From the Archives: October 3rd, 1977

After accusations of ill-treatment in prisons, ‘Irish Times’ editor Douglas Gageby wrote an open letter to the minister for justice, to close a series on what he saw on visits to Irish jails

Dear Minister,

Why can’t we get the prisons right?

It's not such a big job. A few years ago, we had less than 500 prisoners; even today it's not much more than 1,000, including about 150 Provos and other militants. (We have 14,600 soldiers.)

It’s surely a small enough problem that besets us; but it’s a corrosive problem, especially with the Republican thing in mind.


Remember how the 77 executions dogged the Cumann na nGael Government? How your party and others used that down the years? Nowadays 77 dead seems nothing beside the Northern slaughter, and we don't take life for life, as a state, any more. But stories of prison maltreatment work away at the public conscience. We haver used it to our own advantage vis á vis the northern state at Strasbourg. We can't dissemble here when challenged. The only way with this problem is full disclosure.

The Portlaoise and high security end is only part of the problem. It's the most spectacular part of today's story; but I'll ask you to go to the heart of the problem and get our legislation and our institutions for young offenders right.

I’ve seen St Patrick’s and get some idea of the magnitude of the job when I’m told that over 40% of the entrants are illiterate or nearly so. I’ve spoken to people who deal with this delicate process of education and get some idea of the love of humanity that goes into the work; and then you find that the State, as represented for the present by you, doesn’t have a shred of confidence in what it’s doing.

Why? Because, according to the visiting committee, the whole of the public service is closed to boys who have been in St. Patrick’s. Some will say that this is one of the most hypocritical attitudes on record. I think it’s a mixture of hypocrisy and stupidity – and another indication that your department is one that needs a going over.

You, the state, won’t employ these lads and yet, you expect private employers to do so. There are none so daft as bureaucrats. For that reason alone, I think you want to put the dogs in. [. . .]

These articles (some of which you may have read) are concerned mainly with living conditions in the prisons, inasmuch as I could assess them, and we’ve stated the limitations before.

I still don’t know why we are not the most understanding of all people to the underdog – the man in prison – and why our system isn’t a model for the world.

God knows, you in Fianna Fail are strong on the historical background. Your father's generation made an industry out of prison literature: Frank Gallagher, Robert Brennan. I'm sure they're all on your bookshelves. Then there was always the great bit about Dev in Lincoln Jail and Mick Collins smuggling in the key in the cake. Sunday newspapers have dined off it since.

As long as it was good, clean warfare between the lads and the British it was acceptable. It got sour when it was Free State versus Republic; and much, much, more sour when it was the Fianna Fail Government versus the IRA.

Perhaps one reason why we didn’t turn our mind to the prisons is that there were no votes in it. No one was going to get the public worked up about it; it isn’t something that takes the headlines except in sad times like these. The public largely doesn’t want to know.

Isn’t it, then, a great challenge to you? Isn’t it time the whole story came out – and, again, I’m not just writing of the spectacular stuff. [. . .]

We have a small country. Your own officials will tell you that the manageable prison – that is one where the prisoner can be looked at as an individual, where something perhaps can be done for him – is maximum 100 inmates. Less is better. In open institutions, and where young people are concerned much less; and if you’re not going to look on prisons as places where something can be done for the men and women you might as well bring back the stocks and the lash and the pitchcap – and the Redcoats.

Read the original here

Selected by Joe Joyce; email