Why our jails fail


A recent surge in prisoner numbers has made Irish jails more overcrowded and dangerous than ever. A new series examines our broken prison system

When RTÉ broadcast the States of Fear documentary series, in 1999, about the sexual and physical abuse of children in church-run industrial schools it gave a voice, for the first time, to some of those who had been brutalised, hidden and forgotten.

One of them was Sharon Murphy, who spent her childhood in St Joseph’s School in Clifden, Co Galway, in the 1970s. The regime was a savage one, and respite from the violence came only occasionally. In her interview on film with the late journalist Mary Raftery, she remembered one day when a camera crew arrived to record a programme. “You knew that when RTÉ was there you weren’t going to be hit, at least not in public. You could feel safe for a little bit.” As soon as the journalists left, the beatings and the constant fear returned.

Last year a report passed across the desk of Minister for Justice Alan Shatter. Its findings echo the State-sponsored brutality of some religious orders in the decades up to the 1970s.

The document, written by the inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, outlines conditions at St Patrick’s Institution for young offenders, on the Mountjoy prison campus, in north Dublin. The institution, which housed 231 boys and young men aged between 16 and 21 when he visited, has a bullying, fearful, degrading and intimidatory culture, he says.

Reilly writes of an environment created by a small number of staff at the jail “where the human rights of some prisoners, including children, are being ignored or violated”.

Some prisoners he describes as vulnerable were targeted. Child prisoners were moved to isolation cells using headlocks and armlocks. Walking was never permitted for transfers.

Once at the cells, some were forcibly stripped, at times the clothes cut off their backs by staff using knives and leaving injuries. This was “degrading and a form of punishment, intimidation and abuse”. Reilly notes that it involved some inmates who had been sexually or physically abused as children.

On one visit Reilly found an 18-year-old in a special observation cell on “virtual 24-hour lock-up” for two months. His eye had recently been injured; he said he had fallen out of bed. Reilly did not believe him, said the teenager was afraid of staff, and so asked that their conversation end. “This was the first time that any prisoner, in any prison, had displayed such fear in my presence,” he writes.

Reilly based his report on numerous visits he had made, with increasing frequency, since he was appointed, in 2008.

In sharp contrast to the judge’s exposé, the prison-visiting-committee report for St Patrick’s for 2010 raises some concerns about staff shortages and the vulnerability of those kept in cells but, overall, finds that “the prison was being run in an efficient, fair, safe and humanitarian way”.

Ignoring the problems?

How does a prison in 21st-century Ireland sink into the conditions outlined by Judge Reilly? Are these conditions reflected in the wider prison system? And are those who run the jails simply ignoring the problems?

The social campaigner Fr Peter McVerry works with disadvantaged, often drug- addicted and homeless people in north inner-city Dublin. He spends most of his weekends visiting inmates. McVerry describes the prison system as a “total disaster” and our jails as so overcrowded and beset with violence and drug abuse that rehabilitation is almost impossible.

“The mission statement of the Irish Prison Service is to provide safe and secure custody, dignity of care and rehabilitation to prisoners for safer communities. The only word in that which is actually appropriate is ‘secure’,” says McVerry.

He believes Reilly’s observations about St Patrick’s sum up the approach of the prison service. “He found prisoners there who were not allowed to wear their own clothes, were wearing prison clothes that were ill-fitting, torn, had holes in them and were dirty. To give prisoners clothes like that is a symptom of the attitude that exists towards prisoners: they are of no value.”

The overcrowding McVerry speaks out against so often has been driven by a significant increase in the number of people being imprisoned by the courts and a trend towards longer sentencing.

In late 2007, about 2,700 prisoners were in jail; by last year that figure had increased by 63 per cent, to about 4,400. To compound the logistical nightmare for prison staff, about a quarter of prisoners need to be locked away, often in cells for 23 hours a day, to protect them from other prisoners.

On visits to prisons both in the past and for this series, The Irish Times has been struck by the sense of tension and noise.

“You’re never, ever on your own when you’re locked up,” says one former prisoner. “People don’t even think of that. But you try never being on your own, never being 100 per cent relaxed because of the type of people you’re piled in with. Try that for 10 or 15 years and see how you get on. See how you are after that.”

Prison walls are in some cases 20m high, and even moving down a corridor may require several doors to be unlocked and relocked. This is necessary to create a secure setting, but it creates a claustrophobic and tense environment for both staff and prisoners. “Even loads of the screws are stressed out of their brains, never mind the prisoners,” says another former inmate.

