Resigning prison governor critical of system changes

 

SENIOR PERSONNEL are being excluded from key decisions across the Irish Prison Service, which is now being run with a lack of consultation, an outgoing prison governor has told The Irish Times.

Kathleen McMahon, who next month formally leaves her position as the governor of the Dóchas Centre – Mountjoy’s female prison – said the jail used to be the “flagship women’s prison in Europe”.

However, the international best practice regime was coming to an end because of management decisions.

A decision by prison service senior management to put bunk beds into single berth rooms last October was the most regressive development she had seen in 33 years in the prison service.

She claims she was excluded from the decision, despite it being the most significant change of policy at the centre since it opened in 1999.

Her exclusion from that decision and the lack of respect she claims has been shown to her, prompted her resignation some seven years before she would have retired on age grounds.

“There just seems to be... No consultation, no communication.”

The bunk beds had been introduced to help deal with having up to 135 women in a facility designed for 85. However, the prison service was “about more than just providing a bed”.

By moving to a system of effectively formalising and planning for long-term chronic overcrowding, a regressive regime was being introduced like that in much-criticised male prisons, she said.

The health, educational and training facilities would become overloaded by the increased numbers. Tensions and fighting would become a feature in a regime where they had always been absent, and self-harm and bullying would also return.

“It’s more relaxed and we don’t have as much fighting. The fact that they have their own rooms is a big factor in that.”

She said of the 127 women now housed in six large houses in the Dóchas Centre – women are not kept in cell accommodation – around 60 were in three houses not locked down at night.

These women were very rarely troublesome and could all be housed in an open centre, a development that would end overcrowding at the Dóchas Centre.

Ms McMahon said while female inmates – from killers to sex offenders and those jailed for non-payment of fines – had never been segregated, rising tensions in an overcrowded facility might force segregation for safety reasons.

She had “thoroughly enjoyed” her career and believed the Dóchas Centre had played a key rehabilitative role in the lives of thousands of women.

Apart from overcrowding, she was also very concerned at other recent developments.

Some prison service officials had begun calling to the Dóchas Centre unannounced and were “walking around” talking to inmates and prison staff. She said that some male officials had met female inmates alone and this was inappropriate.

Other officials had promised inmates concessions, leaving prison staff to deal with these promises and women’s raised expectations. They had also told female prison officers they should transfer to male prisons to get more experience, and had suggested there be more male officers at the Dóchas Centre.

She claimed the now frequent unannounced visits destabilised the environment for inmates and staff and had undermined her position in trying to manage the facility.

“The staff do things for the women that are way beyond the call of duty, they are excellent. Why would you walk in and say to them they should work somewhere else?”

Ms McMahon claimed the unannounced visits were designed to “check up” on her and her staff. “It’s crazy. You’d think you were a child,” she said.

Many of the women in the Dóchas Centre came from poor backgrounds and were “pathetic cases”. However, the media only ever focused on writing “tripe” about high-profile inmates.

Her most difficult day in the prison service, which she joined as a prison officer in 1976, had been to cut down an inmate who had hanged herself with knitting wool her mother had given to her.

It was also very difficult watching young children clinging to their mothers as visiting time ended.