Prison officers accused of ‘over exaggerating’ inmate benefits
Prisoners who attacked staff given privileges like cake and fish tanks, claim officers
Staff working in Cloverhill say the number of mentally ill people being sent there by the courts is unprecedented. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
‘We’re not rewarding them. We are taking people on a journey. We are always trying to stop people from being violent,’ said Michael Donnellan, Director General, Irish Prison Service. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times
Prison officers were “over exaggerating” the facilities made available to serious criminals in the State’s jails and it was crucial the prison system tried to reach dangerous criminals rather than simply lock them up and release them when their sentences expire, the head of the Irish Prison Service has said.
Michael Donnellan said he was “fully behind” a new project in the Midlands Prison, Portlaoise, where a new garden was being built for prisoners, despite criticisms the prison system was now appeasing dangerous criminals.
At its annual conference in Athlone, Co Westmeath, the Prison Officers Association said the garden was being constructed at a cost of over €100,000 and that it was mainly for one prisoner; who was serving time for violent crime and had attacked prison staff.
The POA said other prisoners who had attacked staff had been given privileges such as cake and fish tanks. It believed such privileges should be stopped as punishment for assaulting staff.
However, prison service director general Mr Donnellan said the prison system had a duty to try and rehabilitate prisoners, adding it was a correctional institution as much as a punishment one.
He described the POA’s description of the garden now under construction in the Midlands Prison as “not true”, saying the cost was no more than €30,000 adding the garden was part of a wider horticultural project across all jails to try and reach prisoners and reform them.
“In most of our prisons we’re trying to develop green spaces because what we had were concrete jungles. And we are trying to get grass under people’s feet.
“We have prisoners who are serving life sentences who haven’t touched grass for 20 years; that is amazing when you think about that.”
He added all but a very small number of people in prison would be released at some stage, and while they were in jail every effort must be made to get through to them. He believed by engage in horticulture and watching plants grow the prisoners would develop skills and reflect on their behaviours.
“We’re not rewarding them. We are taking people on a journey. We are always trying to stop people from being violent.
“The most hardened person will usually turn at some point,” he said of trying to reach criminals on an emotional level.
“It might take ten years or 12 years for the lights to go on but the reality is at some point through the journey of desistance the lights will go on.”
On the issue of prison gangs, Mr Donnellan said he accepted the POA’s suggestion there were 18 factions in Mountjoy Prison alone. But he said it was important to recognise the difference between people grouping together in a faction or sub group and forming a prison gang.
“We have 12 gangs in our prison service, made up of over 70 people in seven prison environments,” he said, adding while gangs must be managed it was important not to structure segregation in a way that ghettoises the gang problem in jails.
For that reason, it was getting to disperse gang members through the prison system rather than segregate gangs into one area.
“Ghettoising of gangs causes radicalisation, causes a breakdown in law and order and causes no-go areas. We are liaising with the gardai weekly and so there is no appeasement of gangs.”
He also insisted assaults on staff and other crimes in prison, such as the discovery of contraband like mobile phones, were brought to the attention of the Garda for criminal investigation.
The POA has complained assaults of their staff were not being taken seriously on all occasions by prison service management. Officials from the union have said while they had no difficulty with the Garda, they wanted a meeting with Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan to discuss how incidents in prison could be treated in the same way as crimes in the community.
In Britain, for example, a police liaison officer was assigned to every prison to deal with any matters that may require a policing response.