MICHAEL Donnellan runs his fingers across computer printouts and architectural drawings of the new Cork Prison.
The head of the prison service points out everything the current Dickensian prison does not have: blocks of modern cells with toilets and showers, an actual perimeter wall and a proper visitors’ centre.
The new prison also has a garden for visits, a large modern gym, two sizeable courtyard recreation areas and a horticultural garden for inmates.
From the computer images, the new prison, in the shape of the figure eight, is cleanly structured and organised, as opposed to the crammed maze of odd-sized buildings that make up the current prison.
The new jail is being built on a six-and-a-half acre site opposite the front of the current prison, on lands owned by the Irish Prison Service.
It’s twice the footprint of Cork Prison, but the site has been derelict for years.
There will be a proper perimeter wall, with a cordon sanitaire inside that, wide enough for a car to drive around.
The recreation areas are courtyards inside the building, which will make drug throw-overs, as they are called, very difficult.
“There’s been a number of false starts with Cork Prison,” says Mr Donnellan. “We were trying to think of the big, big picture and yet the solution was under our noses. This is our site, we own it. We’ve had a prison here since 1972 and before that the army had one here. It’s completely logical to keep it here.”
The big picture he refers to was a brand new prison in Kilworth, north county Cork, proposed by the then justice minister Michael McDowell in 2007.
It was to be the little sister of Thornton Hall, the planned ‘superprison’ to replace Mountjoy Prison in north Dublin.
Both plans were scrapped, despite some €30m being spent on the land in Thornton.
It meant conditions in Cork continued to fester, with overcrowding reaching a peak in 2010 and 2011, with numbers typically in excess of 300 inmates, in a prison built for half that number.
In 2007 and again in 2010 it was condemned by the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) inspection — condemnations echoed by successive inspector of prisons and other watchdogs.
“The downturn in the economy has forced us to rethink about what we can do with prisons and rather than building brand new prisons and expanding places we really need to make good the ones we have, that’s the priority,” says Mr Donnellan, director general of the service.
“Cork was my number one priority and [Justice] Minister [Alan] Shatter’s number one priority. I’ve been in the post now two years and we’ve been working on this full on. It has taken two full solid years of a team of people.”
He says people still ask why not build the prison out in Kilworth, north of Fermoy. “Well, do you want to delay this project for 10 more years?” he replies. “We never owned the land in Kilworth. We’d have to acquire the land. All the services would cost €10m-€15m and that’s just the services, not the prison.
“This site,” he says, pointing to the plans, “is in the middle of the city, it’s serviced, ready to go, where people want it, the families and the staff, its adjacent to the hospitals, adjacent to the guards.
“There have been little bits of criticisms, but nothing is perfect, but this ticks most of the boxes. If you want perfection you can wait 10 years and you still won’t even get it, because there will be pressure on the families, pressure on the services, the guards, the hospital escorts and you are also taking this industry out of the city. This is as near perfect as you are going to get it.”
Mr Donnellan says they toyed with the idea of refurbishing Cork Prison, as in Mountjoy, but says the cost was prohibitive. This led them to a new prison on the available lands.
“We will save about €2.5m a year on just operating this prison, compared to operating the old one, with the efficiencies, the energy savings, the maintenance savings and the cost,” he says. “The new prison will be roughly paid for in 30 years.”
The director general says the fact that the builder is local is a boost for the city. “PJ Hegarty is the preferred bidder, so this is a great story for Cork. This is fantastic that a local firm has got it.”
Mr Donnellan accepts the new prison has attracted opposition, particularly from the local residents.
“We consulted with residents. I personally met with all the residents on two occasions and met with all the TDs and counsellors separately. No doubt there is a concern and worry from people who are most adjacent. They really are concerned and are worried about their light and shadow from the prison.”
He points out that the prison predates the nearby estate: “The prison has been here for a very long time. It has been with us since 1972 and before that it was an army prison. The houses came later.”
He says even some of the perimeter wall for the new prison is already constructed, but left unfinished.
“In reality, this prison will, in my view, add to the landscape here. This is a derelict site, which has been causing huge problems over the years: lots of rodents, lots of dumping, lots of security problems. The whole area will be cleaned up. We’ll appoint a residents liaison person, who’s going to meet with representative groups all the way through to develop good relationship.”
He refers to the work of the rapporteur, James Farrelly, who was appointed by Mr Shatter to consult with the local community about the prison.
Mr Shatter is using legislation which bypasses normal planning laws, allowing the Oireachtas to authorise a prison development. “There is going to be discomfort while the prison is being built,” Mr Donnellan says. “There is no doubt about it.”
He says construction will begin in mid-January and that the bulk will be finished by late summer 2015, followed by the installation of systems and security checks, with inmates in by the close of 2015.
“I have to admit it does have an impact on some of the residents. That’s the reality, it does, there’s no way you can dress that up, but we hope to try and minimise that.”
Mr Donnellan has less time for the criticism from lobby groups, including the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, who have complained about the doubling up of cells in the new jail.
