Bishop complains about Portlaoise Prison visiting arrangements

Lack of physical contact between prisoner and visitor ‘unjust and inhumane’

In a private letter to taoiseach Garret

FitzGerald, then bishop of Derry Edward Daly complained that visiting at Portlaoise Prison was inhumane and unacceptable.

Files released from the Office of the Taoiseach contain two letters from the bishop in which he describes the lack of physical contact between prisoner and visitor as “unjust and inhumane”.

At the time paramilitary prisoners were held at Portlaoise and visits were “closed”, with a floor to ceiling wire barrier between visitor and prisoner.


In his first letter, dated November 24th, 1984, the bishop said the visits “frustrate husbands and fathers of their strong human impulse and need to hold their children in their arms, embrace their wives, mothers etc”.

He was “as appalled as any man could be” at the “inhuman and infamous deeds” many of the prisoners and their organisations had committed. But he did not think their custodians “should be guilty of inhumanity as well”.

He also said he believed the families were suffering because of visiting conditions, while their influence was one of the best hopes of “weaning” the prisoners off violence.

He said he was aware explosives and weapons had been smuggled into prisons and passed to prisoners during embraces and kisses. “But surely there must be some other security precautions which can be used to prevent or detect this.”

In a letter of response, dated January 18th, 1985, Mr FitzGerald said controls on visiting were vital for security.

“I do not think it necessary to recount the history of successful escapes, North and South, to underline the point.”

He said in the previous year prison authorities offered six open visits a year during which “prisoner and visitor would sit across an ordinary table from each other” and “the prisoner could take his child on his knee and embrace his wife or girlfriend”. These would be conducted in the sight and hearing of a prison officer, and prisoners would be strip-searched before and afterwards. “The prisoners have not so far accepted the changes,” Mr FitzGerald said.

Four days later Bishop Daly responded, saying he accepted efforts had been made, but was not satisfied conditions had been eased as much as they might be. "If the price to pay for an open visit is a strip search, then I am not surprised that they are found to be unacceptable."

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist