Life behind bars: A cycle of violence, despair and drugs

In part one of a three-day investigation Cormac O’Keeffe unveils new figures which reveal a worrying and growing crisis behind Ireland’s prison walls

DECLAN said he saw a man being murdered when he was in prison. He said there were fights almost every day in the five years he was in Mountjoy Prison, most of it over drugs.

Once, he said he had to “batter” a guy, after he called him a rat.

Convicted for drug trafficking, Declan said that nothing could have prepared him for Mountjoy when he arrived in 2002.

“It’s a s**t hole, worse than you could imagine. I was on the worst wing, B wing. Very nasty, a lot of trouble, and drugs.”

In January 2004, he said he saw a man, Alan Greene, being stabbed to death with a makeshift knife, or “shiv”.

“I witnessed a murder, I witnessed many people being cut up, mainly over drugs. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen pools of blood in that place.”

On one occasion he said he felt he had no choice but to sort out a guy who called him a rat.

“That’s the worst thing in jail to be called. I had to do something whether I wanted to or not. The long and short of it, I battered him.”

He left Mountjoy in 2006, the year when Gary Douch was horrifically killed in an overcrowded basement cell in the jail and a year before Derek Glennon was stabbed to death.

Declan has now found a life with hope thanks to a programme linking released prisoners with training and work in the outside world (see article below on the Linkage programme).

The killing of Douch, who had asked to be taken out of the basement cell because of fears of his safety, sparked outrage.

It led to government plans to deal with the four main problems threatening the prison system: violence, overcrowding, poor conditions and drugs.

But, if this is the reality of Irish prisons, to what extent are prisons working? And to what degree are prisons rehabilitating offenders?

Prison Service figures revealed in the Irish Examiner today show the grip of violence in many institutions.

Some 746 prisoners were on protection across nine institutions as of April 10 this year — a quarter of all inmates in those jails (see graphic) and a fifth of all prisoners in the entire system.

People on protection are separated from the rest of the prison population.

In many cases they are housed with other protection prisoners in a separate wing and in some cases a percentage are under 23-hour lock-up, often at their own request, such is their level of fear.

The highest rate of protection is in Wheatfield Prison (56%), where, it should be said, many are not under 23-hour lock-up, and Midlands Prison (49%).

Both institutions house a high number of sex offenders, who are automatically placed on protection.

Separate Prison Service figures show there were 255 incidents of violence between prisoners in the first three months of this year.

Of those, 20, or around 10%, involved a weapon of some kind, including makeshifts knives, brush handles and even boiling water.

A Prison Service spokesman said most incidents were not serious.

The figures were concentrated in seven institutions.

St Patrick’s Institution for Young Offenders recorded the highest number (62), but no weapons were recorded. The Prison Service said most were minor incidents.

Highlighting the problem of criminal gangs operating from the inside, the figures show more than 550 mobiles were seized in the first three months.

Three scathing reports on the state of Irish prisons were published towards the end of last year. The Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) said increasing numbers of prisoners were seeking protection due to the “growing phenomenon of inter-prisoner violence”.

It said several prisons were “unsafe” — both for prisoners and staff — naming in particular Mountjoy, St Patrick’s and Limerick.

“The extent of inter-prisoner (violence) in these prisons is worrying and the increasing number of persons seeking the protection of the prison management is a symptom of this development.

“Stabbings and assaults with various objects are frequent and many prisoners met by the delegation bore the marks of such incidents.”

The CPT said the reasons behind the increase were varied but included the availability of drugs and the lack of purposeful activities.

“The increased use and demand for drugs within prisons is fuelling a younger, more aggressive prison population, who have little to do besides plotting how to get their next fix.

“Further aggravating factors include the existence of feuding gangs carrying out their vendettas; the lack of individualised risk and needs assessment for all prisoners; the lack of space and poor material conditions in prisons.”

The CPT said the killing of Gary Douch in August 2006 was “a tragic illustration of the unsafe nature of certain prisons in Ireland”.

It said the holding cell in the basement of Block B, where the death occurred, held 17 people during the day and seven inmates at night in a space of 19 square metres.

Speaking of the deaths of Mr Douch and Mr Glennon, the prison chaplains’ report said: “The enormity of these tragedies points to a daily reality of violence in Irish prisons where people live and work in a hostile environment, with a climate of constant fear and tension.

“A growing number of those in custody are seeking protection and serving sentences on almost constant lock-up. Their fear is valid as they witness the increase in serious assaults within the prison.”

Prior to the death, the inspector of prisons, the late Justice Dermot Kinlen, had described the conditions of the basement cells as “inhumane and degrading”.

Those on the frontline believe violence has worsened.

“In the last number of years, certainly since 2003, we have prisoners being murdered in prison. Heretofore we didn’t see that,” said John Clinton, general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA).

“Society itself has become more violent. It’s inevitable that when in prison they become as violent, if not more so.”

He said male and female officers had been threatened and assaulted inside and outside prisons and had their homes attacked and threats made against their families.

Last February, an envelope with two bullets and a note were handed into staff at Mountjoy.

The note contained the names of prison officers and details of their activities outside work.

A total of 142 prison officers claimed injury on duty in 2007, including those assaulted. More than 70,000 days were lost in 2007 from sickness by the 3,400 staff, or 21 days per officer.

At the POA annual conference two weeks ago, POA president Jim Mitchell issued a stark warning on violence and gangs: “If we don’t take control of this situation, which allows gangs and individuals to control certain aspects of prison life — we will lose control of our prisons as has happened in other jurisdictions.”

