The Irish Prison Service is using a “high risk” system to keep rival gang members separated, according to a report by the Inspector of Prisons.
In her annual report for 2018, Patricia Gilheaney identified a number of serious problems in the country's 13 prisons including growing numbers of gangs and the ready availability of drugs.
The presence of numerous gangs operating within prison walls was a reflection of the “exponential growth in the number of crime-related gangs and factions throughout the country”.
She said that “when members of gangs/factions are confined within prisons it amplifies the problem and brings with it significant challenges for the provision of a safe environment”.
The inspector said she witnessed first hand the challenges for prison officers in separating rival gang members. “Membership or allegiance to these criminal gangs fluctuate on a continuous basis with some persons breaking links and others becoming affiliated.”
Colour coding is used to signify which prisoners had to be separated from each other for safety. The inspector said this system is high risk “due to the number of factions involved”.
The ready availability of contraband, including drugs and mobile phones, is also a “serious concern”, the report states. Drug dealing and the selling of phones means some prisoners can amass significant wealth while other inmates are left in significant debt.
It can lead to “bullying and intimidation of not only the prisoners concerned, but also their families and friends”.
She also noted the use of drones “compounds the contraband problem and challenges the Irish Prison Service to keep abreast of technological advances”.
The inspector urged the Irish Prison Service not to accept this situation as “the norm” and instead to increase security at points of entry.
In 2018 a number of families of prisoners who died in custody expressed concern to the inspector that drug use was a factor in the deaths.
There were 16 deaths in custody in 2018 and seven deaths of offenders on temporary release.
Regarding mental health care, the Prison Service’s forensic mental health service does not have sufficient access to appropriate facilities, the report states, while Castlerea – one of the country’s biggest prisons – has no dedicated psychiatrist.
Ms Gilheaney welcomed the construction of a new, 120-bed Central Mental Hospital for severely mentally ill offenders but said it was likely the current challenges would continue.
The issue of the treatment of vulnerable prisoners was highlighted recently when the High Court was told a brain-damaged homeless man had been found in Mountjoy Prison with unwashed feet and filthy bed linen, having spent more than a year on remand in the high-support unit.
Ms Gilheaney told the Irish Times she was aware of the case but could not comment for legal reasons.
Elsewhere in the report, the inspector noted that prisoner appointments with psychologists, dentists and teachers were sometimes cancelled or delayed as there were no prison officers available to escort them. This was a particular problem at the end of every quarter due to resource issues.
Some prisoner workshops were also closed because educational officers were reassigned to security and escort duty, the report states.
The annual report notes the conclusion of an external review which found the current inspection regime is “not fit for purpose”.
PA Consulting, which carried out the review, said the Office of the Inspector of Prisons was a "relatively immature organisation" which was not "fulfilling its primary statutory role in line with recognised international good practice".
In the last five years only three prisons have been subjected to a formal inspection with a report being published, the PA report states.
Half of the country’s prisons have not been formally inspected at all since the Office of Inspector of Prisons was established a decade ago.