Pilot prison project seeks to persuade criminals to leave gangs

About 20% of imprisoned gang members due for release this year

Prison officer in the commital unit where prisoners spend their first night in Mountjoy Prison. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Prison officer in the commital unit where prisoners spend their first night in Mountjoy Prison. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


Irish prison management is devising a programme to persuade inmates to leave criminal gangs after they are locked up.

According to the latest available figures, the Irish Prison Service (IPS) is aware of 183 gang members currently in custody. About 20 per cent (39) of these are due for release this year.

Some of these prisoners are members of major gangs such as the Kinahan cartel while others are part of smaller, regional groupings. The figures exclude dissident republicans and other subversive prisoners.

Gang membership remains a major problem in Irish prisons and inmates frequently have to be kept separate for fear of inter-gang violence. Prison staff use a colour-coding system to keep gang members separate and some inmates have to spend up to 22 hours a day in their cells due to threats.

Senior gang leaders have also been able to run aspects of their criminal networks from prison through the use of smuggled mobile phones.

The IPS said it was developing a pilot gang-desistance programme which will be called “You Turn”.

In response to queries from The Irish Times, the IPS said the plans were in the “embryonic stages” and had been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The You Turn initiative was described by the IPS as a short introductory group project which was being devised by its psychology service.

Trained personnel would sit down with gang members to explore the “reasons for becoming involved in gangland activity, costs and benefits of gang involvement, and how to avoid gangland involvement in future”, a spokesman said.

The programme will be based on the experiences of reformed gang members as well as academic studies.

Analysis will be conducted before and after the pilot project to determine if it is capable of persuading male prisoners to leave gangs.

All people entering prison are asked if they are a member of a gang and if they are in a feud with another prisoner. The number of gang members in prisons is likely far higher than the official figure as many inmates decline to answer these questions.

In response to a parliamentary question in the Dáil last month, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said it could be difficult to determine gang numbers as membership fluctuates continuously “with some persons breaking links and others becoming affiliated on a daily basis”.

“It should also be noted that more than one criminal gang may group together under the umbrella of a particular group and, in some instances, some gangs may form splinter groups due to family or inhouse disputes,” Ms McEntee said.

The new pilot programme will run alongside other violence-reduction initiatives run by the IPS, such as one-on-one and group therapy.

Any prisoner sentenced to more than two years is proactively targeted for therapy and risk assessments, including gangland prisoners.

Other measures to reduce gang activity include targeted searches of cells, the use of metal detectors and mobile-phone detectors, and the implementation of new anti-drone technology to prevent drugs being flown into prisons.