Quinn's jail privileges show touch of class

Tue, Jul 24, 2012, 01:00

Even in Mountjoy Prison, Seán Quinn jnr enjoys treatment denied those from the wrong class

LAST FRIDAY, Seán Quinn jnr was sent to Mountjoy Prison for three months for “outrageous” contempt of court in hiding nearly half a billion euro that belongs to the Irish people. But he’s not in Mountjoy. He spent one night in that nasty place. On Saturday, he was transferred to a very different institution on the same campus, the Training Unit, where, we are told, he is to serve all of the rest of his sentence. This decision, according to reports, was taken by “prison authorities”.

To most people, this is a minor detail. To a prisoner, it makes all the difference in the world. The short distance between Mountjoy and the Training Unit is a vast gulf in hope, dignity and self-respect. Mountjoy is a kip. The Training Unit is a decent enough place to be. Quinn being sent there means two things. One is that he remains an extremely privileged man. The other is that some other criminal, almost certainly one who has done less harm to Irish society, will pay for Seán Quinn’s privileges.

The thing to grasp about the Training Unit – demanding a leap of imagination by those of us on the outside – is there’s a really long waiting list to get into it. Once you pass into the parallel universe of incarceration, this is where you want to be. The unit is “one of the best prisons, if not the best, in the country” – according to inmates themselves, interviewed by the prisons inspectorate. Unlike Mountjoy, it is not infested with cockroaches and has not been officially deemed unfit for habitation. No one has to “slop out”.

According to the prisons inspector: “A person, familiar with the Prison Service, on being shown around the Training Unit, would assume from looking in the doors that this was an extremely clean and tidy technical college, with excellent IT facilities and with slightly older students! Indeed the atmosphere is precisely what you would expect in a college. Good-humoured banter, not loud and shouted conversations, as elsewhere within the system.”

The Training Unit has single bedrooms rather than cells. There are no steel bars on the windows. Prisoners have their own keys to their rooms and are free to move around the building. They’re also free to lock themselves into their rooms, giving them the immense privilege of privacy. There is a good library. The unit is drug-free. Medical care is far better than in the general system and levels of violence between prisoners are very low.

In 2005, the inspectorate, which is often harshly critical of conditions in the system, called the unit “a very good service to prisoners . . . those of them who wish to partake in work training, education or whatever line they wish to follow are encouraged, supported and helped all the way”. Conditions have deteriorated somewhat since then because of overcrowding and staff reductions, but the unit is still the Ritz of the prison world.

So why does Seán Quinn get to serve his time there? The official description of the purpose of the unit runs as follows: “The main focus of the Training Unit is to provide industrial training and education to prisoners, assisting them in securing employment on release . . . The majority of the prisoners have served a greater part of the sentence in other prisons and then transferred as part of a planned sentence programme.” The unit also has a secondary purpose – as a safe place for prisoners with a history of substance abuse who are completing a detox programme.

What the unit is emphatically not supposed to be for is prisoners serving short sentences. The 2005 prison inspectorate report (the only one I can find that gives a detailed breakdown of the nature of the inmates) shows that of the 96 prisoners then in the unit, none was serving a sentence of less than six months and just one was serving a sentence of less than a year. By contrast, 58 were serving sentences of four years to life. It is quite clear the primary function of the unit is to act as a bridge back into society for long-term prisoners.

Seán Quinn is not serving a long sentence – he’s in for three months. He’s not recovering from substance abuse. He is not in need of training: he’s a very well educated businessman. There is nothing to suggest he was assessed in Mountjoy and deemed to be especially in need of the specific and highly privileged facilities of the Training Unit: he was in Mountjoy for one night.

But because Quinn is there, someone else isn’t. Statistically, that anonymous someone is probably badly educated, from a poor urban background and caught up in drugs. The unit houses just 117 inmates – a tiny fraction of the 4,000-plus male prison population. Almost every one of those 4,000 men wants to be where Quinn is, and many of them are on the waiting list to get in. But they’re from the wrong class and they committed the wrong sort of offence. Even in prison, there are two Irelands and two kinds of crime.

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