The shame of St Patrick's


PUBLIC EXPRESSIONS of shock and outrage because of the abusive treatment of young offenders in custody are no longer adequate. And assurances that the conduct of a small number of prison officials will change towards these vulnerable individuals carries no weight if those directly involved continue to be employed at St Patrick’s Institution.

If there is to be change – as there must be – those prison officers who engaged in bullying, intimidation and physical abuse must be held accountable. Senior officials who denied what went on or who accepted such treatment as an intrinsic part of prison life are equally liable.

Prisons Inspector Judge Michael Reilly is to be complimented on a report that catalogues cases of degradation and intimidation at this prison for young offenders. He found the human rights of some prisoners, including children, were violated or ignored and that vulnerable teenagers and young adults were targeted by a small number of prison officers. Some were provoked into retaliation through bullying and, as a result, were subjected to long periods of isolation and lock-up. Prisoners who lodged complaints were induced or intimidated into withdrawing them. However, in the year before the report was issued, not a single complaint was upheld.

It is 3½ months since Minister for Justice Alan Shatter received the report, which he described as “quite shocking”. He gave instructions that “everything possible” should be done to address the abusive behaviour. The result appears to be that “codes of discipline” cases are being pursued against a number of staff and all members are undergoing a retraining programme. On the face of it, this is a cop-out. It should not take that length of time to raise disciplinary issues following an official report. And why should all prison officers require retraining when only a small number engaged in abusive behaviour?

An official mindset within the Department of Justice and the prison system considers offenders of all ages to be inferior citizens and punishment as an integral part of incarceration. It can no longer be tolerated. This may be an overhang from widespread social repression in the last century. Whatever about that, wilful denial met Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan when she raised concerns about how young people were being treated at St Patrick’s. Senior officials sneered at and made fun of her report and reassured members of a United Nations committee that all was well within the prison.

Conditions within our major prisons – and not just St Patrick’s – are a public scandal and have been so for decades. Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and drug abuse contribute to a recidivist culture that causes lasting damage to inmates and particularly to young people. Mr Shatter has indicated a willingness to introduce change. For this to happen, juvenile liaison schemes should be expanded and intensified and non-custodial sentences will have to become the norm in cases of antisocial activity. Keeping adults and young people out of prison is the cheapest and most effective response to less serious crime.

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