Ireland’s prison gangs: ‘You hear a scream and suddenly a fella’s pumping blood’

The nine gangs in Irish jails mirror the outside world in their growing power and violence

In 2013, Seán had just been transferred to C-Wing when the alarm went off. It was a sound he was used to.

Whenever there is a major fight in Mountjoy, prisoners are locked back in their cells while a siren rings to get all available officers to the scene and alert medics to standby. Gangs from Ballyfermot and Coolock had been feuding and brawls had become a regular occurrence.

“I remember one day, every time that cell door opened, two minutes later that alarm went off and we went back in,” Seán recalls (like most others interviewed for this article Seán has asked to remain anonymous due to the subject matter).

Inter-prisoner violence is likely under-reported as many prisoners decline to tell the authorities they have been attacked

“On this particular day I saw things that I guarantee the Hollywood special effects people wouldn’t be able to create.


“I remember one guy going by me and he had no side of his face, it was just gone. And every time he screamed, the gash just got bigger and bigger and bigger. That was one day of absolute mayhem and bedlam. And that was gang-related.”

This is what gang violence looks like in prison. It’s a problem which rarely enters the public consciousness. At most, the incident Seán described would have appeared as a statistic in the assault figures released yearly by the Irish Prison Service (IPS). Prosecutions relating to prisoner-on-prisoner violence are rare, because few prisoners, including the victims, are reckless enough to give evidence against one another.

Prison gangs and the associated violence have existed for as long as there have been prisons. Seán’s experience relates to the Ballyfermot/Coolock feud but it could just as easily relate to the Crumlin/Drimagh feud, the Keane-Collopy/McCarthy-Dundon feud or the hostilities between various paramilitary groups down through the years.

However in recent years gangs in prison have become more numerous, more powerful and more organised. This in turn has lead to increased violence, increased drug-use and a massive drain on prison resources.

As a result of the ongoing feud between the Hutch and Kinahan criminal gangs, many of whose members now find themselves behind bars, that problem has entered a new phase, according to ex-prisoners and former and current prison staff who spoke to The Irish Times over the past month.

‘Significant hierarchy’

These groups, particularly the Kinahans, have a level of organisation both inside and outside prison that hasn’t been seen before. Some prison staff believe Kinahan affiliates are effectively in control of whole landings in Mountjoy as well as controlling most of the prison’s drug trade.

“In the past, gangs came and went. Now there seems to be a more permanent structure to it. There seems to be a significant hierarchy within the prison,” says Jim Mitchell, a prison officer and the deputy president of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA).

“It’s particularly noticeable in Mountjoy with the different factions there. There seems to be one faction that’s dominating overall. That creates a particular problem because of the shift in power that manifests itself and the associated violence.”

According to the statistics, prison violence has decreased significantly in the last three years. There were 417 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in 2017 (down from a high of 715 in 2012) and 104 assaults on prison officers (down from a high of 151 in 2014).

But according to Mitchell and others, the severity of the violence has increased. The POA also says the official IPS statistics don’t record injuries suffered by officers when they intervene in fights between prisoners.

Similarly, inter-prisoner violence is likely under-reported as many prisoners decline to tell the authorities they have been attacked.

This violence has a knock on-effect through the system. More people than ever are choosing to go “on protection” – meaning they’re locked in their cells for up to 21 hours a day – out of fear of gang violence.

And the need to keep rival gangs separate makes it harder and harder to provide for education and training within the system. The IPS estimates there are between 12 and 14 major groups in the prison service, many of whom have to be kept separate at all times. The POA says there are least 30 “factions” in Mountjoy alone.

In Mountjoy, officers have had to start using a colour-coded system to keep track of the different groups. Even in the youth detention facility in Oberstown, some children can’t be put in the same class because of their gang affiliations.

Ordering attacks

This leaves the authorities in a difficult position. Do they disperse the gangs throughout the country’s 14 prisons in an effort to dilute their influence? According to Mitchell this be would like letting an infection spread across the body; gang members would recruit others in the system, allowing the violence to spread.

