Hostage crisis eroded trust, says governor

 

The governor of Mountjoy Prison, John Lonergan, yesterday spoke publicly for the first time about the hostage crisis, writes Jim Cusack, Security Correspondent

By JIM CUSACK

THE six prisoners who captured and held five prison officers hostage, repeatedly threatening their lives in the process, would face internal prison punishment before being prosecuted by the gardai, the Governor, Mr Lonergan said yesterday.

He said the hostage-takers' actions were "totally and utterly unacceptable". They had completely eroded the environment of trust in the prison which allowed for a regime where prison officers did not carry guns or batons.

While they had not inflicted serious injury on the hostages,

"they used that great psychological weapon of fear".

It set back the progressive steps made towards making life in prison, "reasonably humane", Mr Lonergan said. Prisoners could only be reformed through humane treatment and if they weren't, the system was only perpetuating violence and aggression.

With 670 prisoners in a confined environment like Mountjoy, "an ounce of kindness was better than a ton weight of brutality".

Mr Lonergan's experience in directing the successful operation to end the first major hostage crisis the Irish penal system included problems with media coverage of events. He expressed exasperation with some media coverage of prison affairs in this State.

Reports, first on Sky News on Sunday and then in the Irish Independent on Monday, precipitated the most serious moments in the 53-hour siege.

In the case of the Sky News broadcasts on early Sunday afternoon, one of the prisoners felt there was too much emphasis on the fact that he was facing a conspiracy charge in relation to a murder (of journalist Veronica Guerin), Mr Lonergan said.

This "created major problems", he said. However, by Sunday night it became relatively calm and peaceful again, he said.

Throughout the negotiations with the inmates, Mr Lonergan said, the authorities were "depending on their goodwill" not to injure the hostages. This included assuring the hostage-takers that their demands were being reported to their satisfaction in the media.

The main news outlets which were of interest to the hostage takers were Sky News, followed by RTE television news, the Star and Irish Independent newspapers.

There was a "lot of confusion" among the six inmates, who are among the most violent and troublesome inmates in the prison system. At one point on Sunday, the Guerin-charge man "was very upset and demanded that we change the news", Mr Lonergan said.

He said efforts were made, through requests to newspapers, that only the four hostage-takers who wanted to be identified were named in broadcasts and the newspapers on Monday morning. This was widely complied with, except in the Irish Independent which named the two other prisoners on Monday morning.

The major crisis in the siege was precipitated by "a particular article in the Irish Independent which dealt with the whole situation in relation to the involvement of the Army. The piece said a member of the Army came in in civilian clothes, examined the door (to the separation unit) and satisfied himself he could blow it open.

"By giving anyone this information, they would know what our strategy was. So I had to make a decision that they wouldn't get that particular information. The Irish Independent suddenly became very popular. It became the whole problem during the day. The paper was causing all the difficulties. We could not and would not give it in to them. That article should not have been published."

The inmates forced hostages on to a table and tied a noose around their necks and threatened to hang them if their demand was not met.