Former prisoners paint a picture of a tense system where as a new inmate you will be bullied or attacked unless you strike out and defend yourself when challenged. They talk of prison gangs running the supply of drugs into the jails, a profitable business that has allowed some prisoners to build significant wealth while behind bars.

“You don’t need money when you are locked up to pay for gear. You get just get someone you know outside to pay money to somebody else on the outside who knows the prisoners that are supplying you,” says a former prisoner.

Much of the violence is gang-related; prisoners are threatened until they agree to hide other inmates’ drugs or phones in their cells or smuggle them into the jails.

McVerry believes about 80 per cent of people entering prison have a drug problem – which is often the cause of their offence. But there are just nine detoxification beds in the 4,500-bed system.

He says he knows at least 40 people who used heroin for the first time in jail, either out of boredom or because they were sharing cells with drug users. Prisoners coming to the end of their sentences hound him, he adds, to find them drug-treatment places when they are released, to keep them out of the cycle of theft that landed them in jail.

Although significant effort has been made to reduce the flow of drugs into prisons, McVerry believes it has not been matched on the treatment side, either inside or outside jail.

He knows of prisoners, he says, who have been psychologically scarred by being locked up 23 hours a day. “If one locked a dog in a cell for 23 hours a day, one would be reported to the ISPCA.”

Slivers of optimism

There are some slivers of optimism. McVerry is full of praise for the renovation work at Mountjoy Prison under the new director general of the Irish Prison Service, Michael Donnellan. McVerry points to it as an example of what can be achieved, saying it is rapidly becoming the facility where prisoners would choose to serve their sentences.

Some ex-inmates also say that parts of the system are improving and that, in at least some of the jails, prisoners who want to get an education have options.

Most of the worst prisons in the system are very old; some buildings date from the 18th century. But a number of newer facilities have been built on greenfield sites in the past 15 years. It means there are varying standards across the system (as is evident from the prison-report summaries on page 2).

But one should be wary of seeing too rosy a picture. Although the visiting committees’ assessments of jails are generally more positive than Reilly’s, the committees are unpaid and part-time and are regarded by many as, unlike Reilly, not getting at the truth of the worst parts of the system.

Alan Shatter in his first year in office allowed membership of visiting committees to run down by not making appointments when existing members’terms expired. A number of members of the committees – there is a different one for each prison – have told The Irish Times that this has hampered their work.

The nature of the visiting-committee system may help explain why the St Patrick’s visiting committee finding that the institution was “efficient, fair, safe and humanitarian” contrasted so sharply with Reilly’s report on the prison.

Like McVerry, Prof Ian O’Donnell of the institute of criminology at University College Dublin says most of the prison system’s problems stem from overcrowding. He adds that committal rates are driven by judges’ sentencing habits, a subject about which very little is known.

“There are EU ways of going about judicial training, and it would be very helpful to have a sense of those,” he says.

In Finland, for example, judges undergo continual training and education; this is regarded as having moved their sentencing policy towards progressive, noncustodial options, such as drug-treatment courses. This approach more often leads to genuine rehabilitation and has the bonus of diverting people from incarceration and lowering the prison population.

O’Donnell points out, however, that although the rate of incarceration has increased significantly here in recent years, the Republic still jails people only at the average per-capita rate for Europe.

In 1999 the Republic had about 62 prisoners per 100,000 people, well below the EU average of 85 per 100,000. Last year the incarceration rate here reached 100 per 100,000. That’s in line with the EU’s higher current average, but that 60 per cent increase in the Republic has overcrowded and overwhelmed Irish prisons.

Repeating recommendations

O’Donnell points out that 30 years ago a Dáil committee noted the increasing prison population and made suggestions about how to control the issue. Three decades on, the population is continuing to rise and the recommendations are being made again.

There was a general consensus that prison should be preserved for serious offenders, with lower-risk criminals being dealt with in the community.

O’Donnell points out that in 2007 1,300 fine defaulters were imprisoned; within five years that figure had risen to 7,500, or half of all prison committals.

He also suggests the size of a country’s prison population is not so much related to crime rates as being “to some extent a political calculation that lay within the power of the legislators”.

A study of 20,000 prisoner releases by his department at UCD found that inmates granted temporary release were much less like to be reimprisoned when their sentences expired.

Yet over Christmases only 4 per cent of inmates were granted temporary release, down from 20 per cent in the mid-1990s.

O’Donnell believes this trend could be seen as “an indication of a punitive shift in the criminal-justice system”, where a life sentence has increased from an average of seven years in the 1980s to 17 now. He says shorter sentences, along with more remissions and temporary releases across a smaller prisoner population housed in smaller, more manageable jails, is the answer.

