Is prison the right place for one of Ireland’s most dangerous inmates?
Family of Alan Ellis convinced he is not getting the treatment his condition merits
Rebecca Ellis, with a photograph of her brother Alan. Photograph: Dave Meehan/ Irish Times
When Alan Ellis appeared in court in last October to plead guilty to his latest offence he was surrounded by a phalanx of prison guards in full riot gear – a security procedure known as “barrier handling”.
For the last few years Ellis has been subjected to this barrier handling anytime he left his cell to shower, exercise or see his family or lawyer.
Coming to court was no different. As he emerged from a side door into Court Seven’s cramped defendant’s area in the Criminal Courts of Justice, three guards, including two with riot shields, shuffled along beside him. Usually a fourth officer would walk behind capturing everything on camera – a precaution in case violence breaks out – but on this occasion the judge had refused permission to film in the court.
Ellis is a 26-year-old man who has spent the last six years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement on 23-hour lock-up.
He is regarded by prison staff as one of the two most dangerous inmates in the country, the other being Leon Wright, a young man serving a 13-year term for a series of violent robberies and hijackings.
“It would certainly be between him and Leon,” says a staff member in Mountjoy Prison.
Over the last six years he has attacked at least four prison officers, multiple inmates (including one he stabbed in the eye) and a prison psychiatrist.
For much of that time, Ellis has been held in Mountjoy in a special cell in the Challenging Behaviour Unit. Everything there is constructed to ensure it can’t be turned into a weapon. Even the television is behind a plastic screen. Whenever he wanted to change channel he would call to the officer who would come up the landing with the remote.
The security protocol for Ellis in Mountjoy, a copy of which has been seen by The Irish Times, makes for grim reading:
“On every occasion when dealing with this offender, a full Control and Restraint team, appropriately attired in Personal Protective Equipment will be deployed,” reads one directive from the document which was drawn up last August.
Another directive states: “No contact with this offender is permitted unless properly attired with [Personal Protective Equipment].”
The document goes on to advise officers that Ellis must be searched every time he is returned to his cell to make sure he hasn’t taken any weapons back with him.
He’s given a “spork” (a mix between a spoon and a folk) to eat with which is removed after every meal. Even his toothbrush is taken away after each use.
And whenever he is out of his cell for exercise, officers must search and examine every part of it “for damage/signs of interference to ensure the prisoner is not attempting to fashion improvised weaponry”.
The restrictions extend to his medical treatment: “Due to current risks, medical staff will have to be escorted by prison officers at all times.”
Detaining prisoners like Ellis and Leon Wright is an extremely expensive business. Every time the prisoner is moved, even to go to the shower, a five person team in full riot gear must be assembled.
This huge manpower requirement often has two immediate consequences; either Ellis can’t be moved from his cell for visits due to a lack of officers or other activities in the prison are suspended while the officers deal with Ellis.
Ellis’s sister, Rebecca, says he has been told he is Ireland’s most expensive prisoner, costing over €1 million a year to detain. Senior prison service sources said it would be difficult to quantify a specific cost but agreed it is multiples of the cost of detaining the average inmate (about €70,000 per year).
“It would be extremely substantial. And that’s not counting the compensation costs for the staff he’s injured”, said one staff member. “He is certainly on the most elaborate regime in the entire system I’d say.”
Why are such extreme measures required to detain Ellis? The answer to that is easy; he has a long history of extreme violence against prison and medical staff as well as other inmates. A tougher question is why Ellis is like this in the first place.
Rebecca and her mother Christina believe his violence is a result of severe schizophrenia, along with several other disorders. The prison’s medical service at one point appeared to agree. It has prescribed anti-psychotic medication to Ellis and he has spent several spells in the Central Mental Hospital.
Now its diagnosis has changed. Prison doctors no longer believe he has schizophrenia but that he suffers from a personality disorder, which in legal terms doesn’t count as a mental illness.
