Ex-inmate says officer also blame for siege

 

A FORMER high-security prisoner, sentenced to 10 years for armed robbery, yesterday condemned the "complete inability" of prison officers' representatives to accept that the behaviour of some officers contributed to tensions in prisons.

Nonetheless, he denounced the actions of the prisoners in Mountjoy Prison's separation unit who allegedly threatened to inject their hostages with a blood filled syringe and to hang them.

Prompted to speak out after the two day hostage crisis in the prison, the former prisoner said that although nothing justified the violence inflicted on the four officers held hostage in Mountjoy, petty restrictions in the separation unit made life extremely difficult for prisoners. He said prisoners who complained were victimised.

He admitted he had used firearms during his crime - armed robbery - but, although he was involved in two assaults on other prisoners, said he had never physically attacked prison officers. And he challenged the argument that the pain inflicted on victims of crime justified the ill treatment of prisoners.

He reckoned that during just under eight years in prison he spent around a total of nine months, over six or seven different occasions, in the Mountjoy separation unit.

As a high security prisoner, he spent most of his time in prison in Portlaoise but was in the Mountjoy unit on remand and during appeal. He tried to escape twice from other prisons but was caught.

He said his time in the separation unit was marked by "petty" restrictions on life and severe constrictions caused by physical limitations. There were six cells on a short corridor and a single recreation room measuring about 20 feet by 20 feet. He said the exercise yard for the unit was an enclosed hexagonal space no more than about 30 feet across. It was "very, very tight", he said.

Despite having spent a large amount of his time studying and writing, he said, conditions like this caused tension, but he never found any satisfactory way to have his grievances dealt with.

Instead, he insisted, prisoners who complained were victimised. He said that once when he gave way, through frustration, to a "verbal explosion" and screamed at a prison officer, he was very roughly handled and thrown into a padded cell.

The Prison Officers' Association (POA) says its members are regularly subjected to assault and intimidation - but it vigorously rejects any claims of assaults on prisoners.

The ex prisoner insisted that any prisoner who assaulted a prison officer was, in turn, assaulted by staff. "They always come out worse," he said.

He said his decision to speak out was prompted by the public's belief that only prisoners caused violence in prison. He had encountered "great guys" in the prison service but found that officers who were seen as being too sympathetic to prisoners were "ostracised" by colleagues.

There was, he said, absolutely no confidence among prisoners about the system for communicating complaints or grievances. There was, for the most part, no confidence in visiting committees.

Many prisoners, particularly in Limerick Prison, had pinned their hopes on the report of the European Committee on the Prevention of Torture and Degrading Treatment, which had visited jails in this State. The committee was critical of the regime in Limerick.

The ex prisoner said the repercussions of the hostage siege would not work their way up to the Department of Justice and reform of the system but would simply lead to the imposition of more restrictions on other prisoners.

Meanwhile, there was no indication yesterday of any major developments or policy reappraisal arising from the siege. A senior source said yesterday, however, that it was still "early days".

The Government is proposing to remove responsibility for prisons from the Department and to set up a Prisons Commission. This was one of the announcements made in the aftermath of the Judge Dominic Lynch affair when the Department was found to have failed to inform the judge of his delisting from the Special Criminal Court last year.

The Prisons Section of the Department of Justice has only about 50 staff, including junior clerical staff, to administer a system which has more than doubled in size in the past decade. Sources say the whole administrative system works virtually on a permanent crisis basis.

While this Government has overseen increases in the size of the prison population, with the opening of new centres at Castlerea, Co Roscommon and at the Curragh, there is still little serious development of alternatives to custody, according to senior sources.

It is pointed out that there is no correlation between an increase in prison population and a decrease in crime.

There are strong suspicions among experienced prison officials that penal policy is being tailored, politically, to align with the views of the popular media.

However, it is accepted that until there is an expansion in the probation system, the prisons are unable to cope with the increasing numbers of offenders passing through the courts and more spaces are needed.