We forget that prisoners are people too

The late Michael Reilly, the Inspector of Prisons from 2007 to 2016, was outspoken about the system’s failings.

The overwhelming majority of the incarcerated come from disadvantaged areas of the State, writes Michael Clifford

DAYS before his unexpected death, Michael Reilly gave an interview about his work. Reilly, a district judge, served as Inspector of Prisons from 2007 until he died in November 2016.

He was an independent figure. He called it as he saw it, irrespective of how embarrassing or uncomfortable that might have been for elements within the prison service, the service itself, or the government.

In the interview he gave to the website thedetail.tv, he laid out a few truths that often go unacknowledged in wider society:

“Prisoners only forfeit their right to freedom. They don’t forfeit all of the rest of the rights that you and I have as members of society. These rights are human rights, which have been guaranteed by the international community.”

Most people couldn’t give a fig about prisoners or what goes on in prisons. It’s a common view that anybody incarcerated deserves what’s coming to them. If anything, there is a trend to call for more and longer prison sentences. Much of this is as a result of some politicians and elements of the media hyping crime and fear for their own ends.

Another general view is that prison is full of violent criminals, who lack any moral anchor or capacity for human empathy. Lock ’em up and as far as what goes on in there is concerned, let ’em at it.

But the overwhelming majority of the incarcerated come from disadvantaged areas of the State. According to the Irish Penal Reform Trust, the majority of prisoners never sat a State exam and more than half left school by the age of 15.

Four in 10 children (under 16) in the juvenile system have a learning disability. And in the adult population, 428 prisoners, as of October 2017, are locked up at least 19 hours a day. Most of these prisoners are under this regime for their own safety.

There is also a cohort that is violent, dangerous and against whom society must be protected. This cohort presents particular and extremely serious problems for those charged with guarding them.

Perhaps these circumstances ensure that prisons are regarded as beyond the reach of what is considered normal society, a world apart that moves to its own rhythms and mores.

As a result, there is precious little scrutiny of what actually does go on in prisons. This applies not just to prisoners, but to prison guards, whose job is often dangerous and stressful.

We now know that where there is no scrutiny, standards slip, focus is blurred, and the first instinct when something goes wrong is to circle wagons.

 Picture: Charles O’Rear/CORBIS
Picture: Charles O’Rear/CORBIS

We now know, from all that has emerged from An Garda Síochána, that the Department of Justice, which nominally oversees the prison service, tends to view its role as keeping a lid on things. For instance, does anybody, at this stage, believe that the Department was rigorous in its oversight of the gardaí? Is there any reason to believe a different approach has ever been adopted towards the prisons?

Michael Reilly attempted to step into one corner of the vacuum that exists in oversight of the prisons.

His brief was largely concerned with the welfare of prisoners. He had a particular interest in how deaths in custody occurred and how they were investigated.

“Within a week or 10 days of each death, I contact the next of kin and ask can I come to meet them in their home, or some convenient place, and to ask them have they any concerns,” he told thedetail.tv.

His reports frequently made criticisms of how deaths were investigated. Both he and his successor, Helen Casey, referenced occasions when reports they were provided with ended up being contradicted by CCTV. Reilly also referenced the poor quality, and misleading nature, of statements he was provided with.

Most deaths in prisons occur through suicide or drug overdoses. Both of those types of death present the possibility of embarrassment for prison authorities, in that they may have been preventable.

The focus, thereafter, appears often to be to ensure that nothing controversial emerges, nothing that might give rise to questions of how the facility was run, nor of how well or otherwise staff did their job. That is, nothing that might interfere with the age-old reaction in matters like this: ‘There is nothing to see here folks, now please move along’.

The claims of a prison officer, published in this newspaper over the last three days, give a flavour of life inside the prisons. He has alleged that the law has been flouted, and the rights of some staff and prisoners infringed, through covert surveillance. He has alleged that a private detective agency was retained to install surveillance devices. This agency, according to the claims, kept surveillance material at its own base. That, of itself, could have implications for the security of prison officers, who are frequently under threat from criminals.

This whistleblower has also alleged that deaths in prison are treated in a shabby, unprofessional manner that has scant regard for the deceased, their families, or any concept of justice. In that alone, his claims chime with some of those expressed by Michael Reilly down through the years.

Separately, this columnist has been given an insight into prison life through various investigations in the last two years.

A picture emerges of frequent bullying at different levels within the service, back-office politics, an overriding concern to avoid all scandals, and a disregard for basic standards.

Many, if not most, in the service do their best. But there is no escaping from the culture in which a standard hierarchy of priorities is turned on its head. In many ways, it mirrors the negative aspects of the culture in An Garda Síochána that has emerged in recent scandals.

The big difference is that, these days, the police force is scrutinised with some rigour. The same cannot be said of the prison service.

In the grand tradition in this country of constrained oversight, the office of the Inspector of Prisons has a narrow remit. One thing it is not is an inspector of prisons in the true meaning of that term. The office can investigate incidents and deaths, make recommendations, comment on standards, but it lacks real teeth.

As long as the service moves to its own rhythm, unencumbered by proper oversight, it is difficult to see how the culture that pertains will ever really change. That’s not a good result for prisoners, prison staff, or a society that purports to fully respect all human rights.

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