Tales from the block: surviving in solitary
Irish inmates can spend up to 40 days at a time in 23-hour-a-day confinement, entirely alone or with just a few others, despite recent improvements
‘You’re in your cell, looking at four walls. If you need to go to the toilet you have to go in a bucket. You have to urinate in it and do your number two in it. And you knock your red light on. And if the screw wants to let you out to empty your bucket he’ll let you out. And if he doesn’t want to let you out he won’t let you out. So sometimes you get out and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you’re waiting two days to get out.”
Three years ago Matthew Gray, who is now 23, spent several weeks in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin in “23-hour lock-up” (confinement, alone or with a small number of others, away from the main prison population).
“The smell is unreal, because there’s no window. You’d ask could you wash the bucket out, and for a mop to mop the floor, and [cleaning] spray, so the cell is clean and it smells nice. The conditions were terrible, despicable.
“You were asking them could you have fresh water, to fill up a two-litre bottle of water. You had an hour for exercise and a phone call at the same time. Then you’re back in your cell for 23 hours. I read books and wrote raps. I’m a rapper. I sing and rap. That killed the time.
“I had got paranoid,” he says. “There was word going around there might be a threat on my life because of what happened when I was younger. I got into drugs when I was 12, and my da had to bail me out – pay people money – or else I would get shot.
“[In prison] I had a lot of stress going through my head. I was thinking about my children. I have a three-and-a half-year-old child, and I got locked up when he was only three weeks old. That’s all I was thinking about.”
Terms such as “23-hour lock-up”, “on punishment”, “restricted regimes” and “on the block” are common in Irish prisons. They all describe the locking of prisoners in in a cell, sometimes in solitude, sometimes with one other prisoner, often for 24 hours with just one brief period for exercise.
Things have improved since Gray did his time in 23-hour lock-up. It was once permitted to keep prisoners in this pattern for up to 56 days, but in 2014 the Irish Prison Service decided that housing hundreds of men in this way across the network of jails in the Republic needed to be tackled. The maximum period for solitary confinement has been reduced to 40 days – still much higher than the 15 days recommended by the United Nations’ special rapporteur for torture.
In his recent book, Prisoners, Solitude, and Time, Ian O’Donnell, who is professor of criminology at University College Dublin, explores how prisoners deal with being locked away alone for long periods. For some, especially those with the beginnings of mental illness, solitary confinement can nudge them over the edge.
Among those O’Donnell spoke to for his international study were men serving life sentences in Mountjoy Prison.
“Their take on it was that if you didn’t have literacy skills it was very painful,” he says. “Many of them talked about filling their day by creating a routine that would help to pass the time more quickly.”
This might consist of reading and writing, creating and following exercise plans, and sleeping as much as possible.
“Some prisoners said they cut off contact with the outside world,” O’Donnell says. “They found it easier if they didn’t have to depend on anybody from outside, because they couldn’t play any meaningful role in their lives. Many of them said they didn’t plan for their release, because they found it very frustrating to plan for events that might not necessarily happen, or not in a way they anticipated.”
“Rob” is a current lifer in Mountjoy, and has spent long periods in solitary.
Involved in a gangland murder at the age of 20, he was convicted and jailed for life. Now several years into his term, the father of two served 56 days of solitary confinement in the early stages of his sentence as punishment for disruptive behaviour. He was permitted an hour a day of out-of-cell time to exercise or attend the gym.
“You get a book out, get stuck into reading something. Your eyes get constantly strained, you’re reading so much. Then you’d do a workout in the cell: sit-ups, push-ups, that sort of thing.
“When I was there it was over Christmas. I have two young girls, and it was tough, you know what I mean? Not knowing how they were getting on on Christmas Day was an absolute killer. It woke me up.
“I was only a year into a life sentence. I was a bit crazy, off my head, running around the prison like a lunatic. It hadn’t set in. Then when you’re inside for five, six, years, then maybe you’re ready to accept it.
“When I came back to the main prison after the 23-hour lock-up – on the block, we call it – I stood back from people a bit, because I didn’t want to get involved in anything dodgy and go back to the block.
“I’ve seen people go back and forward – seen a fella last year two or three times in the block. That’s 120 days in a 365-day year. I’m a strong-minded person; I’ve done one 56-day stretch on the block, and I won’t go back again. It’s not the place to be. I’m not boasting about it, but I was able for it. But for other people it would tear them apart.”
In July 2013 the Irish Prison Service began to publish data on “restricted regime prisoners”. The first such survey revealed that 211 men were being locked away for 22 or 23 hours a day. The latest figures reveal a drop in that number to 78.
