TVs, gang threats and ‘no smell’: A much changed Mountjoy

Back to the Joy: Donald Taylor Black revisits the prison 21 years after his original documentary

21 years after RTÉ aired a documentary on life inside Mountjoy Prison, director Donald Taylor Black goes back inside the facility to see how things have changed. Video: RTÉ

Not long after it was first broadcast, in 1997, the four-part documentary The Joy received a fascinating review from an unlikely quarter. "We didn't need to see that programme to realise that our largest prison is in chaos," then Tánaiste Mary Harney told the Dáil in 1997.

“We didn’t need to see that film to know that more people come out of Mountjoy suffering with drug addiction than go in to it.”

Actually, we really did.

That’s not just because the acclaimed series drew appalled audiences in phenomenal numbers, making vivid the problems already known, but because Mountjoy clearly knew we needed to see it as well.


The access provided to director Donald Taylor Black 21 years ago, from staff and inmates, was transparent with a purpose. Watching footage of the exasperated prison governor John Lonergan then is to see an institution no longer prepared to be overlooked.

In revisiting Mountjoy today, Back to the Joy (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm) also revisits itself: we see ample material from the original series before it encounters the prison's modern conditions, catches up with staff and seeks out stories of former prisoners. The transformation is conspicuous and visceral: "The smell is gone," marvels former prison officer Ethel Gavin, and it's hard to escape a newfound sense of sterility.

Today's governor, Brian Murphy, credits the "single cell policy and the in-cell sanitation" later pointing out "a modesty screen" for each prisoner (by which he means a toilet and a folding partition).

The precarious overcrowding of 1997 has alleviated, down from almost 800 prisoners then to 650 now (a number, they point out, that is rising again) but such jargon may be another significant transformation ushered in by the Irish Prison Service, established in 1999.

Whether that acts as a kind of modesty screen itself, or if Taylor Black now prefers the perspective of a prison visitor rather than that of an inmate, Back to the Joy is illuminating, intriguing and tragic, but not revelatory. As Harney might have put it, we didn't need to see it.

The most sobering details now involve the 202 prisoners “on protection”, monitored for threats from gang violence within the jails walls, with so many conflicts and schedule issues it seems like a crisis of management. A bigger scourge than needles now are ridiculously tiny mobile phones, so easy to smuggle inside that even a prison officer’s stern warning to camera makes them no less ingenious or adorable.

This is a modern prison, a Foucauldian dream, with TVs in every cell and several hundred more security cameras than inmates.

A pioneering drug rehabilitation programme has now been extended, which, together with advances in treatment of HIV and Hepatitis C, improves the quality of life and integration for many prisoners.

A new women’s prison, the Dochas Centre, is so civil it even rebrands its “prisoners” as “women in custody”.

But where are these prisoners?

The fates of those we encountered in the original series are heart-rending; two former addicts, both genial men with promise, died after release from their illnesses.

Gwen, from the women’s prison, speaking candidly of her addiction and suicide attempt in 1997, now talks to us with a slow, heavy voice after 16 years spent in the Central Mental Hospital.

Even Des Crowley, the doctor who spearheaded the prison's drug treatment programme, admits of his patients, "a lot of them have died, I know that for a fact". The prison has been vastly reformed, it's clear, but it doesn't seem much more reformative.

A more curious absence is the obvious co-operation of prisoners today – we meet nobody new. Whether access was sought or refused, the programme does not say, but it seems significant that a programme once so celebrated for the candour of its contributors, and which can juxtapose the articulate criticism of a prisoner in his 1997 cell bed with the contemporaneous defence of a government minister at a podium, does not display that kind of access and debate this time around.

Has it gone back to the Joy with the same probing spirit? Or has it been shut out?