This is in contrast to a recent medical report from a doctor on the outside which states without question he has severe schizophrenia and that it has been made worse by the solitary confinement regime.
Rebecca says she could see the signs in her brother from an early age. He would kick the walls thinking there were rats on the other side. He couldn’t sit still for a moment and was in an almost constant rage.
He was first diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome which caused him to constantly jerk his arms. Then the other diagnoses came – OCD, ADHD and multiple behavioural disorders.
The acronyms flow off Rebecca Ellis’s tongue as she sits in her mother’s kitchen in Rathfarnham. Despite being a few years younger than him, she knows her brother’s medical history better than many of his doctors. These diagnoses were only the start of her brother’s struggle with mental illness.
“No one has seen anything like him before. No one understood him,” Rebecca says. They tried various types of medication to try control his rage with little success.
“They didn’t understand how to stop the rage so they were constantly drugging him with all sorts of medications.”
“Thug”, “psycho”, “deranged”. The descriptions of Ellis in the tabloid press bear little resemblance to the man described by Rebecca and Christina.
“He’s misunderstood, he’s just misunderstood,” his sister says.
“He’s actually a wonderful young man. He’s very spiritual,” Christina adds. In one court hearing she told a judge Ellis was like two different people – compassionate one day and behaving like a monster was coming out of him the next.
Ellis received his first major sentence when he was 21, a six-year term for a horrific kidnapping and assault of a 14-year-old boy.
He falsely believed the boy had uncovered a stash of ecstasy pills belonging to him. Ellis brought the victim to a flat where he tied him to a radiator before torturing him for almost 90 minutes. He threw boiling water down the boy’s trousers and removed skin from his knees and fingers with a cheese grater.
Before the incident, Ellis’s family had an ominous feeling something was going to happen. He had been going to emergency rooms asking to be hospitalised because of the voices in his head. Then he’d get impatient and aggressive with the medical staff and would be arrested.
Shortly before the kidnapping a doctor had prescribed medication and referred him to mental health services in Tallaght, Rebecca says.
Ellis had the option of pleading not guilty by reason of insanity; in between the offence and his arraignment he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
However his family were advised that if they went down that route and were successful, Ellis could spend the rest of his life in the Central Mental Hospital (CMH) instead of receiving a lengthy but finite prison term. In the end he pleaded guilty.
At the judge’s direction, he received psychiatric treatment in prison, interspersed with spells in the CMH. By now his family say he was in the full grip of schizophrenia but had developed a good relationship with Dr Paul O’Connell of the CMH.
“Alan had a good bond with him and he really trusted him and we felt he’s in safe hands now,” Rebecca recalls. “Paul was lovely he was really nice to us.”
He also began receiving anti-psychotic medication via injection once a week which went some way towards reliving the symptoms of his illness. However he continued to display violent and aggressive behaviour and was regularly in solitary confinement – spending at least 21 hours a day confined to his cell in Mountjoy.
With the next attack things got much worse. Dr Ronan Mullaney from the CMH was visiting Ellis in his cell in October 2014 when Ellis mentioned he felt his life was under threat and wondered aloud “if my doctors are involved too”.
He lunged at the doctor with the handle of a paint roller he had sharpened to a point, shouting, “I’m going to f**king kill you.”
The incident ended with prison officers restraining Ellis and him dropping the weapon. Dr Mullaney was lucky to escape with a minor puncture wound to his neck, near his adam’s apple.
Ellis would later tell garda “a demon” had got into his head: “I’ve no control over this demon. I was thinking what to do for the day and ‘attack the doctor’ came into my head.”
Again, after consulting his legal team, Ellis and his family decided to plead guilty rather than attempting an insanity defence.
Sentencing Ellis to another three years, the judge directed more psychiatric care in prison: “It is a matter of common sense that he gets treatment otherwise matters could get serious very quickly.”
As far as the Irish Prison Service (IPS) was concerned, matters had already gotten serious. By this point he was on the strictest regime possible.
