will,” they said.

Conditions in many prisons were “an insult to the dignity of any human being and an affront to the basic tenets of decency”. Prisoners were subject to overcrowding, drugs and violence.

They noted that Mountjoy was built for 489 prisoners but in July this year it held 759 prisoners, which meant that “129 prisoners did not even have a bed to sleep in; indeed some did not even have a mattress to sleep on”.

Wheatfield was designed for 320 but on July 30th last it held 508 prisoners. “A 75-year-old man was sleeping on a mattress,” the report noted.

Cork jail was built for 146 but on July 30th last it held 334 prisoners. Dóchas (the women’s prison) was built for 85 but held 180 prisoners. Limerick jail, built for 185 prisoners, held 322.

Meanwhile in 2009, 27,227 random drug tests on prisoners disclosed that 33 per cent were positive for heroin, cocaine or cannabis. “In some jails, more than 50 per cent of those tested were positive for heroin.”

The chaplains concluded that a culture had developed in prisons which successfully perpetuates pro-drug attitudes.

They found there were over 800 assaults by prisoners on other prisoners each year, and some of the attacks were fatal.

Last December, 20 per cent of the prison population, 972 were on protection for their own safety, the report added. It singled out St Patrick’s Institution for particular mention, as it accommodates very young people. The detention there of under-18s was in direct contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the chaplains said the Ombudsman for Children is explicitly prohibited from investigating complaints or allegations by the young people there.

About one in four young people in St Patrick’s was on protection, with most confined to a cell for 23 hours a day. Such conditions for the young were completely unacceptable and can only cause psychological and emotional damage, the report said.

It found the sacrifice of human dignity and compassion in Ireland’s jails to advance political agendas was tragic and unworthy of the Department of Justice and the Irish Prison Service.

The Irish Prison Chaplains’ Report 2010 is also highly critical of the media. “Apart from the sensationalising of certain cases, there is now a growing tendency to fabricate stories. Vulnerable prisoners are often targeted as subjects for stories that have no foundation in reality. We have serious concerns in relation to the sources of some of this coverage.”

In particular it said “the appalling and irresponsible mismanagement of Larry Murphy’s release in August this year created a media circus that was both shameful and dangerous”.

Most of those in jail were imprisoned for short periods of time and for less serious offences. In 2009, of the 10,865 sentenced to jail “1,153 (10 per cent) were convicted of offences with violence, while 5,750 (53 per cent) were sentenced to three months or less”.

The politicisation of our criminal justice system needs to be addressed, they said. Public opinion, as reported by certain sections of the media, calls for longer and harsher sentencing without in any way addressing the real issue of crime and its prevention. Politicians respond and the vicious circle continues, the report claimed.

The chaplains were disappointed the Minister for Justice declined to meet them after the publication of their last report.

They also noted that a decision to build a prison in Thornton Hall, north Dublin, “resulted in millions of public funding being spent on a site that now stands idle”. This “stands in stark contrast to the mattress-strewn floors of our prisons”, they said.

In their own words: prison chaplains speak out

  • “We cannot ignore the reality we witness every day of a system that is in crisis
  • “Our role as chaplains calls us to be a voice for those deprived of their freedom and to bring matters of concern to the Minister
  • “In 2008, 8,000 people were committed to prison. Eighty per cent were sentenced to less than one year
  • “The cost of imprisonment needs to form part of Government policy on crime. The public need to know
  • “At present , prisoners get 25 per cent remission for good behaviour. In the United Kingdom, 50 per cent remission is the norm