Mountjoy prisoners seek solitary confinement for protection

Gang culture and easy availability of drugs continue to pose widespread problems

Mountjoy Prison: prisoners expressed “frustration, hopelessness and at times anger” about conditions. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Mountjoy Prison: prisoners expressed “frustration, hopelessness and at times anger” about conditions. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Up to one in four inmates in Mountjoy prison are in solitary confinement at any given time due to their fears of attack from gang members, a report has found.

The Mountjoy Visiting Committee said in the absence of a solution to the gang problem in society as a whole, the situation of inmates requiring protection “is likely to persist”.There were just under 500 male inmates in the prison in Dublin’s north inner city at the end of October 2016, 120 of whom were under a protection regime.

The report is one of 14 published on Wednesday into each of the country’s prisons, based on visits in 2016.

It said the availability of illegal drugs at Mountjoy continues to pose problems for prisoners and staff as well as being “a potential source or risk of intimidation to prisoners’ families”.

The committee said the requirement to segregate prisoners for the purpose of avoiding inter-prisoner violence is a difficult issue.

Prisoners expressed “frustration, hopelessness and at times anger” about conditions, including the prevalence of gang culture, widespread abuse of drugs in the prison, and the lack of a drug-free environment and drug-free accommodation on release.

Concerns were raised by prisoners and management about the increasing trend of media reporting of detailed personal information not previously in the public domain.

Prisoners expressed concern that the depth of detailed knowledge in these articles is “an infringement of their and their families’ rights to privacy”.

A small number of prisoners also expressed concern about verbal intimidation by staff.

Competing needs

The report said the large number of prisoners on restricted regimes in the prison “generally is a reflection of the divisions and disputes in the community from which the prisoners come”.

“The context of threat and violence has an impact on safety, health and rehabilitation of prisoners and is a cause of concern.”

It added that the “competing needs” of ensuring the safety of vulnerable individuals, while allowing them acceptable out-of-cell time, imposes “considerable demands of staff and resources”.

There were 120 prisoners under a protection regime in October 2016. The committee said attempts were made to reduce the number of prisoners on 23-hour lock-up and to implement at least three hours’ out-of-cell time.

The committee said long-term segregation may contribute to poor mental health, including depression and paranoia. It warned that human rights were “at risk of being eroded” and opportunities for rehabilitation seemed severely limited.

End of isolation

Deirdre Malone, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said using isolation as a tool for the management of prison violence creates new problems for prisoners. “While there is a prison policy in place to eliminate the use of solitary confinement since July 2017, more concerted effort to address the core issue of drug-related violence must be taken across Government departments,” she said.

The report also said the current practice of one nurse on duty at night for the whole Mountjoy campus is a cause of concern. “On rare occasions, whether due to staff illness or absence for other reasons, there may be no nurse on duty. This practice, where a large prison campus with more than 700 prisoners, including the High Support Unit, men and women, may be without the services of a nurse on site, is a serious issue,” it said.

The committee said this gap in nursing cover needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Other recommendations include further investment in drug treatment programmes and continued efforts to stop the supply of drugs reaching the prison. It said there was also a need for drug-free landings in the prison for those who were making substantial efforts to overcome addiction.

The committee said extra resources needed to be made urgently available for prisoners with serious mental illnesses who could not be treated outside of a secure hospital setting.