Conditions in Mountjoy Prison are appalling

 

OPINION: As a member of the Mountjoy Visiting Committee I am horrified by the prison

FOR THE past three years I have been a member of the Mountjoy Visiting Committee – a committee appointed by the Minister for Justice to monitor and report on conditions in the country’s oldest prison. My term expires on Friday.

Throughout my time on this committee, I have been horrified by the appalling conditions experienced by inmates in the prison, and by the indifference which official Ireland has shown regarding the issue.

Where I’ve tried to raise my concerns about what I have been witness to with representatives of the Prison Service, the Department of Justice, the politicians of all parties and others, I’ve been met with denial, indifference and obstruction.

Clearly it’s a particular challenge to generate sympathy for people whose very presence in the prison is linked to criminal, anti-social behaviour.

But surely as a civilised society, we owe it to who by any definition are among our most vulnerable citizens to ensure that their basic human rights are respected, even while they are incarcerated by the State as punishment for their wrongdoings.

Mountjoy Prison is a Victorian prison that is 160 years old this year. It is totally run down, unsuitable for present needs and overcrowded.

There are plans to develop a modern facility at Thornton Hall to replace Mountjoy. But the new prison will not see its first occupants until 2015 at the earliest.

In the meantime, Mountjoy Prison should be adapted to meet the present urgent needs.

Ongoing living conditions for prisoners at the prison are “inappropriate”, to say the least:

Prisoners in overcrowded cells sleeping on floors infested with cockroaches, mice, ants and other assorted vermin. Others sleeping in shower areas, reception areas and other unsuitable areas;

Prisoners forced to perform daily bodily functions in their cells in front of cell mates, and “slopping out” when cell doors are reopened;

Prisoners having to eat all their meals in the same confined cell area where they sleep and perform their bodily functions;

23-hour lockup for those on protection, with just one hour of possible association/recreation.

The above inhuman practices and other malpractices arise, in the main, due to the severe and continuous overcrowding at the prison.

The design capacity of the accommodation cells in the prison is 489. However, the average number of prisoners incarcerated in Mountjoy over the past number of months was 630.

Constant overcrowding is bad for morale, both for staff and prisoners. Consequently, a high level of unnecessary tension is a constant factor in the prison.

Management and staff deserve full praise for the sterling work they undertake in very difficult, and at times, very dangerous circumstances just to maintain order and discipline.

A certain proportion of the overcrowding is caused by the imprisonment of mentally ill/disturbed individuals who should receive appropriate mental health care outside of the prison regime.

Overcrowding is also due to the incarceration of individuals for failure to pay their fines/debts. Surely there must be more humane, economic and proper ways that could be applied by the courts in addressing such matters?

Rehabilitation should be one of the key objectives of the criminal justice system. Again, due to severe overcrowding at the prison, various workshops, the school and the library are not always open at the designated times.

Consequently, these services are unavailable to prisoners who wish to avail of them. These are the very services which, if properly provided, might assist in reducing the extremely high rates of recidivism.

As a nation we now know only too well, to our cost, the unspeakable damage inflicted in the last century on many held in the “care” of State institutions.

There should never be a repeat of such failure and scandal perpetrated by the State. The controls, oversight and legislation are all in place. It is now vital that the Irish Prison Service, the major stakeholder of the Irish criminal justice system, stands up and acknowledges and honours its responsibilities to prisoners and staff at Mountjoy Prison.


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