Vulnerable, older prisoners ‘sabotaging’ parole to stay in jail

Outgoing Parole Board chief says timely rethink needed concerning mentally-ill prisoners

John Costello, outgoing chairman of the Parole Board. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

A number of life-sentence prisoners were only being diagnosed with mental health issues or learning difficulties after 20 years in jail, with some vulnerable prisoners "deliberately sabotaging" their parole hearing because they wanted to remain in jail, according to the outgoing chairman of the Parole Board.

John Costello believed a new approach was required to better support prisoners with mental health problems and learning difficulties. He said the State trailed other countries and that expert reports over decades had repeatedly pointed to the absence of services in the Republic, yet it cost €80,000 to keep a prisoner in jail for a year here.

During his 10-year period as chairman of the Parole Board, it had reviewed the sentences – usually life terms – of prisoners with schizophrenia and bipolar illnesses, among other acute conditions. Some of these prisoners required close monitoring by mental health professionals in the community before they could be paroled, he said. But those facilities were not available.

Mr Costello added that when prisoners with acute mental illness came to the end of their sentences and had to be released, it was unclear to him how anyone could be sure they had continued to take their medication afterwards.


He has visited the Belkin House facility in Vancouver, Canada, which was run by the Salvation Army and offered a home with support and health services to prisoners and homeless people. It could house several hundred people.

"Even if six former prisoners were resettled into such a residential setting with the support of specialist nurses, it would cost far less than keeping them in prison here in Ireland, " Mr Costello said.

For those prisoners still serving sentences, Mr Costello believed medical and mental health services in the prison system were “understaffed and overworked”, as some 70 per cent of prisoners in Ireland suffered from personality disorders.

“We have reviewed [prisoners] after 20 years of being in prison and it’s only now it’s coming to light that they had an intellectual disability, after 20 years,” said Mr Costello, a Dublin-based solicitor.

People with intellectual disability “could be very easily persuaded to do things by gang members” and they would generally “be the ones to get caught”. When people with intellectual disability came into the criminal justice system, their condition should be known and factored into their cases from the outset.

“Some very vulnerable prisoners, for various reasons, they’ve been in prison for 20 years and they don’t want to leave; especially if they are of pension age or more,” he said. “Some of them ruin their parole review deliberately, they sabotage it deliberately so they won’t get parole. And I think as people are living for longer, this is going to become more common. They are terrified because they feel they can’t survive on their own.”

A new Parole Board will become fully operational early next year. Under the new Parole Act, they will only begin reviewing prisoners after they have served 12 years or more in jail, rather than the seven or more previously.

Mr Costello said when prisoners were reviewed by the Parole Board after just seven years, it effectively forced them to engage with the rehabilitative services in the 12 months before the first review. Reports were also drawn up on their progress, meaning the rehabilitative process got under way just six or seven years into a life sentence.

“We’re concerned they may not start that work until after 12 years now. Our concern is [life-sentence prisoners] could be forgotten about until their first parole review,” he said.

Lower risk

Some murderers serving life had never committed a crime before the murder for which they were incarcerated, said Mr Costello. These were generally lower risk and easier to prepare for release. The same could not be said for those who murdered in the context of gangland crime.

“Generally, the people that are in gangs we sort of know from reading behind the reports. There’s probably going to be another murder as soon as they get out,” he said of the extreme risk often associated with releasing gangland killers.

“But if someone has committed a murder as part of a gang warfare, we don’t get a [specific] history of the gang warfare [when considering parole of that prisoner]. We only get the history of that individual prisoner.”

Asked if it was harder for very high profile prisoners to be released, Mr Costello believed being high profile brought many problems.

"I remember interviewing Catherine Nevin and her concern that she would be high profile if she got parole and everybody would know," he said of Nevin, who was jailed for life for the murder of her husband, Tom Nevin, at their Co Wicklow pub, Jack White's Inn, in 1996.

“There is a case for arguing that the media are intruding too much when a prisoner is paroled. It makes it much more difficult for them to resettle into the community if the media are following them around.”

Mr Costello said it was possible for prisoners to reintegrate into society, including lifers who served 20 years. The biggest factor was family support and some prisoners’ partners continued to support them, which was “the greatest safety valve against reoffending”. For others, the support was “fairly thin” as their parents had often died while they were in jail.

Some prisoners, despite being in jail, managed to befriend women in the community and begin relationships with them, which often developed when they were released. “It is amazing how many of them have met women,” he said, adding those women could come and see the prisoners during visiting hours.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times