The alternative, and the option the IPS has gone for, is to segregate the gangs on individual landings. Among the first questions new inmates are asked by staff on admission is if they are affiliated with any group and if they are fighting with anyone.

Their answers will dictate what part of the prison they go to and who they will be allowed associate with. This seclusion helps reduce inter-gang violence but allows the groups to concentrate and cement their power in one part of the prison.

The more sophisticated groups are even able to project their power outside the prison walls by ordering attacks on rivals’ families or even organising murders and major drug deals. In 2009, Wayne Dundon of the notorious McCarthy-Dundon gang ordered the murder of Limerick businessman Roy Collins from his prison cell. In 2013, gang leader Brian Rattigan was convicted of organising a €1 million heroin deal from Portlaoise Prison (he is currently appealing the conviction).

“What we have now operating, within Mountjoy particularly, are gangs that have an international profile and significant funds to run their operations like a business,” Mitchell told the POA annual conference in April. “They have a hierarchy within the prison estate and have a number of ‘contractors’ that they hire work out to.”

As well as allowing gangs to grow stronger, the segregation strategy is also far from perfect at preventing violence.

“It’s got so bad at the moment that the Kinahans are telling the staff ‘I’m Hutch’, and of course there’s no list that says what gang people are. They’re getting put in where the other ones are to do a job, to hit someone, and then get dragged out of there,” says one recently released prisoner.

Chain of command

Defining a prison gang is a difficult task. In penal studies the most commonly accepted definition is that of US academic Michael Lyman from 1989. He said a prison gang is a self-perpetuating criminally oriented entity, consisting of a select group of inmates who have established an organised chain of command and are governed by an established code of conduct.

This definition worked well for the gangs which arose last century in US prisons, starting with the Gypsy Jokers in the 1950s. They were followed by increasingly sophisticated national organisations such as the Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood.

There is a dearth of information on Irish prison gangs. The Irish Prison Service has conducted its own internal research but a Freedom of Information request for this was denied on the basis that its publication could hamper efforts to deal with the problem. “We try to stay under the radar on this. We don’t say anything because as soon as we do something will happen and we’ll look like idiots,” an IPS source says.

“When the gardaí are successful in tackling gangs on the outside we are left with the aftermath and we have to manage that on the inside,” he says.

“This is nothing new. We’ve handled gangs for decades. They’re obviously very high-profile at the moment and they make great tabloid copy but quietly we have done a good job in managing the issue in our prisons. We’ve had no fatalities or major incidents.”

Sometimes people are affiliated with two gangs. They might be operating under the Kinahans at a high level but operating under a local gang in Clondalkin at a lower level

Despite the lack of public information it can reasonably be said Irish prison gangs are a far cry from groups in the US. Unlike their American counterparts, Irish prison gangs are, almost without exception, extensions of criminals gangs that  exist on the outside. There have none of the rules, initiations and hierarchies of the US gangs and are far less likely to be organised along ethnic lines.

According to John Cuffe, a retired 30-year veteran of the IPS, the State has recognised the issue since the 1970s when various IRA factions were put on different landings in Portlaoise Prison to keep them apart, the lowest landing being reserved for people who had turned informant on the other factions.

“Then came Martin Cahill and his brothers, then the Dunnes. Again the government recognised them by separating them. Some of them were held in the Curragh [military camp] for a while.”

It’s difficult to say exactly how many gangs currently operate within the prison system. “Sometimes people are affiliated with two different gangs. They might be operating under the Kinahans at a high level but operating under a local gang in Clondalkin at a lower level.” says Eddie D’Arcy who works with young offenders in prisons through the Solas Project.

There are gangs from Finglas and Ballymun (who are currently feuding with each other) as well as groups from Ballyfermot, Drimnagh and Coolock. There’s the remnants of the Limerick gangs who wreaked havoc in the 2000s along with various Traveller groups who regularly feud with each other. There are also a small number of groups of foreign nationals, including Chinese and eastern European gangs.

