Reaction to St Patrick's report surprising for its mock shock
OPINION: Great damage has been done to the reputation of the Irish prison system
THE REPORT of an inspection of St Patrick’s Institution is not shocking and any person or organisation claiming to be outraged by it is simply in a state of mock shock.
At a recent talk hosted by the Association of Criminal Justice Research and Development the new head of the prison service, Michael Donnellan, said that the Irish prison system was more or less a hopeless case, “systemless”, pointless and effective only in locking people up. His portrait was honest and bleak. He did cite stories of personal good and triumph, but this was despite the no-system system.
The only hope for those that find themselves in Irish jails/institutions within the 26 counties is Donnellan, who said he was deeply committed to breaking the cycle and bettering the lot of the prisoners and the jail conditions through joined-up actions and multi-agency involvement. Prison and prisoners, he went on to say, are an issue for society; prisoners are our people, our brothers and sisters, our friends, our flesh and blood and fellow human beings.
I believe Donnellan will do a good job and will have a positive impact upon the dreadful darkness that emanates from our prison regimes, but this is no time for praise of good deeds, of change and rehabilitation.
Judge Michael Reilly’s report into St Patrick’s finds a culture of inhumanity and hostility to the human rights of some of the child and young adult prisoners held there. The essence of a civilised society, the paramount respect for human life which we are trying to reflect to those who fall out of society and into imprisonment is being trampled upon in St Patricks.
Reading through the report there is a continuity of wrongfulness and disregard for people. What we have here is criminal behaviour, a culture of punishment overseen by a gang of brutalisers run riot. Had it not been for the determination of the honourable Judge Reilly, the rights of those unfortunate enough to be incarcerated in St Patrick’s would continue to be ignored and violated. Nonetheless, this report is still a continuation of the many other reports on what happened to generations of people that this Republic locked away and locked up.
Next month Irish citizens will go to the polls to vote on enshrining the rights of children in our Constitution. But little good that will be if we can’t protect them from those that are duty-bound to keep them in good care and good custody.
More and more evidence is accumulating for the case of a failed State and I would suggest a failed society. We falsely pride ourselves on being caring and staunch defenders of freedom and human rights and equality, yet where were the good prison officers, the good prison visiting committee, the good prison governors, the good prison chaplain or the whistleblowers?
The cliche that the vast majority are good and do their duty simply does not fit with the culture and community of terror that has prevailed in St Patrick’s Institution. There is no example of anyone attempting to stop the bullying and intimidation; the reason being that it was acceptable and expected, just as it was in the Daingans, the Letterfracks, Magdalene laundries, Breffni homes and the many residential institutions that operated the length and breadth of this so-called Republic.
To this day banishment and punishment are actively used by this State, perpetrated mainly on those in society who have little or no education and few life skills. Even though tens of millions of euro have been spent on social equality, nothing has changed, nothing has emerged. There has been no progress and, as we move into more cutbacks and further austerity, more and more young people will populate our prison system in an endless cycle of hopelessness and bleakness.
It would appear from this report that education in the prison lacks focus and structure, operating on an ad hoc curriculum which in many cases leads neither to accreditation nor to personal development.
The emphasis, in my opinion, for prisoners’ education should be based firmly upon the humanities – on the value of being human and of achieving a better quality in one’s life. It should be therapeutic, dealing with the wrongs committed by those children and young adults and also with the wrongs that have been done to them.
According to Judge Reilly many of the children and young adults in St Patrick’s institution were physically and sexually abused in their past. The only system that exists today in this Republic to deal with the prison population is the no-system system. Nothing was done about the Kennedy report, nothing was done about the Whitaker report, and even former reports and recommendations presented by Judge Reilly were ignored. Although some of Judge Reilly’s recent recommendations regarding St Patrick’s have been implemented, great damage has been done to the Irish prison system’s reputation.
No doubt, the court of human rights and its officers will take note of this report and its findings. No doubt, further investigation and inquiry will ensue. In the meantime, given the fact that a significant number of the children and young adults at the centre of this report cannot read, what will the inmates think of it all? Will the prison officers be instructed to read it to the prisoners as a bedtime story? Will it be a module for study on the education unit curriculum?
Those at the centre of this report have a right to the information in it and effort needs to be expended to ensure that it is made available to them in whatever form is necessary. That should be a first step in the new direction that must be taken by this State. It is not good enough merely to accept the report and its findings; this State needs to admit that it was wrong in how it deals with those in its custody and care.
So enough of this theatrical outrage, this mock shock. Let us instead be prepared to be truly shocked by the possibility of a total change in our prison regime system which could be brought about through the vision and inspiration of the new director general of the Irish Prison Service, Michael Donnellan.
That change can only be achieved by our collective responsibility as a society. At the very least the gardaí should be asked to carry out a criminal investigation with regard to the findings in Judge Reilly’s report.
To end on a positive note: In 1976 I exited the gates of St Patrick’s Institution and one thing that has changed since then, I’m happy to report, is me.
Mannix Flynn is an artist and Dublin city councillor