Dr Ciaran McCullagh of University College Cork has studied approaches to imprisonment for more than 30 years. He says that all the experts and the reports on the prison system have underlined the urgent need to reduce the prison population and that all have advocated alternatives to custody. But he believes that those in positions of power have failed to act progressively at least partly because they fear the reaction of the public and media.

“The issue could well be a lack of political will, a fear of talkshow fascism or a culture of denial in the Department of Justice about the extent of the problems and whether prisons actually need to be reformed.”

McCullagh says real reform in other jurisdictions came about only when judges had ordered the closure of prisons on humanitarian grounds and because they were ineffective. In such cases states had been forced to think quickly and imaginatively about reform.

He points out that the decline of crime in New York in recent years coincided with a drop in imprisonment because alternatives to custody were put in place.

“If Mountjoy was a hospital and had the same record of failure, where patients left with more illnesses than they had going in, it would have been closed long ago. The promise or threat of closure would concentrate minds and lead to creative thinking about how to deal with offending behaviour.”

McCullagh says he cannot understand why public and media criticism of more enlightened penal policies has influenced Irish governments to such an extent that those plans were often abandoned, yet very vocal opposition to issues such as the household charge forced no climbdown.

McCullagh says a restorative-justice programme, in which offenders meet their victims as part of facing up to their crimes and rehabilitating, has been running since 1998 but is still called a pilot project and has not been made part of the mainstream.

“There must be a more far-sighted approach. Why should those people who call Joe Duffy to voice their opposition to a particular measure have the power to make politicians run away from taking that action?”

What the reports say From ‘grave reservations’ to ‘significant positive change’

Arbour Hill Dublin

Dates to 1848

Capacity: 148. Prisoners: 151

In his report, published last year, Judge Reilly found a well-run and clean prison with no protection prisoners and where prisoners associated freely with each other. The Irish Prison Service says the jail has a bed capacity of 148. Reilly said the capacity was 131 but that it was housing 158 prisoners.

The prison school, library and workshops were well run, and there was a therapeutic programme, Building Better Lives, for the prisoners who are predominantly sex offenders.

Castlerea Prison, Co Roscommon

Dates to 1939

Capacity: 351. Prisoners: 414

The visiting committee report for 2011 noted that a prisoner in long-term care at nearby Roscommon Hospital had been electronically tagged, freeing up for prison duties the staff who were guarding him.

The committee said the imprisonment of people for the nonpayment of fines was counterproductive. Gardaí were required to bring them to the prison, where officers processed them into the jail. “People committed on fines are normally given temporary release and discharged with a travel voucher; this is more expense to the State,” it concluded.

Cork Prison, Rathmore Road, Cork

Dates to 1806

Capacity: 272. Prisoners: 316

A full range of education and training options were made available in a well-run prison setting, the visiting committee noted in its 2011 report. It had some concerns, including about staff shortages, overcrowding, slopping-out, in-cell sanitation and the “outdated Victorian prison building”. It did not elaborate on the details.

Limerick Prison, Mulgrave Street, Limerick

Dates to 1821

Capacity: 310. Prisoners: 345

The inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, said many parts of the jail were “dirty, unhygienic and severely overcrowded”. Broken windows in cells resulted in rain wetting the bedding. Much of the prison (above) smelled of sewage. Where there was no in-cell sanitation; prisoners shared pots in their cells for urinating and defecating, then emptied these where they showered, washed eating utensils and got drinking water.

There were “bright and clean” canteen facilities for staff, with ample car parking, showering areas and recreational facilities.
The Irish Prison Service claimed the men’s prison had a bed capacity of 290, though Reilly counted a capacity of 209 housing 329 prisoners.

Loughan House Open Centre, Blacklion, Co Cavan

Dates to 1953

Capacity: 160. Prisoners: 142

The prison-visiting committee said in its 2011 annual report that it believed there were no cases of suicide and self-harm in the facility because it was so well run. The members believed there was a better relationship between staff and prisoners than could exist in a larger closed prison.

While prisoners’ services, including health and education, were generally very good, cutbacks had hit some medical services by a quarter and had seen the library closed more often. There was also a need for more probation and welfare staff to help the lone part-time officer working there. Forty-two prisoners had absconded from the prison in 2011.

Mountjoy Prison, Mountjoy Campus, North Circular Road, Dublin

Dates to 1850

Capacity: 630. Prisoners: 728

Both Reilly’s report and that of the visiting committee noted a significant improvement in the level of resources being channelled into the much-maligned Dublin prison (above). Wings had been refurbished and the prison had been painted.

But mentally ill prisoners were still being housed in isolated special cell accommodation that was not aiding their mental health. Many had visibly deteriorated over time.