These foreign-national gangs generally keep their heads down. However a few years ago, the authorities had some trouble with a group of eastern Europeans, some of them ex-military, who insisted on setting their own regime and timetable within the prison. The resulting brawl was quelled with the deployment of riot shields.

Status and protection

Who makes up these gangs? According to Government-commissioned research on youth offending conducted by Seán Redmond of the University of Limerick, there are two types of young people involved in gangs – family members of senior gang leaders and vulnerable young people recruited as foot soldiers.

“They’re sucked in either by the attraction or the protection the gang will give them or the status the gang will give them within a community and the fact they can earn very good money relatively quickly. And of course they’re also sucked in because many of them end up owing money,” says D’Arcy.

Once in prison these young men are particularly at risk. “More often than not they would affiliate if they weren’t affiliated when they went in,” says one prison worker. ”It’s a brutal world. They don’t know anybody outside of their local community that they grew up in and then they get this offer of ‘we will watch over you’. But the other side of that is ‘you now have to do things for us’.”

There’s also a certain cachet that comes with involvement in a gang. One ex-prisoner recalls taking a younger inmate under his wing.

“I took a shine to him. When he was upstairs with us he’d play the guitar. The inhibitions would just slip away from him. It was brilliant.

“The second we’d leave, he’d turn into the biggest little prick you’ve ever seen in your life, his chest out, walking around thinking he’s a hard man. I walked into his cell one day and I said ‘what is the f**king story with you?’ And I’ll never forget his reply: ‘I have to fit in.’”

Major brawls

Gang violence in prison tends to come in two varieties. First there’s the mass brawl – a spontaneous fight between two groups which usually results in a lockdown. Prisoners, even those not involved with gangs, can predict when a fight is about to break out. One ex-prisoner says fights are more likely when fewer drugs are coming in. “People are more on edge and more unsettled if a lot of stuff is getting seized.”

Another suggests the main motivation is bravado. “It’s ‘my mickey is bigger than your mickey’. That’s all it is.”

Ex-Mountjoy prisoner Seán recalls the morning before one major fight in Mountjoy. “We were doing laps of the yard and there was one gang in one corner and one in the other. And you knew what was coming. It was a strange feeling, a horrible feeling.”

Fights can break out anywhere. Last December, tensions between two rival gangs in the Midlands Prison came to a head during Christmas Mass. A large brawl broke out, leaving one prison officer injured.

The second variety of gang violence is the targeted attack which, unlike the brawls, often leaves victims with permanent injury. These assaults usually come with little warning, according to Cuffe. “It’s violent, it’s sudden and it comes from nowhere. You hear a scream and suddenly there’s a fella on the ground pumping blood.

He recalls murderer “Cotton-eye” Joe Delaney being slashed across the neck in the gym of Arbour Hill Prison in a row over drugs. No one was prosecuted despite the presence of five other people in the gym. “We heard the scream and arrived up like a light and Joe was taken to hospital,” Cuffe says. “The boys never saw a thing. The guards knew it was one of the five but Joe wouldn’t say a thing.”

Improvised weapons

Both types of prison violence have been made worse by the availability of weapons. “Prisoners can make a weapon out of anything. The most common is the melted toothbrush with a blade stuck in the top,” says one officer.

Every morning prisoners can sign out a razor blade to shave. If a blade is not returned a search is launched but it is often unsuccessful. Some prisoners can be even more inventive. Cuffe recalls one prisoner gloating about how easy it was to obtain weapons. Then he removed his glass eye. “On the back of it he had a piece of broken blade,” Cuffe says.

“When I first came into the job, fellas went at each other with their fists,” says Mitchell. He believes prisoners are now carrying weapons just for their own safety.

“They want everybody to know they are carrying a weapon that will cause a significant amount of damage if anyone comes near them. So necessarily the tensions rise. It’s like mutually assured destruction.”

