Prisons struggling to tackle drug and staff problems - report

Use of methadone in Mountjoy criticised by prisons oversight group

The Methadone and Medication station in Mountjoy jail. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

The Methadone and Medication station in Mountjoy jail. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

 

Prisons are still struggling to tackle drug and staffing problems, according to the latest round of prison visit reports released by the Department of Justice today.

One of the reports, which were compiled by prison visiting committees for various detention centres across the State, expressed severe reservations over the introduction of methadone into Mountjoy Prison’s low security Training Unit.

Committee members voiced concerns over the highly-addictive nature of the drug, which is used to wean addicts off opiates such as heroin, but acknowledged some successes of the fledgling system introduced earlier this summer.

Despite largely positive findings on conditions in Castlerea, Mountjoy, Wheatfield and Midlands prisons, the core issues of understaffing and drug use within jails provided particular points of concern for inspectors.

The report on Dublin’s Wheatfield Prison identified “a lot of [drug-related] difficulties” still ongoing in the facility, and also made reference to health issues such as a “vermin” problem caused by unsanitary methods of refuse disposal from prisoners’ cells.

It also detailed problems emanating from severely reduced library opening times within the 540 capacity prison, a situation which may detract from prisoners’ ongoing rehabilitation according to the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT).

“While IPRT welcomes the improvements noted, particularly in Mountjoy Prison, we are concerned at recurring reports of limited access to libraries and workshops,” said IPRT executive director Deirdre Malone.

“It is essential that those aspects of prison life which support rehabilitation, including year-round access to education, training and libraries, must be fully resourced and accessible to all prisoners, including those on restricted regimes,” she added.

Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald said issues such as understaffing and drugs remain a top priority for the Irish Prison Service.

“The Irish Prison Service will continue to implement policies and procedures to reduce the availability and use of illicit drugs in the prison estate,” she said at the publication of the reports.

“Efforts are made on a continuous basis to prevent the flow of contraband into our prisons. Nevertheless the IPS recognises that constant improvements are required in this area,” she added.

Although offering a largely positive assessment of prisoners’ conditions amid ongoing refurbishments to Mountjoy’s D wing, the report on the unit stated that staffing arrangements had reverted back to 2012 levels of two prison officers for every 500 prisoners, a situation which had been described in a previous visiting committee publication as “unsatisfactory”.

It was also found that 30 prisoners had been confined to their cells for 20 hours a day in the State’s largest prison as of January 2014, with a further 10 locked up for periods of 19 hours per day.

The reports come during a busy period of activity for the IPS, with the release of two further reports - the inspector of prison’s annual report for 2013 and an 18-month overview on deaths in custody - expected imminently.

An investigation by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol in April found that 43 per cent of inmates who used heroin had started taking it in prison, while further visiting committee reports released at the beginning of May pointed to issues of severe overcrowding in Cork and Cloverhill prisons, describing some of the accommodation provided as “Dickensian”.