‘Mission from God’
Ellis’s mental illness has deteriorated significantly during his six years of continuous imprisonment, according to his family. He believes he is on a mission from God to kill a third of the world’s population (“And he could do it too,” one prison worker commented).
The situation is not helped by the books he is reading from the prison library about esoteric religions.
“They’re all about black magic, darkness and light. It’s not helping. It’s telling him about black vibes and white vibes and if he thinks you’re coming down with a bowl of cereal and a black vibe then it could be really bad.”
The prison service has no power to prevent him reading such books.
Rebecca says her brother uses his phone allowance every day to call the Samaritans Helpline where many of the staff know him by name.
One of the worst times for his family was Christmas 2016 when Ellis was in the Central Mental Hospital for about 12 weeks during which they couldn’t visit him, Rebecca claims.
She says that, according to his medical notes, Ellis was displaying disturbed behaviour while there including walking around his cell for hours at a time.
His deteriorating mental state has been matched by increasingly frequent attacks on staff and inmates. In 2014 Ellis slashed another prisoner in the eye with a shiv. The attack garnered a large amount of press coverage. What wasn’t reported, Rebecca says, was Ellis’s claims that other prisoners had been goading him in the lead-up to the attack.
His mother Christina can now tell whenever an attack is going to happen by her son’s demeanour.
“Every single day he’s getting worse,” Rebecca says. “We don’t even know who he is anymore. That’s the sad part.”
In mid-2017 Rebecca and her mother attended a meeting with CMH doctors and senior prison service staff, including then director general Michael Donnellan via video-link.
Rebecca says she could scarcely believe what she was told: “They said Alan’s not insane.”
Despite several protracted stays in the CMH and evidence heard at several court hearings that Ellis suffered from severe mental illness, his doctors now said, though Ellis continued to have issues, that he was no schizophrenic.
“After 25 years, it’s just gone away. So they said they’re going to take him off his injections and we’re going to release into the community.”
Initially they were going to keep him on his anti-psychotic medication but then decided against it, she says.
From that day on Ellis refused to engage with medical services.
“The last year has been the worst. He’s picked up more P19s (breaches of prison discipline reports) this year since he’s been off the medication than ever before,” Rebecca says.
She says Ellis has lost all trust in the CMH doctors after they said he was no longer mentally ill. Rebecca and her mother share his frustration.
The doctors are similarly frustrated. Even though they believe he doesn’t suffer from schizophrenia, they know Ellis still requires treatment for his many issues yet he refuses to engage. Rebecca and Christina have declined an invitation from the director of the CMH Prof Harry Kennedy to meet him about Ellis’s situation.
In October the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) held a conference to launch its report on reform of the prison system. Rebecca was late, having rushed over from the hospital (She’s due to give birth in February and has been put on bed rest).
When she arrived with her mother, she stood up to ask a question of the panel, which included the now director general of the IPS Caron McCaffrey.
Until then participants had been asking well-meaning, dry questions about penal policy. For several minutes an increasingly emotional Rebecca laid out her brother’s case.
No one wants Alan Ellis in prison. Not his family, not the prison officers, not the management
“All we’re looking for is help. Alan deserves to live a good life. He’s in solitary confinement, it’s inhumane.”
Eventually the event’s MC gently but firmly took the microphone from her. Rebecca ran from the room in tears.
“This is what’s wrong, nobody listens,” her mother Christina shouted before following her. It wasn’t the first time the two women had turned up to such an event to argue Ellis’s case and it wouldn’t be the last.
For a year they have written to every politician, Minister and prison official they could think of. They have filed multiple complaints with the Inspector of Prisons (the newly appointed Inspector Patricia Gilheaney has agreed to sit down with Rebecca and Christina) and are currently in the process of lodging a legal case against the State over Ellis’s treatment.