Education was always seen as a safe space within the prison system. Feuds were left at the door because everyone had an interest in getting an education. We need to return to that

His concerns are reflected in the statistics. Last year, 557 weapons were seized in Irish prisons, up from 435 in 2016 (although previous years have been much higher; in 2011, 1,388 were seized).

The violence means more prisoners are opting to go on protection regimes voluntarily. According to research from the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), there were 428 prisoners on protection as of last October, partly because of gang violence. Most of these prisoners were locked in their cells for 21 hours a day.

Less common than prisoner-on-prisoner violence are attacks on prison officers by inmates. Many of these are indirect attacks, sustained while officers break up prisoner fights but sometimes staff are directly targeted. Last month, two prison officers were slashed with blades in Mountjoy. A week later, another two officers were attacked during a court hearing.

"I've been attacked twice. One of those times was with boiling water. All I had to defend myself was a rolled-up Star in my pocket," says Cuffe.

Serious incidents can be met with “control and restraint” techniques – often involving officers going in with batons, body armour and riot shields. In 2016, there were 273 such incidents in Mountjoy alone. But by the time the helmets and batons come out it’s usually too late, says Cuffe. And it’s a less than perfect conflict-resolution process when the officers have to come in the next day and deal with the same prisoners again, he says.

‘Drink my blood’

The situation arguably reached a nadir in 2010 when prison officers walked off the job after Leroy Dumbrell was transferred to back to Mountjoy from Castlerea Prison. He had previously run a gang in Mountjoy and had become known as an extremely violent prisoner.

Many of the officers who walked out still remembered when five of their colleagues were taken hostage by a gang led by Dumbrell’s brother, Warren, 13 years before. During that incident, Warren held syringes filled with hepatitis-infected blood to officer’s necks, telling them: “I’ll make you drink my blood.’’

Morale in Mountjoy is nearly as low today as it was in 2010 or 1997, according to some officers. Prison officers have long felt like the poor relations of the State’s security services. Unlike gardaí, they are not “sworn” officers and have no statutory powers. They are paid less than gardaí and are rarely praised either for their bravery or the many roles they perform daily – from mediator to paramedic. Yet they are just as likely to be injured on the job.

“There is a sense of helplessness when you are faced with the violence,” says one. “And there’s hardly any recognition of the difficulties of the job from above. I’m not looking for medals but we would like a bit of recognition and a bit of support.”

Prisoners and prisoners' families are often forced under threat of violence to help smuggle in contraband

Gang-related violence can follow officers even when they walk out the prison gates. The POA said it is currently aware of three officers who have installed extra security measures in their homes after receiving death threats from a gangland figure. In recent years, the IPS has had to introduce security protocols for officers under threat, involving security cameras and Garda monitoring.

Gang violence also affects those prisoners who have no connection to gangs. In 2016, prisoners in Cloverhill and Mountjoy specifically complained to inspection committees about the prevalence of gang violence. In particular, the violence makes it difficult to provide educational and training courses as so many groups have to be kept separate.

“The amount of segregation used to be minimal,” says Mitchell. “Now it’s the norm. It has a knock-on effect everywhere.”

“Education was always seen as a safe space within the prison system,” says Deirdre Malone, the head of the IPRT. “Feuds were left at the door because everyone had an interest in getting an education. We need to return to that.”

Drugs as fuel

Some violent incidents are a result of long-standing grudges and some are down to frustration or boredom. But the main fuel is the drug trade, the largest component of the prison economy and the main reason many of its participants are there in the first place.

There were 1,018 seizures of drugs in 2017, up from 715 in 2016. Whether this means more drugs are coming into prisons or that the IPS has been more proactive in seizing them is not clear.

There are many ways to get drugs into a prison. The method which has received the most attention in recent years is packages being thrown over prison walls into exercise yards. However this is generally regarded as the least effective way of smuggling drugs.