Of the 3,685 people in prison in Ireland, 389 were on restricted regimes when the last survey was conducted, in October 2015; 152 of these were on 19-hour lock-up, one was on 20-hour lock-up, 158 were on 21-hour lock-up, 47 were on 22-hour lock-up, and 31 were on 23-hour lock-up.
Some are locked away, often on request, for their own protection after threats against them. Others are being punished for a variety of infringements, from attacking other prisoners or staff to damaging prisoner property.
The director general of the Irish Prison Service, Michael Donnellan, says that when he took over, in 2011, he inherited an overcrowded system in which staff were “simply managing the best they could”.
“The most difficult people – usually people with behavioural difficulties, violence issues or mental-health issues – were defaulting into solitary confinement, ie 23-hour lock-up,” he says.
Donnellan says he is committed to trying to eradicate the harmful practice. “If we could eliminate the 23-hour completely, and push it back to 22 hours, that would mean everyone would get two hours [out of their cells]. And then maybe we push it back again.”
He believes that the UN’s target of a 15-day maximum for solitary confinement can be provided for in the not-too-distant future. He adds that “we cannot accept” the theory that a small number of prisoners simply cannot mix with other inmates. Socialising them into smaller groups, and mixing with each other away from the rest of the prison population, would be better, he says.
“There are guys who are really mentally unwell and perhaps socially phobic,” Donnellan says. “Some people just do not want to come out. Some people are actually physically afraid to come out, and they’ve got used to doing all their sentence behind the door.”
Although there is scope to send some prisoners to the Central Mental Hospital, only the priority cases are accepted, as space is at a premium. “Prisons are the new mental hospitals of Ireland – that’s the reality,” he says.
“My kids don’t know I’m in prison,” says Rob. “They think I’m away working. But they’re getting older now. I know I’ll have to tell them some day. I feel like I’m lying to them; I’ll lose respect from them.
“I need to tell them in the next couple of months, maybe after Christmas. I’ll get an open visit, tell them how it is. I’ll be as straight as I can with them. It’s going to be tough. It will be emotional, very emotional, I’d say.
“They’re coming into me every week with their homework and school tests; they’re getting 12 out of 12 in their spellings and 13 out of 13 in their maths. I find them amazing. But I should be out there, working and getting them lots of little surprises for being such good kids.”
The Irish Penal Reform Trust says that locking prisoners away for 23 hours a day for any longer than 15 days is regarded internationally as “prolonged solitary confinement”. At that point “the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible,” the trust says.
Those effects range from insomnia and confusion to hallucinations and mental illness. “These health risks can arise after only a few days and can increase each additional day spent in isolation,” the trust says.
O’Donnell agrees, adding that some people also “slow down and withdraw” when they are removed from others’ company.
“If people are in solitary for too long they go into a sort of hibernation,” he says. “And it’s difficult for them to break back out of that and play a role in life. Because our prisoners are going to be released at some stage, it’s important they are prepared for that.” Matthew Gray has been incarcerated for long periods of his life. “I was in St Patrick’s Institution because when I became homeless I had a drugs habit; I was taking tablets,” he says.
“I made awful mistakes in my life that I got locked up for. I got five years with three years suspended, so I did 18 months. I was in Pat’s for 12 months and then six months in the Joy and Cloverhill . . .
“My mother got sick when I was very young, and my da was working, so I went to live with my sister in Ballymun for a while from the time I was about five. But then I got into drugs.
“I’ve been in Le Froy [a Salvation Army hostel], Flynn’s B&B, the Sunnybank Hotel, Caretaker’s [a hostel for at-risk 16- to 21-year-olds] and that’s when I met my partner. She left her family home to be with me. I’m in a self-catering hotel now with my fiancee and two kids.
“When I got out of Mountjoy it changed my life. I haven’t picked up a charge in over two years.
“It was hard at the time, but it copped me on. I have a lot of knowledge from being in there with older people. I have a brain; I have good knowledge for the age I am.”
Conditions have improved, he acknowledges. “They’re after doing it up now,” he says. “They have new sinks and everything in the cells. But when I was in there they had nothing. They had no water; they had no sink.”
Solitary confinement “is going to send people off their head. It’s going to send people to commit suicide. It’s going to send them to take drugs, overdose, and send them on depression.
“I know people it had a lot of impact on. When they got out they committed suicide because they suffered from depression from looking at four walls all the time. I have friends who have died in there.
But basically it changed my life because all I kept thinking about was my kid. Then we had another kid. We lost him. We buried him last year. And we had another one. He’s eight months now.
“So that’s that: my fiancee and two kids, and one that’s upstairs.”