It will have 175 cells, all double in size, housing a maximum of 310 inmates. They are just over 12sq metres, compared to the current 7sq m. All the new cells will have their own toilet, shower and wash basin.
“They are saying it’s a retrograde step and all that,” he says, “but I don’t exist in a perfect world and this is going to improve the conditions in Cork by 100% and downstream I have no doubt, within say a 10-year period, we could definitely get to single cell accommodation throughout the prison estate.”
He says almost half of cells in the prison system are single and that with the refurbishment of Mountjoy and Limerick will bring it to between 60% and 70%. He says the cell size in the new jail meets the best international standards and is actually bigger than what’s recommended, with the Inspector of Prisons recommending 11sq m. “I can take some of the criticism, but if you were to take it seriously they are saying this is a retrograde step, well what do you want then? Will we go away and debate this for another 10 years?”
He says the penal reform groups want Ireland to be like the Nordic countries.
“We are trying to get rid of 20% of cells with no toilets. We’re not at the stage of Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden, but will be in 10 or 15 years’ time.”
He says they are also developing a cell share risk policy, which will assess inmates’ compatibility.
Mr Donnellan points out that the CPT and other watchdogs have “criticised us beyond belief”.
He says the CPT inspectors are coming back to Ireland at the end of January. “They visited 2010 and 2007 and they lashed Cork out of it. Now if they were to come back in 2013 and we say to them ‘you know what, we’re thinking about it still’, how would that look?
“This is the moment for Cork. This is the right place and the site lends itself. It’s a tight site, six and a half acres. If the site was double that, you be tempted to build more. This forces you into building a very modest prison. Because, if our policy downstream is to reduce prison numbers, we don’t want this [bigger] capacity, because it will be filled.”
Mr Donnellan makes no bones about who should take the credit for the new jail.
“I know people don’t like giving credit to politicians, but if you were to give credit to anybody for driving this project and making it happen, it’s Alan Shatter. Without his back to me, I couldn’t have delivered this. It would have been impossible.”
He says one of Mr Shatter’s first visits as minister was to Cork: “He said it was a disgrace and he set about saying you have to do this project and it will be done. It shows you what can be done if you have some drivers and Shatter is the driver.”
The prison boss says the sheer level of prison committals from the courts places enormous pressure on the system, but predicts committal figures would drop significantly for 2013.
But he says the continuing high number of people being sent to prison for failing to pay fines for their crimes “is still a huge burden”.
Plans to introduce a system to combat the jailing of people for fines has been dogged by delays and problems, going back over successive administrations. The current attempt, the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013, offers judges options so as to make imprisonment for the non-payment of fines a last resort.
Those fined will be able to pay by installments. For those who do not pay the fine and are brought back before the courts, a judge will have three options. They can make an attachment of earnings order to deduct the fine from the person’s wages or occupational pension; make a recovery order whereby a receiver will seize assets to the value of the fine; or make a community service order.
It is only when these options have failed that the judge will be permitted to sentence the person to imprisonment. The provision on attachment orders can only apply to people employed and will not include those on social welfare.
Mr Shatter hopes to have the legislation passed this year.
“When the fines stuff comes through, it will make it harder for people to come into prison as a default,” says Mr Donnellan. “They are going to have to go through a whole lot of other hoops before they get into prison.”
He says there is a wider battle going on, one which he feels, will significantly reduce imprisonment.
PURPOSE OF PRISON
“If we convince people that prison is not for rehabilitation, that you can’t send people to prison for rehabilitation, that you send people to prison as a punishment, to take them away from society. Now, when they’re there you can do rehabilitation, you have to do the best you can. But there is this creeping thing that is happening, ‘do you know what, they’re a drug addict, they’ve got mental health problems, they have domestic violence problems, homeless problems and prison will sort them out’. We have to talk ourselves away from that idea that prison is that place where you send people that society finds hard to kind of fix.”
He adds : “We have the lowest number of psychiatric beds in the OECD. Are the community mental health services there? The reality is prison is becoming the new asylum, it’s the place where people come, even district court judges saying we want this person psychiatrically assessed and we want them put on suicide watch. Now if you want someone psychiatrically assessed you know where you go is the hospital. Why would you go to a prison, but the reality is that’s what we have to do.”
Mr Donnellan stops for a moment and adds: “These people at least are getting a standard of care. These are the kind of guys wandering around the back streets of Dublin or Cork or thrown in a heap in some back door, because they are that vulnerable. We have good nursing care and good doctors, have medicine, good food, clothing, warmth, so we tick a lot of the boxes and yet some of things in Cork are very bad.”
He says they are hoping a new high support unit, providing specialist acute therapeutic care, will open in the Midlands Prison in 2015 which will cater for inmates from Cork, Limerick and Castlerea.
These units are staffed by specialist psychiatrists and nurses, but are complex and expensive.
Mr Donnellan says prison should only be for criminals who need to be there.
“Prison is not for people who have minor infractions with society,” he says. “That’s where community sanctions have to come in. They are more efficient and have a better outcome.
“We need to rethink prison for those people who are violent, who are a danger to society, who society needs to be protected from. Prison will always exist, but should it exist for minor offences?”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved