The Court of Appeal has overturned a High Court decision that the detention of convicted murderer Daniel McDonnell in solitary confinement for a year breaches his rights to bodily and psychological integrity.
McDonnell is serving a life sentence for the murder of teenager Melanie McCarthy McNamara in a drive-by shooting in Tallaght in February 2012.
His lawyers argued the 23-hour lock up regime at Wheatfield Prison was disproportionate and violated his rights. The judge, in a subsequent ruling, also granted injunctions directing the prison authorities to allow McDonnell more time out of his cell and provide him with more social interaction with other persons.
McDonnell, described in court as being the most vulnerable prisoner within the Irish prison system, sought the injunctions arising out of the prison authorities’ alleged failure to act on the finding his detention breached his constitutional rights.
The prison’s governor, who appealed all the High Court’s decisions, argued McDonnell has been kept apart from the rest of the prison population for his own safety.
McDonnell, from Brookview Lawns, Tallaght, was found guilty in January 2014 by a jury at the Central Criminal Court of murdering Ms McCarthy McNamara, 16. McDonnell denied the charge.
McDonnell claimed he only had one hour outside his cell to do chores and exercise. He asked the prison authorities to be allowed mix with other prisoners but claimed his requests were refused. He spends his time in his single cell and further claimed he was finding it difficult to cope and his health has suffered.
In its judgment the Court of Appeal , comprised of the President of the Court Mr Justice Sean Ryan, Mr Justice George Birmingham and Mr Justice Gerard Hogan, found the High Court fell into error in making the various orders and declarations in the case.
The court found it is for the prison authorities to decide what measures are necessary for the safety of prisoners.
A high level of threat or some extreme circumstance may justify severely restrictive conditions of detention on a temporary basis, the court found.
The court accepted while the conditions of detention are very difficult, stressful and unpleasant for McDonnell he was being detained in this manner for his own safety. The prison services consider the measures as temporary until they can devise a means whereby he can have access to be better facilities, as long as his safety can be reasonably assured.
“The prison authorities are not willing to jeopardise the safety of a prisoner on the chance that it might all work out right,” the court found. The High Court’s declaration McDonnell was being kept in solitary confinement in breach of his constitutional rights “did not reflect a sufficient or correct analysis of the complex issues in the case,” the court found.
This was because of factors including the nature of the threat to McDonnell is grave, and the only purpose of the temporary conditions is his protection. The Appeal Court added the actual conditions of McDonnell’s detention, although harsh, are not intolerable. He does have contact with other persons, and part of the problem is in the control of McDonnell himself.
There is no element of punishment involved and the prison governor accepts the situation is difficult and harsh and is endeavouring to improve McDonnell’s situation.
The Appeal Court added in making its decision the High Court did not have accurate up-to-date evidence of the prisoner’s mental health as he had exercised his entitlement to withhold it. In the absence of that material the High Court was not justified in deducing McDonnells mental condition by reason of the conditions of his detention
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved