John Cuffe recalls the day he woke up and saw Cork harbour ablaze. His new memoir of being a prison officer includes a look at the riot on Spike Island. He tells Donal O’Keeffe.
“Spike Island was a powder-keg. It could have gone up at any time. It was totally, totally unsuitable for prisoners.”
At 6am on Saturday, August 31st, 1985, prison officer John Cuffe was awoken by the news coming from his bedside radio. “More Gardai and army personnel are being drafted in as prison officers try to contain what’s left of Spike Island. Fires have raged on the island all night…”
The night before, Cuffe had been the Assistant Chief Officer on Spike – “an unremarkable evening” – and had come off duty at 10pm and gone ashore, coming home to the house in Cobh he shared with fellow officers, and gone to bed early.
Just before midnight, a riot had broken out and officers on duty were quickly overwhelmed. By dawn, most of the buildings on the island were aflame.
“I tore into the town,” Cuffe remembers in his book Inside The Monkey House: My Time as an Irish Prison Officer, “The horizon over the Cobh of Cork was glowing red, like a scene from Apocalypse Now. Coming down the hill, I espied abandoned Garda vans, cars and army trucks along with police motorbikes.”
Arriving on the island and surveying the damage, Cuffe says “Spike resembled a battle site. Rocks, stones, smashed timber and debris were strewn everywhere.”
Spike Island was, Cuffe says, “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”. In the face of a media storm about “joyriding” — car-thefts by disaffected youths — the then Justice Minister Michael Noonan had decided Something Must Be Done.
“Spike Island was created to make space in the prisons, alleviate the revolving-door syndrome that more than anything else undermined jails.”
It was also a drab, neglected place, let to go to rack and ruin for decades before it was turned into a prison.
Cuffe notes drily that Noonan’s populist, “lock ‘em up” solution was strictly knee-jerk. “No one looked at the underlying causes (of joyriding), the deprivation, the falling attendances at schools and the lack of meaningful work.”
Even so, under Michael Noonan’s plan to be tough on negative headlines and tough on the cause of negative headlines, Spike Island grabbed the public imagination.
“Somehow or other,” says Cuffe, “Spike attached itself to the solution – that Spike was going to be the joyriders’ prison – but it wasn’t to be. What happened was the prisons themselves took the opportunity to get rid of a lot of troublemakers.”
To this day, many remember Spike as “the joyriders’ prison” and think the riot was caused by joyriders. Not so, says Cuffe.
“A lot of the prisoners we got had drug issues, a lot were lifers. Serious prisoners, troublemakers who would have taken a fair bit of handling even in a place that had the facilities for them. Suddenly, they were dumped in a place where there were fourteen to a dormitory, they weren’t vetted properly.”
With so many troubled prisoners – a hundred or more - crammed into close proximity in poor conditions, Cuffe says the atmosphere was always tense and dangerous in Spike and it was only a matter of time before something terrible happened.
It seems a miracle that nobody was seriously injured, or worse, in the riot which Cuffe calls “inevitable”. In Cuffe’s book, he tells the story of how the riot finally ended: an angry mother, shipped to the island, roaring at her son to come down from the roof. Ultimately, the riot was the end of Spike Island’s days as a prison.
John Cuffe, Serial Number 02318C, originally from Blacksod Bay in County Mayo, served a three-decade career as a prison officer, starting in Mountjoy’s Victorian conditions, working in Portlaoise, then Europe’s top-security prison, and in the drug-riddled prisoners’ Training Unit, and in Arbour Hill, home to sex offenders and murderers of women and children.
In his time, Cuffe dealt with the IRA kidnappers of Tiede Herrema, and the gangsters implicated for Veronica Guerin, and Dean Lyons, wrongly accused of the Grangegorman murders, and Malcolm McArthur, the infamous “GUBU” double-murderer.
Retired ten years, Cuffe now writes for The Western People. He believes things have not improved in the prison service.
“Prison officers are not seen even as basic frontline crime fighters. Police, firemen and ambulance staff would all be seen as frontline service personnel. Gardaí, the army and navy are all statute-based organisations whose officers take an oath to serve and protect the State. Prison officers are non-statutory, take no oath and, according to the late judge and Inspector of Prisons Michael Reilly, are in fact civilians.
“Like the rat catcher, the guy who removes the grease traps, the coal miner, the trawler man, prison staff are an unseen in the main group of life’s functionaries, glamourless and grey.”
Cuffe’s book offers an authoratative insight into Ireland’s prison system and leaves the reader under no illusions about the lack of esteem experienced by prison officers.
“The fact is that the Irish criminal justice system is the perfect example of a hierarchy,” he writes.
“Sitting atop are bewigged and black-gowned judges and their retinue of tipstaffs, snuff and brandy, and old-world etiquette. Each layer beneath them tries to replicate their status: barristers, solicitors, experts of all hues, including Gardai and court clerks. At the bottom, vying for air, wrestle the accused and their keepers.”
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