Progressive thought key at prison - Lonergan


MOUNTJOY JAIL:INACTION ON behalf of the Government is responsible for the continuing deterioration in conditions in Mountjoy Prison, outgoing governor John Lonergan has said.

The prison would remain a “warehouse” for drug-addicted people from a relatively small number of urban areas in the country unless the Government showed progressive thinking.

Mr Lonergan said Mountjoy was now regularly housing close to 700 inmates, many sleeping on mattresses because cells were full, with drugs the primary “scourge” of those held.

Mr Lonergan informed Irish Prison Service director general Brian Purcell on Tuesday of his intention to retire. In a short statement yesterday, the service said Mr Lonergan would officially retire on June 5th. Mr Purcell thanked Mr Lonergan for his service and wished him well in his retirement.

Mr Lonergan told The Irish Timesthat the Government needed to move away from the current penal regime in which 5,000 inmates would be in jail by the end of the year, all housed in a dangerously overcrowded system where staff could do very little to rehabilitate or educate them.

He said: “The challenge is: Can we come up with solutions to reduce the prison population? Because it’s getting bigger and bigger, and more expensive. For no other reasons other than economic reasons, we should be looking at it. We should have the philosophy that only those who haveto go to prison should go to prison. If we applied that we could reduce our prison population drastically.” He insisted conditions in prisons were a political issue, with the Irish Prison Service simply an agent of government.

“The prison service has no more power than I have. They have to manage with what they get. If the Government and the people of Ireland feel that the conditions in Mountjoy are satisfactory, well then so be it. I’m one of those who thinks they are appalling.”

It was not enough for the Government to point to improvements and extra spaces at other jails as proof that it was trying to improve the prison system.“It’s no consolation to me, the staff in Mountjoy or the prisoners if there are 10,000 extra prison spaces, if the conditions in Mountjoy continue to be worse than they were,” he said.

He believed Mountjoy had been let deteriorate over his 22 years as governor, because successive governments saw no electoral value in improving prison conditions.

“It’s going to continue to be an eyesore. I’m afraid there’s no votes, no popularity in it. Even many ordinary people get almost a source of satisfaction out of hearing about prisoners living in terrible conditions; they just don’t understand, they have no values.”

Drugs were a major issue for most inmates in the prison system, many of whom were drug users from age 10. When jailed as adults they should be given access to the health and mental health facilities they need to recover. Instead, addiction had been tackled with an emphasis on measures aimed at reducing the supply of drugs.

“Addiction is a serious, ingrained human condition. It won’t be resolved by sniffer dogs.”

He believed the general treatment of prisoners in Ireland was more humane than he had seen in jails in some other countries.

However, we were still “years behind” the countries of Scandinavia in terms of resources and progressive thinking around non-custodial sentences. The Whitaker report had been commissioned in 1985 to examine penal reform, but in 2010 Irish prisons were “20 times worse”.

John Lonergan: over 40 years of service and compassion

JOHN LONERGAN (62) is from Bansha, Co Tipperary. He joined the Irish Prison Service when he was 20 years old and began working in Limerick Prison.

He was appointed governor of Mountjoy Prison in June 1984 and, apart from a four-year stint as governor of Portlaoise Prison, he spent the rest of his career at the Dublin inner-city prison.

He is married with two daughters and lives in Dublin. He is passionate about hurling and has had a long association with Kilmacud Crokes GAA club.

He told Reality magazine last year that he was an altar boy for seven years and religion was a key part of his formative years in Tipperary. He said religion had been a powerful influence for good and for bad.

Mr Lonergan has spoken at many conferences on issues such as social justice, parenting and mental health.

He has often highlighted the fact that vast numbers of people in prison come from the most socially disadvantaged areas in Ireland. He has also spoken of people who appear to volunteer to go to prison because of their dire circumstances outside.

Writing in this newspaper five years ago, he said thoroughbred horses enjoyed far superior living facilities than thousands of our poor people.

He has frequently highlighted the link between crime and social and economic deprivation and has given many speeches about the need to create a society based on justice, equality, fairness and compassion.

He said yesterday that overcrowding was the greatest scourge he ever had to deal with in Mountjoy Prison.

Overcrowding had been at the root of everything else that was wrong in the prison, he said. Mr Lonergan also said there was

more “warehousing” than rehabilitation taking place in our prisons.

He said there were no drugs in prisons when he first joined the service. In the past 42 years, he had seen the damage they had done to prisoners and their families.

Asked in 1997 if his job stressed him, he said: “A job like this is bound to have its ups and downs and if you allow yourself to worry about it, you end up stressed very quickly. My attitude is, when you go out the gate you forget about it and I do that very successfully. If you couldn’t, you’d have to take another look at the whole thing.”

He said yesterday he accepted that prison was a tough and cruel place but hoped he would be remembered for taking a genuine interest in prisoners and for running a fair and just regime. ALISON HEALY