An exemplary prisoner who worked on a programme to reduce prison violence has been jailed for four years for possession of €1.4 million worth of heroin writes Isabel Hayes.
Joseph O'Neill, who was caught with the drugs concealed in two fire extinguishers, had become the “public face” of Cloverhill Prison for his work on a programme to reduce violence amongst prisoners, Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard during his sentence hearing.
O'Neill (41) of Clifden Terrace, Ballyfermot, Dublin pleaded guilty to possessing heroin with intent to supply on August 19 last year.
Defence barrister Conor Devally, SC, told his sentence hearing that in the nine months he had been in Cloverhill Prison, O'Neill had become the chairman of the jail's Red Cross organisation and had worked on a programme to reduce prison violence.
He had given media interviews and gave a speech at an international conference in Dublin Castle, the court heard.
Judge Melanie Greally noted O'Neill had undergone a total transformation and said the indications were he was committed to living a crime free life and helping others to do the same.
She imposed a seven year sentence and suspended the final three years on strict conditions. She backdated the sentence to August last when O'Neill went into custody.
O'Neill, who took the stand to apologise for his actions, told the court he was one of four prisoners in Ireland chosen to attend the conference and that no restraints were placed on him during it.
“It showed a lot of trust and faith in me,” O'Neill said, adding he was “waiting out on Dame Street for an hour” after the conference before he was picked up by guards and brought back to prison.
O'Neill was arrested last August after gardaí were alerted to a shipment of heroin coming in to Dublin, Detective Garda Eoin Roche told the court. Undercover officers followed a truck that landed in Dublin Port to the Apple Green petrol station near Rathcoole, which was met by O'Neill.
O'Neill and the truck driver were then caught with two fire extinguishers stuffed with 10kg of heroin, Det Gda Roche said. The court heard the truck driver was sentenced to eight years in prison, with the final two years suspended.
Mr Devally said the operation was “sophisticated”. “The fire extinguishers were hollowed out and stuffed full of (heroin),” he said.
Mr Devally said the true value of the heroin only came to light today, which “cast a pall” over the defence case.
O'Neill, who has two previous convictions for cocaine use, told the court he was a “chronic cocaine addict” at the time of the offence and got involved in the drugs operation after he was made redundant from his job as a truck driver.
“I wasn't thinking clearly. My judgement was distorted,” he said. “I owed a lot of money when the proposition was put to me.”
He apologised to gardaí for not answering questions during the interview. He said he was worried about what would happen to his family if he did.
“I'm aware of the lives that could have been destroyed by those drugs,” he said. “I take full responsibility for that.”
Mr Devally said O'Neill had “grasped this dramatic fall with both hands” and had discovered personal attributes he never knew he had before being incarcerated. The prison governor had selected him to be the “public face for what can be done to assist prisoners,” he said.
O'Neill was also described by the prison chaplain as an “exceptional prisoner” who had counselled other inmates, and he had expressed an interest in getting a degree in counselling.
“He has demonstrated singularly that not only is he a person with the capacity to rehabilitate, he is capable of bringing about rehabilitation in others,” Mr Devally said.