Deciding when to handcuff


A minor skirmish occurred in Seanad Éireann last week about the inconsistent use of handcuffs when prisoners are being taken from court, writes John Waters

The discussion was provoked by the fact that the former Christian brother, Maurice Tobin, convicted of the sexual abuse of 25 boys in Letterfrack, was not handcuffed when led from court in Galway, whereas George Redmond, convicted the previous week on charges of corruption, had been handcuffed to a prison officer when he was led away to prison.

I have a more arresting comparison. On the same day as Redmond was taken from the Circuit Criminal Court, a 25-year-old Welsh woman, Christina Williams, was escorted from the Central Criminal Court to begin a life sentence for the murder of Andrew Foley on May 7th, 2002. She was accompanied by a single female prison warder and walked with her arms dangling by her sides.

Redmond's misdeeds are perhaps more notorious than those of Williams.

He had been found guilty of corruption relating to matters which first came to public attention in the hearings of the Flood tribunal. Specifically, he was convicted of accepting a bribe of £10,000 in return for facilitating the purchase from the local authority of a right-of- way to link a filling station with the Lucan by-pass.

Williams had been convicted of murder. The details of the last minutes of Andrew Foley have been published in most of the newspapers, though rather less graphically in some than in others. In case you missed it: Williams, apparently offended because Mr Foley asked her for sex, stabbed her victim in the eye, arms, shoulders, chest and genitals.

As he lay bleeding to death on the sofa in his own flat, she filled his electric kettle, waited for it to boil and poured the boiling water over him.

Asked why she did this, Williams explained that Mr Foley had shouted at her, pushed her and told her to leave his flat. "I just got carried away," she said.

Although I had, to be honest, a reasonable suspicion about why Williams was not handcuffed, I couldn't completely shake off a worry that the handcuffing of Redmond might have been the result of an order from on high that he be paraded in a state of maximised humiliation for the delectation of the indignant classes.

Redmond, whatever you may think of him, is nearly 80 years of age and had been convicted in relation to the acceptance of a brown envelope, whereas Williams had committed one of the most barbaric murders in the history of the State.

Happily, a few hours spent foraging in the labyrinth that is the Department of Justice was sufficient to restore my prejudices to their proper order. A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice informed me that the decision about whether or not to handcuff a prisoner is "an operational matter for prison officers on a particular day".

A spokesman for the Irish Prison Service was more precise: although he was unaware of any legislative or regulatory basis for this, the policy is that male prisoners are handcuffed "almost always" and female prisoners "almost never".

And no, he emphasised, there is no question that handcuffs are part of the punishment of a prisoner, in the sense of adding to the indignity of his being led away.

It is purely a matter of security - that of prisoners and prisoner officers, as well as an added precaution to prevent drugs being passed to prisoners as they are being led from court.

But, I countered, as far as Redmond and Williams were concerned, the issues of prisoner security must surely have been identical and there could be no question as to which of the two posed the greater threat: Redmond is an elderly man, incapable of boxing his way out of a brown paper bag, and Williams, in addition to the brutal murder of Mr Foley, had previous convictions in her native country of assault on a landlady, a taxi driver and, oh yes, a police officer.

Sorry - did I not mention her conviction for assaulting a police officer?

At this point, the spokesman for the Irish Prison Service had the good grace to laugh. In fact, we both had a good old belly-laugh for a minute or so.

So, I summarised, getting my breath back, we can safely ignore the notion that the issuing of handcuffs to male prisoners has to do with either objective considerations of security or, er, drugs, and decide that it is purely a matter of old-fashioned sexism?

In as far as it is possible for a spokesman for the Irish Prison Service to agree with such a contention, I got the distinct impression that he did so.

You can't imagine how relieved I was to clear that up.