Overcrowding at Mountjoy requires 'urgent action'

 

URGENT ACTION is needed in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison to alleviate the chronic overcrowding that has led to “unsafe, inhumane and degrading” conditions, the Inspector of Prisons Judge Michael Reilly has said.

In his latest report on the jail he describes conditions “that could lead to possible loss of life” in overcrowded basement sleeping areas not designed to house inmates.

The revelation comes after Gary Douche was beaten to death in an overcrowded basement holding cell in Mountjoy in the early hours of August 1st, 2006.

In a scathing report, the judge also documents drug taking and gang violence. One in six inmates were locked in segregation 23 hours a day because they were gang members or faced threats from gangs. Weapons, drugs and mobile phones were often found during searches, he said.

His report, published yesterday by the Department of Justice, is based on his 12 visits to the jail in the eight months to July 2009. He was so concerned at the conditions and “the regime” in the jail he could not wait to address the issues in his annual report.

He expects many of his recommendations to be acted on immediately. The fact that a new jail was planned in Thornton Hall was no excuse for the conditions in Mountjoy at present, he said.

Some sections of the jail were “filthy”. He had seen cockroaches and “evidence of mice”. Bullying and intimidation between prisoners was common.

The prison was housing up to 680 inmates despite having beds for only 573 and a design capacity for 489. Prisoners with no beds were sleeping at night in shower rooms and in the reception area.

On February 24th, eight inmates slept in one room in a basement reception area, without access to water or toilets. The inmates could not be properly observed during the night by staff via a small window in the door. An incident occurred in which an inmate damaged the room.

The judge was so concerned conditions in the basement could lead to loss of life that he wrote to the department and the Irish Prison Service on February 27th.

The next day, Mountjoy governor John Lonergan ordered an end to the practice of inmates sleeping in the basement rooms, but one month later prisoners were again sleeping there because overcrowding was so acute.

The judge notes the prison could only function safely if inmate numbers do not exceed 540. He said overcrowding should be eased with the creation of 400 new spaces across the prison system before the end of the year.

He described Mountjoy’s slopping out system as “inhuman and degrading”. He had seen seven inmates sharing a four-man cell in which all urinated and defecated during the night into three buckets. The prisoners ate and drank in the same cells.

In some cells the slop buckets were also used for rubbish. In the mornings the contents were often simply tipped into plastic rubbish bags which leaked in corridors – “that smell of sewage” – or on to inmates moving the bags.

Despite the best efforts of staff and management, he said: “Mountjoy cannot at present provide safe and secure custody for prisoners. It is questionable as to whether the prison provides a safe environment for staff to work in.”

There were structured activities for less than half the population. Workshops and the library were not operating fully because of staff shortages and absenteeism.

Of the 520 prisoners that registered with the prison school in 2008, one in five could not read or write and 30 per cent could only sign their names.

In the year to July 2009 there had been “many serious incidents”. There was a “serious riot” in July 2008, a hostage taking incident last March and in July an inmate died after an assault.