Shatter apologises for prisoner escape

Justice Minister Alan Shatter has today apologised for the transfer of a Garda-killer to a low-security prison, from which he later escaped.

Minister Shatter said that steps are now being taken to ensure such transfers will not happen again.

"The fundamental point is he should never have been seen or perceived to be a candidate for transfer to an open prison,

"The director of the Prison Service has, on behalf of the Prison Service, apologised for what has coccured.

"Arrangements have now been put in place to ensure there's no repitition, and as Minister for Justice, I'm sorry that this event occurred, it should not have occurred, and I will ensure, as best I can, that there's no such repitition."

Martin Donnellan, director general of the Irish Prison Service (IPS), said officials who signed off the decision knew Martin McDermott had already absconded from Loughan House, Blacklion, Co Cavan, while serving a sentence in 2007.

"The fact was known," Mr Donnellan said.

"He had previously escaped from Loughan House on November 27, 2007 and returned three days later, and was then returned to a closed prison.

"This should've sounded, particularly with the second offence, it should've sounded a lot of alarms and it didn't."

The 26-year-old - jailed for seven years last July for the manslaughter of Garda Gary McLoughlin in 2009 after ramming him with a car - was arrested in Derry by the Police Service of Northern Ireland earlier this month after going on the run.

He had also been the subject of two P-19 disciplinary reports while in the Midlands before his transfer and he has 91 previous offences.

McDermott was only in Loughan 12 days before he escaped on March 3.

"There's no excuse here. This was a completely wrong decision in the circumstances," Mr Donnellan told the Oireachtas Justice Committee.

"In the case where you have a loss of life, we should have a more robust system which reviews the case up along the line."

Mr Donnellan also said he wanted to offer an unreserved apology for the errors.

Following a report on the controversy, Minister Shatter said the wrong decision had been made and prison officials did not give sufficient consideration to the gravity of the heinous offence committed.

The prisons chief said, on occasion, senior gardaí are asked for their views on the transfer of a particular prisoner to an open unit. It did not happen in the McDermott case.

He said a series of criteria to allow for McDermott's transfer had been met by both the prisoner and review staff - except for the consideration of public safety.

"These criteria were met and the public criteria wasn't met," he said. "I would hope that we would learn very serious lessons from the incident."

The IPS now plans to introduce a new system on transfers where an official examines all the criteria before the review is given to a second person to scrutinise.

Prisons service officials have met with Gda McLoughlin's family, who have not been part of a victim liaison scheme, to explain the mistakes. The family were notified when McDermott escaped but not when he was transferred to the open unit.

Eight prison officers plus educational and support staff were on duty in Loughan when the escape occurred.

The IPS also revealed that 19 prisoners are currently at large - including at least one offender on the run since 1995. There have been a total of 13 escapes from the country's two open prisons this year compared to 2011 when 86 absconded.

Damien McCarthy, president of the Garda Representative Association (GRA), said the Justice Minister had to prove he is not soft on crime.

"We are disturbed to discover the full facts and case history surrounding the soft sentencing and subsequent absconding of a convicted garda killer who had served only the early stage of his sentence," Mr McCarthy said.

"We requested this report and are astounded by its contents. It raises more questions than it answers ... if this escape had not occurred, we would never know how the sentence was being served.

"This report is not enough to rectify the serious wrongs in the criminal justice system."

The internal report shows McDermott fled Loughan as prison staff responded to an attempted suicide.

He was noticed missing during a lunch-time check between 12.30pm and 2pm, and a search of the grounds was ordered.

The report said staff were distracted dealing with a prisoner who tried to hang himself with a pillow case after becoming distressed following a family phone call.

That inmate was revived by staff and the search for McDermott resumed at 4.35pm but the Garda was not alerted until 5.25pm.

A cross-border manhunt was launched and McDermott was caught in Derry the following day.

McDermott is currently serving four months in jail in the North for assaulting PSNI officers during his arrest.

It is expected a European Arrest Warrant from the Republic will be served upon him on his release.

The Irish Prison Service report also reveals McDermott had previously escaped Loughan House during a separate sentence.

He had served a number of custodial periods between 2005 and 2008 for a range of offences including drink-driving, burglary, threatening and abusive behaviour and having no insurance.

The report states that while jailed in 2007 he absconded on November 27 that year, before returning to custody less than a week later.

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