“Cork Prison is the worst jail in the system. It’s inhumane.”
These are not the words of a lobby group or an inspection watchdog. They are the views of the boss of the Irish Prison Service (IPS).
Michael Donnellan is clearly energised at the prospect — literally within his grasp — of consigning the Dickensian prison to history.
Fresh from the first board meeting inside the almost-completed replacement Cork Prison, the director general compares the old with the new.
“We’re going from chalk to cheese. Cork is our worst prison in terms of cell accommodation: The size of them, and the lack of in-cell sanitation.”
He is clearly impressed at the speed with which Hegarty contractors has constructed the new prison: “I think it’s phenomenal. The contractors came on site here in January 2014 and, here we are in July 2015, and we’re almost there.
“The contractors will hopefully be off the site by the end of August. There will be snagging and tagging and commissioning, but within a 24-month period we will come from nothing to having the best prison in Ireland in terms of facilities.”
Mr Donnellan says there is a “huge emphasis” on work training, education, and recreation in the new prison.
“It’s not just more cells. We’ve been good in the past in building cell blocks. What we haven’t been good with is building all the ancillary support. All that is here for the first time, and all bespoke.”
And he says it won’t be a case — as in some other modern prisons — where the facilities are good, but where prison numbers far exceed the capacity. “There will be facilities for everybody here, not just work training and education, but catering and things like horticulture.”
He sees the new prison as having “huge benefits” for prisoners.
“You can see the amount of light here compared to the old prison. In some parts it’s all natural light, there are no artificial lights. The light and height and width of it is completely different.
“But the biggest benefit is the end to slopping-out [having a bucket as a toilet in a cell], hot water to wash your hands, a shower — and the knock-on benefits of all that. And the recreation facilities are much, much better.
“The end of slopping-out was the driver — the single biggest driver [for the new prison].”
Inside the new Cork prison currenly under construction.
He says the Government said they would end slopping-out.
Former justice minister Alan Shatter visited the prison soon after he took office and pledged that something had to be done.
He subsequently secured government commitment to fund a new prison.
“At a time when the country is only beginning to come out of a very austere time financially we were so lucky to get the €42m it’s going to cost for a prison for Cork.”
He says this was against a backdrop of repeated promises, and failures, to do so. “It’s been tried and failed three times in the past. There was a belief that it would never be done.”
He says it was “so important” that the commitment made by Mr Shatter was maintained under Frances Fitzgerald.
“We, as a country, made the decision that we can stop this really very inhumane practice [of slopping-out].”
He says the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture repeatedly condemned the practice: “They came to Cork every time they visited our prisons and gave out yards.” He says they didn’t visit last year after they saw the plans for the new prison.
He says the new prison would be a milestone in eliminating slopping-out entirely from the system.
“When Cork is delivered by the end of the year the slopping-out figure will go down to less than 100 for the whole estate. Five years ago it was nearly 1,000.”
He says there are some people still slopping-out in Portlaoise Prison, as well as Limerick Prison.
He says the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has given the green light for a new Limerick Prison. The planning process is due to be followed by a six-month tendering process. They hope work can start in January 2017 and be completed by the end of 2018.
“Limerick Prison is not just about slopping-out: it was no workshops or facilities and no proper recreation.”
He disagrees with the contention that the prison should have been put in a greenfield site in the county. In 2007, then justice minister Michael McDowell proposed a prison on army lands in Kilworth, outside Fermoy, to house up to 450 prisoners.
Entrance to the new Cork prison currenly under construction.
Updated proposals were proposed by the IPS Thornton Hall Review Group in 2011, recommending a 200-cell secure prison for 350 prisoners and 150 spaces for a step-down facility.
Neither plan went anywhere and in December 2011 Mr Shatter directed Mr Donnellan to come up with new plans. This resulted in the current prison.
“I think going out to Kilworth would strategically have been a mistake,” says the director general.
“To get into the site alone, to get the services in, we were quoted €15m and for the prison itself up to €100m.
He says there will be “substantial savings” in terms of running costs, which he previously estimated at around €2.5m a year. Hegarty estimates the energy costs to operate the new prison will be 85% of the existing prison due to newer and more environmentally-friendly technologies.
“The old prison is sinking good money after bad,” says Mr Donnellan. “It’s just a disaster. There’s no end to the money you could spend in that old prison, maintaining it as well as the lighting and heating inefficiencies.”
Mr Donnellan walks over to a board with a map of the modelled prison.
“This site,” he says, “is exactly in the right place. There’s been a prison on this site for literally forever — it was an old military prison [before it was handed over in the early 1970s]. We own the site. It’s right in the city, so families can visit.”
He says the site is about six and a half acres, twice the size of the current prison.
Running his finger along the shape of the new prison, he says it’s a “digi-8” and not — he and prison officials are keen to stress — in the shape of a H Block, for understandable reasons.
There are 169 cells in the new prison, compared to a maximum 153 cells in the old. The new prison has a maximum capacity of 310, while the current prison has a maximum capacity, according to the IPS, of 210, and according to the inspector of prisons, 173.
As it stands, there are 230 inmates in Cork Prison, meaning it is operating at either 110% or 134% of its capacity. At its worst, there were 330 to 335 bodies crammed into the cells, which are less than 8sq ft and similar in size to a box bedroom. The new cells will be 12sq ft, including a corner taken up with a semi-partitioned shower, toilet, and washbasin.
They will be fitted with bunk beds, but Mr Donnellan does not expect all with have two prisoners.
“We mustn’t believe we’ll have 310 here. That’s just a contingency figure if the sky fell in. Really we need to be operating the prison at around 250, or 275, to operate safely. A prison should never operate at 100% capacity.” He says that would leave some 100 cells with one prisoner in them.
He says the IPS always gives those serving life or long sentences (above 10 to 14 years) their own cell.
But he disagrees with criticism that has been levelled at the new prison by penal reform groups, who argue the prison should be all single cell. “I think the concerns are misplaced. There’s a really interesting argument about single cells. If you look at research on suicide in European studies, actually sharing cells helps prevent suicide. We have people who elect to share.
“My view is we should have 80% single cell. Today we have 56%. When we have the capital programme finished in Limerick and Portlaoise that will be up to 80%. That is completely acceptable.”
Inside one of the cells in the new Cork prison. The bulk of cells can house two inmates, and are 12sq ft compared to less than 8sq ft in the existing prision.
Eight cells will be for segregation prisoners, for those being disciplined. In addition there will be a seven-cell High Support Unit for vulnerable prisoners with a mental illness. That unit is controlled by the prison psychiatrist. There will be two safety observations cells for those who might harm themselves and two cells adapted for those with disabilities.
Mr Donnellan says there will be no extra measures in terms of dealing with violent attacks.
Last May, prisoner Graham Johnson was fatally stabbed in the kitchen of Cork Prison by another inmate. Both men were trustee prisoners — assessed as not high risk, who were allowed to work in the kitchen as a privilege. The stabbing flared after some sort of disagreement.
“The last time there was a murder [in an Irish prison] was in 2007 in Mountjoy and in 2006 also Mountjoy,” Mr Donnellan says.
“It was an awful thing that happened. It rarely happens but it can. That came completely out of the blue, that incident. The circumstances of it were completely unforeseeable, in a kitchen zone where people are completely trusted. So really there was nothing really to upgrade, it’s such a rare occurrence.” He says the new prison will generally have a positive impact on prisoners, both immediately and for decades to come.
“I think people will be happier here, more content. It will be good for the future and this prison will be here in 100 years time.”
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