“If drugs are coming over the wall in big numbers it’s usually a sign the prison has cracked down on other routes,” a senior IPS official says. “It’s the riskiest method because officers are pretty good about getting to them ahead of the prisoners.”

Cloverhill is where remand prisoners – inmates who are being held in custody pending trial – are kept. They have regular court appearances and these are a common route for drug smuggling. “They would be sticking Kinder eggs loaded with stuff up their back passage or they would swallow things in a condom or conceal it in some other way,” says one IPS official.

Other prisoners manipulate the bail and compassionate-leave systems so they can leave prison temporarily and return “packed” – slang for smuggling drugs anally. Lowly gang associates will even get themselves arrested for minor offences knowing they’ll be sent to Cloverhill and can bring a consignment with them.

“The truth is it’s very hard to clamp down on. I don’t know if the judiciary know about it at all,” the IPS official says.

In other prisons, family visits are the most common route. “The baby will be handed over for a cuddle and they’ll be something down the back of the nappy,” says Cuffe.

Prisoners and prisoners’ families are often forced under threat of violence to help smuggle in contraband. In many cases families do it to repay their relative’s drug debt.

Phones, some of them less than 7cm in size and made entirely of plastic to avoid metal detectors, are rented out by gangs to other prisoners for extortionate amounts

“€20,000 wouldn’t be unusual. This would be under threat of their relative in prison being hurt or them being hurt on the outside,” according to one official. “And once they’re in that situation they never get out of it.”

Prisons require a huge amount of deliveries from the outside to keep them running. These services offer another supply route for gangs. “Somewhere like Mountjoy is like a small town. You’ve swill trucks going out, you’ve food coming in, you’ve this, that and the other,” says Cuffe.

“If you were to search everything thoroughly at the main gate, you’d have a backlog down the street.”

Some prisons are worse than others. Arbour Hill has almost no drug problem because of its population – mostly convicted sex offenders and many of them elderly. One prison officer recalls with a smile one occasion when Garda drugs dogs were brought in to search the prison. The only time they started barking was when they were by the staff lockers.

Staff smugglers

Over the years, a small number of prison officers have been arrested for smuggling drugs into facilities. Some were acting under threat while others needed the money to pay off debts. No matter their motivations, such officers immediately become persona non grata among their colleagues, says Cuffe.

“Prison officers aren’t loyal to many things but they absolutely hate that. Because it’s a job where you have to fight your corner and the last thing you need is some scumbag causing more trouble.

“[The gangs] target fellas who are weak. And if the fella does it once, they’re f**ked. They can’t stop or they’ll be found out.”

While corrupt officers are rare, it’s a common belief that others turn a blind eye to drug traffic as it helps keep prisons calm. This view is rejected by all the prison officers interviewed.

“Drugs are the bane of prison officers’ lives. There is nothing worse than dealing with a spaced-out junkie because you’re not talking to a normal fella, you’re talking to a fella who’s in another world,” says Cuffe.

“It’s the one thing we were extremely vigilant about. We gutted shoes, we spread arse cheeks apart. We did demeaning stuff. So you weren’t going to do all that and then turn around and say I don’t give a f**k.”

Officially, the IPS has a zero-tolerance stance towards drugs. But staff are also pragmatic; they realise that if there is a market for drugs someone will find a way to bring them in.

These are youngsters whose fathers or brothers have been shot dead. Most have relatives locked up. Some of them were reared in homes with chronic heroin abuse

“There is an unofficial acknowledgment at management level,” says an IPS staff member. “As long as it doesn’t get too out of control it’s tolerable. Now that would be unofficial and would be denied completely by the prison service.”

He believes it would be possible to run a drug-free prison but it would involve implementing an incredibly strict regime – one that would likely be in breach of prisoners’ rights. “You’d be making prison a lot harder for everyone including the people who have nothing to do with drugs.”

Mobile phones are a key component of the prison drug trade. They’re needed to arrange supply routes and payments. They also form a separate part of the prison economy. Phones, some of them less than 7cm in size and made entirely of plastic to avoid metal detectors, are rented out by gangs to other prisoners for extortionate amounts. If the prisoner is caught using the phone and it is seized, they – or more likely their family – have to pay its owner multiples of what it cost to purchase.