They want his illness to be recognised, they want an independent medical team for Ellis and they want him to receive treatment in a secure, non-prison environment. It’s a tall order. The only facility in the country which can provide such secure treatment is the CMH and Ellis refuses to engage with its doctors. And its doctors have determined he is not suitable for the facility.
“They don’t listen to you. I don’t mean to say that in a disrespectful way. But it’s like they don’t listen to the families,” Christina says.
Medical opinion on Ellis is split. One prison doctor who has treated him believes he genuinely suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and delusions. He is supported in this by a medical history, going back to childhood, filled with the warning signs of serious mental illness. Others believes he has some sort of personality disorder such as psychopathy or sociopathy.
Although a condition like psychopathy sounds extremely serious, it does not count as a mental illness for the purposes of Irish criminal law. The main reason for this is that unlike with some delusional disorders, the sufferer is fully aware of the morality and the consequences of their actions. In other words, they believe Ellis knows it’s wrong to stab inmates or prison officers; he just doesn’t care.
Indeed some Irish psychiatrists, including Prof Kennedy, wonder if it is a medical condition at all.
It takes six men to bring him to the shower and they’re going to release him to Mam
“Psychopathy is a sort of historical artefact. It’s essentially a list of pejorative adjectives for describing people while not using moral terms like ‘bad person’. It’s an academic debate that goes on and on,” Prof Kennedy told this newspaper earlier this year.
He was speaking in general terms during a tour of the hospital. When contacted for his article, both the Irish Prison Service and the CMH said they could not discuss individuals.
One prison service staff member put it in blunt terms: “The debate with Alan is is he mad or bad. Right now the dominant medical opinion is bad.”
Another officer commented: “No one wants Alan Ellis in prison. Not his family, not the prison officers, not the management. But there’s nowhere else for him.”
Ellis is an extreme example of a problem the prison service deals with every day. About 4 per cent of offenders are psychotic when sent to prison and suffer from either delusions or hallucinations. That’s not including prisoners with depression, autism or intellectual disabilities. According to the World Health Organisation, 10-15 per cent of prisoners worldwide suffer from serious, long-term mental illnesses.
The CMH is currently full and has been for some time. At last count there were 22 severely ill prisoners waiting on a bed in the hospital. D2, the landing in Cloverhill for prisoners with psychiatric issues, was so full at one point this year prisoners were sleeping the floor.
Last Thursday, Ellis was back in Court Seven of the Criminal Courts of Justice, along with a team of officers in riot gear, to face sentence for a 2016 attack on a prison guard.
He received a four-year sentence with one suspended after the judge took into account an independent medical report outlining his mental illness.
It’s not clear where Ellis will serve this sentence. The plan was to send him along with Leon Wright to the new National Violence Reduction Unit in the Midlands Prison.
The specially built five cell unit, constructed at a cost of €2.7 million, will cater to only the most dangerous prisoners and will be jointly run by a senior psychologist and an assistant prison governor.
Although most of its residents are likely to have severe difficulties, they will not be legally insane under the law. The unit has a twin focus, keeping staff and other prisoners safe and rehabilitating inmates like Ellis at least to the extent that they can return to the normal prison population.
There is also the possibility Ellis will go back to the CMH. At a planning meeting earlier this week, staff in Cloverhill were told he was number two on the waiting list for admission to the hospital, an apparent reversal of the opinion he doesn’t suffer from schizophrenia.
“That took us all by surprise. We had been told he was being treated as a security prisoner but now that seems to have changed to a medical prisoner,” a staff member said.
No matter where he goes, one day in the near future Ellis will be released, likely into the care of his mother Christina. It’s a day she both longs for and fears.
Asked about her biggest concern for the future, Christina pauses for a few moments before answering.
“My fear for the future is if they’re protecting themselves so well, what are they protecting themselves against than I can’t.”
Rebecca interrupts: “It takes six men to bring him to the shower and they’re going to release him to Mam?
“And she’s going to stand there with her arms open to him saying: ‘Whatever it takes, that’s my baby. If he kills me, he kills me.’”