Tablets were now more widely available than ever and were hard to detect during searching. Prisoners who were drug free on committal were also mixing with drug-addicted prisoners, and some were becoming hooked on drugs as a result.

Dóchas Centre, Mountjoy Campus, North Circular Road, Dublin

Opened in 1999

Capacity: 105. Prisoners: 140

The visiting committee expressed grave reservations at a new regime that was abandoning the practice of each woman having her own bedroom. It believed staff shortages were now critical, resulting in locked exercise yards.

Prisoners, some mentally ill, were now being housed nine to a room. Heating and ventilation were a “major concern”, and “tensions and unrest” were now an issue mainly because of overcrowding.

A new building to house a large number of female prisoners was a regressive step that would compromise the health, welfare and safety of prisoners. Prisoners were not allowed their own underwear, and fresh supplies were often out of stock.
St Patrick’s Institution Mountjoy Campus, North Circular Road, Dublin

Opened in 1956

Capacity: 217. Prisoners: 210

The report by the inspector of prisons published last October outlines a bullying, fearful, degrading and intimidatory culture. The report said some children and young adult prisoners described as vulnerable were targeted in the jail. By contrast, the prison-visiting committee appointed by the Minister found the prison was being run in an efficient, fair, safe and humanitarian way.

Training Unit Mountjoy Campus, North Circular Road, Dublin

Opened in 1975

Capacity: 107. Prisoners: 114

The semi-open, low-security prison on Mountjoy Campus no longer assesses the suitability of prisoners for committal to the facility. Instead, management must accept all of those sent by the Irish Prison Service to the training and educational unit.

In its 2011 report, the visiting committee questioned why management had made no public comment on disturbances in Mountjoy in February-March of last year. It was also concerned by the doubling-up in rooms caused by overcrowding. On a visit in July the committee found all workshops, the music room and art room closed, apparently because of staff shortages.

Portlaoise Prison, Portlaoise Campus

Dates to 1830s

Capacity: 359. Prisoners: 273

The latest report of the prison-visiting committee, for last year, documents a well-run jail. The new C block, which opened three years ago, was described as very modern, with in-cell sanitation, workshops and education facilities. But the committee was disappointed that only two of the workshops were open, because of a lack of staff. Repeated requests for additional staff had come to nothing.

In general terms, however, a wide range of education and health services were on offer to inmates, who are republican prisoners and senior gangland figures.

Midlands Prison, Portlaoise Campus

Opened in 2000

Capacity: 566. Prisoners: 568

Although the jail was generally very well run, the prison-visiting committee noted that many prisoners had been transferred there from Dublin jails, against their will, to alleviate overcrowding. This had caused unrest.

There was also concern at cutbacks in workshops and in school and educational facilities because of a lack of staff.

Prisoners were finding it hard to access the psychology service, with some appointments not being met due to staff shortages. Debt defaulters were still being jailed in Midlands Prison, and one such prisoner died last year.

Shelton Abbey, Arklow, Co Wicklow

Dates to 1770

Capacity: 110. Prisoners: 108

The committee’s report on this minimum-security prison revealed that the on-site farm ran a quarantine facility for some 300 goats to be exported from Ireland to Uganda by the Bóthar charity.

Prisoners were also employed in the kitchens, and small numbers were permitted outside the jail (above) to take up work locally or go on supervised swimming and hillwalking trips.

An increase of 110 in bed capacity underscored the need for more facilities, however.

Forty-five offenders absconded last year, and 103 smuggled mobile phones were found. Of the 53 staff posts at the open centre, nine were unfilled.

Cloverhill Prison, West Dublin Prison Campus

Opened in 1999

Capacity: 431. Prisoners: 462

Overcrowding continued to be a concern during 2011. Because the jail was used for remand prisoners, people sent from the courts after lights-out had to be put into cells late at night, when the prisoners already in them were sleeping. This raised tensions. If the prison were not overcrowded, alternative arrangements could be made.

The visiting committee believed many of the 1,393 people jailed in 2011 on immigration matters ahead of deportation should be held in special holding centres, not jails.

The smuggling of mobile phones into the jail remained a problem, and a sniffer dog was no longer available for drug searches.

Wheatfield Prison, West Dublin Prison Campus

Opened in 1989

Capacity: 470. Prisoners: 507

The visiting committee said in its 2011 annual report that the prison was an “excellently run facility”. The kitchens were “second to none”, and the educational and library facilities were very well attended.

The bed-capacity and prison-population figures were compiled by the inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, and date to late 2010, the last period for which comparative data is available. In some cases, the dates of the prisons indicate when the original buildings were constructed

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