Gangs ‘don’t run prisons’

The Irish Prison Service says criminal gangs are nothing new for prison management, and exist in every prison system in the world. “Rivalries and feuds which develop on the outside continue inside prison. Prison management and staff have to ensure that the various factions are kept apart and, as far as possible, that gang members do not have influence over other inmates or criminal activities outside the prisons.”

Gangs, it says, pose “significant challenges” for the Irish Prison Service including: managing the segregation of rival groups and prisoners on protection; preventing supply of contraband; preventing bullying and intimidation; disrupting criminal activity of gangs in prison and in the community, organised from within prisons; intimidation of and threats to staff; and increased risk from coordinated acts of indiscipline.

“Membership/allegiance to criminal gangs fluctuates on a continuous basis with some persons breaking links and others becoming affiliated. The majority of gangs mirror those in the community while there are some factions linked to certain groupings such as Eastern European.”

However, the Irish Prison Service “does not accept the suggestion that gangs run parts of prisons” and explains some of the tactics it employs to repress gangs – including intelligence gathering, barring of certain visitors, use of CCTV and mobile phone detectors, monitoring mail, use of segregation units, transfer of gang leaders and prosecutions.

What can be done?

The solutions to the prison gang problem range from the disciplinary to the educational. Many frontline prison officers would like to see senior gang leaders sent to Portlaoise Prison – the country’s only maximum security facility.

Due to its history as a facility for holding members of various paramilitary factions, Portlaoise is already set up to keep warring groups separate. As a result of the peace process, it is currently the only prison consistently well under-capacity. This, and its strict regime, arguably make it the perfect place to hold gang leaders.

Moving them there would “cut the head off the gangs” leading to a decline in their power and influence, says Cuffe. “You could have the Kinahans in one part and the Hutches in another and they would only be able to shout at each other.”

The POA has also demanded frontline officers be issued batons to defend themselves, a proposal resisted by the Department of Justice. “People have the idea we want to batter the prisoners. We just want something to hold someone at bay when they’re coming at you with the pitcher of boiling water,” one officer says.

One ex-prisoner suggests a prison-based educational programme about the dangers of gang association could help. “It doesn’t have to be a documentary on the Kinahans and the Hutches. It could just be about gang culture, what it does, how it affects everybody.”

There’s some merit in this approach according to Deirdre Malone of the Irish Penal Reform Trust. As an example, she points to an initiative launched last year which has successfully reduced violence between different Traveller groups in prison.

But the main focus should be on intervening before these young men are sent to prison, she says. This is where Eddie D’Arcy and the Solas Project come in. The project operates several initiatives both inside and outside prisons to divert young people from criminality. One of its most radical programmes is Rua. The meaning behind the name is twofold. Rua is Irish for red; in the past, the names of persistent young offenders appeared with a red flag beside them on the Garda computer system. Rua is also Irish for something that is alive or strong.

It’s a unique initiative in that it targets only the most difficult cases – severely deprived young people who are closely linked to serious criminality.

“These are youngsters whose fathers or brothers have been shot dead. Most have relatives locked up,” says D’Arcy.

“Some of them were reared in homes with chronic heroin abuse. Very few even have a Junior Cert.”

Since October, Rua has targeted 22 youths from Dublin’s southwest inner city. The results are broadly promising; 13 are “really well-engaged” while the rest have refused to take part or have been sent to prison.

When the Irish Youth Justice Service asked D’Arcy to take on the project, he had several preconditions; he would be allowed to work with the children even after they turn 18 (most youth outreach programmes terminate at this age) and he would be allowed to continue working with them even if they commit crimes or are locked up.

“We don’t give up,” he explains. “These are kids who have potential, these are kids who want to talk to you and none of them particularly want to spend the rest of their lives locked up in prison.”