Why our jails fail
A recent surge in prisoner numbers has made Irish jails more overcrowded and dangerous than ever. A new series examines our broken prison system
When RTÉ broadcast the States of Fear documentary series, in 1999, about the sexual and physical abuse of children in church-run industrial schools it gave a voice, for the first time, to some of those who had been brutalised, hidden and forgotten.
One of them was Sharon Murphy, who spent her childhood in St Joseph’s School in Clifden, Co Galway, in the 1970s. The regime was a savage one, and respite from the violence came only occasionally. In her interview on film with the late journalist Mary Raftery, she remembered one day when a camera crew arrived to record a programme. “You knew that when RTÉ was there you weren’t going to be hit, at least not in public. You could feel safe for a little bit.” As soon as the journalists left, the beatings and the constant fear returned.
Last year a report passed across the desk of Minister for Justice Alan Shatter. Its findings echo the State-sponsored brutality of some religious orders in the decades up to the 1970s.
The document, written by the inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, outlines conditions at St Patrick’s Institution for young offenders, on the Mountjoy prison campus, in north Dublin. The institution, which housed 231 boys and young men aged between 16 and 21 when he visited, has a bullying, fearful, degrading and intimidatory culture, he says.
Reilly writes of an environment created by a small number of staff at the jail “where the human rights of some prisoners, including children, are being ignored or violated”.
Some prisoners he describes as vulnerable were targeted. Child prisoners were moved to isolation cells using headlocks and armlocks. Walking was never permitted for transfers.
Once at the cells, some were forcibly stripped, at times the clothes cut off their backs by staff using knives and leaving injuries. This was “degrading and a form of punishment, intimidation and abuse”. Reilly notes that it involved some inmates who had been sexually or physically abused as children.
On one visit Reilly found an 18-year-old in a special observation cell on “virtual 24-hour lock-up” for two months. His eye had recently been injured; he said he had fallen out of bed. Reilly did not believe him, said the teenager was afraid of staff, and so asked that their conversation end. “This was the first time that any prisoner, in any prison, had displayed such fear in my presence,” he writes.
Reilly based his report on numerous visits he had made, with increasing frequency, since he was appointed, in 2008.
In sharp contrast to the judge’s exposé, the prison-visiting-committee report for St Patrick’s for 2010 raises some concerns about staff shortages and the vulnerability of those kept in cells but, overall, finds that “the prison was being run in an efficient, fair, safe and humanitarian way”.
Ignoring the problems?
How does a prison in 21st-century Ireland sink into the conditions outlined by Judge Reilly? Are these conditions reflected in the wider prison system? And are those who run the jails simply ignoring the problems?
The social campaigner Fr Peter McVerry works with disadvantaged, often drug- addicted and homeless people in north inner-city Dublin. He spends most of his weekends visiting inmates. McVerry describes the prison system as a “total disaster” and our jails as so overcrowded and beset with violence and drug abuse that rehabilitation is almost impossible.
“The mission statement of the Irish Prison Service is to provide safe and secure custody, dignity of care and rehabilitation to prisoners for safer communities. The only word in that which is actually appropriate is ‘secure’,” says McVerry.
He believes Reilly’s observations about St Patrick’s sum up the approach of the prison service. “He found prisoners there who were not allowed to wear their own clothes, were wearing prison clothes that were ill-fitting, torn, had holes in them and were dirty. To give prisoners clothes like that is a symptom of the attitude that exists towards prisoners: they are of no value.”
The overcrowding McVerry speaks out against so often has been driven by a significant increase in the number of people being imprisoned by the courts and a trend towards longer sentencing.
In late 2007, about 2,700 prisoners were in jail; by last year that figure had increased by 63 per cent, to about 4,400. To compound the logistical nightmare for prison staff, about a quarter of prisoners need to be locked away, often in cells for 23 hours a day, to protect them from other prisoners.
On visits to prisons both in the past and for this series, The Irish Times has been struck by the sense of tension and noise.
“You’re never, ever on your own when you’re locked up,” says one former prisoner. “People don’t even think of that. But you try never being on your own, never being 100 per cent relaxed because of the type of people you’re piled in with. Try that for 10 or 15 years and see how you get on. See how you are after that.”
Prison walls are in some cases 20m high, and even moving down a corridor may require several doors to be unlocked and relocked. This is necessary to create a secure setting, but it creates a claustrophobic and tense environment for both staff and prisoners. “Even loads of the screws are stressed out of their brains, never mind the prisoners,” says another former inmate.
Former prisoners paint a picture of a tense system where as a new inmate you will be bullied or attacked unless you strike out and defend yourself when challenged. They talk of prison gangs running the supply of drugs into the jails, a profitable business that has allowed some prisoners to build significant wealth while behind bars.
“You don’t need money when you are locked up to pay for gear. You get just get someone you know outside to pay money to somebody else on the outside who knows the prisoners that are supplying you,” says a former prisoner.
Much of the violence is gang-related; prisoners are threatened until they agree to hide other inmates’ drugs or phones in their cells or smuggle them into the jails.
McVerry believes about 80 per cent of people entering prison have a drug problem – which is often the cause of their offence. But there are just nine detoxification beds in the 4,500-bed system.
He says he knows at least 40 people who used heroin for the first time in jail, either out of boredom or because they were sharing cells with drug users. Prisoners coming to the end of their sentences hound him, he adds, to find them drug-treatment places when they are released, to keep them out of the cycle of theft that landed them in jail.
Although significant effort has been made to reduce the flow of drugs into prisons, McVerry believes it has not been matched on the treatment side, either inside or outside jail.
He knows of prisoners, he says, who have been psychologically scarred by being locked up 23 hours a day. “If one locked a dog in a cell for 23 hours a day, one would be reported to the ISPCA.”
Slivers of optimism
There are some slivers of optimism. McVerry is full of praise for the renovation work at Mountjoy Prison under the new director general of the Irish Prison Service, Michael Donnellan. McVerry points to it as an example of what can be achieved, saying it is rapidly becoming the facility where prisoners would choose to serve their sentences.