Prisons are reforming but disturbing aspects of previous culture remain

Much progress has been made by the Prison Service since former probation and welfare chief Michael Donnellan took over

Where CCTV is not relevant or available, and where foul play may be a factor in a serious incident, the entire oversight of the prison system is grounded in testing the written records generated all day every day by staff. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Where CCTV is not relevant or available, and where foul play may be a factor in a serious incident, the entire oversight of the prison system is grounded in testing the written records generated all day every day by staff. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Last year, a man serving a lengthy prison sentence was found dead in his cell in a Dublin jail. Having long suffered from ill health, there was no suggestion of foul play in his passing.

However, when the Inspector of Prisons Judge Michael Reilly investigated, as he is obliged to for all prison deaths, some worrying features emerged.

The dead man was a special observation prisoner, meaning he should have been checked every 15-20 minutes through the night in question.

When the written records of that night’s duty were consulted, all seemed in order to Judge Reilly. However, when he viewed the CCTV footage of the area where the deceased’s cell was situated, a very different picture emerged, according to his report into the case.

Checks were much more lax than the written records of that night had suggested to Judge Reilly.

From the time the prisoner was locked into his cell for the night until he was found unresponsive the next morning, the deceased should have been checked on at least 38 times.

The footage revealed just 12 checks. During one period, some 84 minutes elapsed between checks. When the alarm was raised in the morning, the deceased was past the stage where trying to revive him was even an option.

His body was then removed from his cell before the Garda Síochána arrived to review the remains in situ.

Judge Reilly subsequently requested the names of all of those prisoners the deceased had been in contact with, but he did not get them. He concluded that “prison management did not fulfil its obligations” in furnishing information to him.

“Statements and reports generated by the prison personnel and submitted to me were in certain instances incomplete and at times inaccurate,” he noted.

In this case the fact procedures were not followed was exposed by the CCTV recording.

But in other cases where CCTV is not relevant or available, and where foul play may be a factor in a serious incident, the entire oversight of the prison system is grounded in testing the written records generated all day every day by staff.

Any effort to alter, mislead, fabricate or even render records and reports incomplete is a serious act against the independent oversight system established to drag what was once a Dickensian, inhumane and cruel prison regime into the modern era.

Much progress has been made by the prison service since former probation and welfare chief Michael Donnellan took over as director general three years ago.

But again and again Judge Reilly has complained of incomplete and misleading paperwork.

Some staff apparently remain of the belief the new system of accountability and the new commitment to safeguard the rights of often weak and vulnerable prisoners does not apply to them. It is one part of the culture the prison service must redouble its efforts to reform.