David Williamson of the Impact branch representing probation officers, who work in prisons, said: “Across the prison service as a whole the risks have increased in terms of people’s propensity for violence towards each other because of conflicts outside.”

He said many of those on 23-hour lock-up had “a more fragile mental state, potentially more stressed and fractious and may well be using drugs more frequently”.

Mr Clinton said drugs had “permeated” prisons.

“It creates huge difficulties for prison officers on a daily basis. We’ve been threatened and beaten up when we try and intervene.”

In May 2006, former Justice Minister Michael McDowell announced new drug and security measures, including mandatory drug testing and an expansion of drug treatment services and a crackdown on mobile phones.

In June 2007, plans were announced to set up new search teams in prisons, screening measures on entry and canine drug units.

“Where is our drugs plan? It hasn’t been implemented,” said Mr Clinton.

The Prison Service said security screening would be in place in all 10 closed prisons by September and operational search units by June.

Mr Clinton said overcrowding was at the heart of most of the problems and seriously limited rehabilitation.

“With the exception of Portlaoise Prison and the two open centres, prisons are operating over and above their design capacity.”

An analysis by the Irish Examiner shows the prison system is bursting at the seams in most prisons.

Based on the original design, the system has at least 350 more prisoners than designed to take (However, staff at Mountjoy Prison state that the design capacity there is 351, not 540 as claimed by the Prison Service. This would suggest the prison system has 550 more inmates than it has been designed for).

Because it has put extra beds into many of the cells, the Prison Service refers to bed capacity — not design capacity. By doing so it maintains it is actually just below, or at, full capacity.

In its report, the CPT noted that the prisons with the “poorest material conditions” had continued to operate at, or even over, capacity, mentioning Cork, Limerick and Mountjoy.

The CPT was heavily critical of the condition of the A and B blocks in Mountjoy.

“The conditions were cramped with two prisoners being accommodated in cells of 8sqm. The pervasive smell from the use of chamber pots in each other’s presence compounded these deficiencies.”

It said slopping out also continued in the A and B blocks in Limerick.

In Cork, the CPT said the C Wing did not possess in-cell sanitation.

“The delegation came across three prisoners on 23 hour lock-up sharing a cell of 9.8sqm, with one of the prisoners sleeping on a mattress on the floor; at the time of the visit, food had been served without the chamber pots having been emptied and the air in the cell was rank and humid.”

Mr Kinlen in his report said it was “hard to imagine” any court permitting these conditions if any prisoners took legal action (as is the case).

Staff working in Mountjoy have expressed anger at the decision to reopen A wing because of overcrowding. This wing had previously been closed because of the poor conditions.

“After Gary Douch, the decision was made to limit numbers to around 470. At the time of the killing it was around 540,” said a Mountjoy staff source.

“It reduced capacity and it was less crowded. But they reopened A wing and we have gone up incrementally to where we started.”

Another staff source at Mountjoy Prison said overcrowding was the “single biggest issue” and slammed the “reckless failure” of the prison service to address the problem.

“We have 600 prisoners in 351 single cells, with nothing to do. Some are sleeping on filthy mattresses and sharing cells 12 by 8 metres and going to the toilet in front of each other.”

The source said gangs were gaining an increasing hold inside the jail and that officers were struggling to manage large numbers of feuding gangs.

“We have 80 prisoners on protection, that was unheard of years ago,” he said.

He claimed that if is wasn’t for governor John Lonergan the prison would explode. “Mountjoy is the ultimate warehouse. Lonergan keeps a lid on it. He’s very humane.”

The Irish Examiner understands that a Prison Service audit of Mountjoy carried out by an external expert last year found that the major problem was the size of the prison population and the lack of constructive activity. Despite the findings of their own audit, the population has continued to rise.

Mr Clinton said rehabilitation was difficult, even without the bad conditions.

“From prison officers’ perspective, we are working on a daily basis with people who are very demanding for a variety of reasons.

“Rehabilitation is difficult. There is no point saying otherwise. But if you have a big prison like Mountjoy without adequate areas for prisoners to go and do worthwhile activities you are into warehousing and warehousing definitely doesn’t work.”

He said prisons which had a good record for rehabilitative activities, such as Wheatfield Prison, were being hit by the overcrowding problem.

“Wheatfield was the best model for rehabilitation, if you exclude the like of the training unit. But now, many of the cells are doubled up.”

Liam Herrick of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) said that while there were some good examples of rehabilitative work — in Wheatfield and Dochas Women’s Prison — the situation had not improved.

“We do know from the CPT report, that given the physical conditions — the overcrowding and the lack of activities — that the dominant features of prison life are boredom, drug use, violence and intimidation.

“The very high number of prisoners who feel unsafe and who are requesting protection indicates there is a systemic problem.”

He pointed to the sole research in Ireland on re-offending among prisoners. The study by UCD, published in the Irish Examiner in December 2006, showed that one quarter of released prisoners re-offended within a year and nearly half within four years.

“Prison doesn’t work. If you are sending people to jail, at huge cost to the public, and coming out worse, that’s a hugely negative result,” said Mr Herrick.

“That’s not to say there isn’t a place for prison — there is, in certain circumstances.”

Mr Kinlen in his report said the Prison Service had been a “disastrous failure”.

He said: “The primary purpose of imprisonment is rehabilitation. However, the present system, particularly regarding young persons practically guarantees that they will follow a life of crime when they are released.”

Sr Imelda Wickham of the Prison Chaplains’ Association said there were countless strategy reports on prison reform and rehabilitation which had gathered dust.

These included the famous Whitaker report of 20 years ago, the 1994 government report on the Management of Offenders and the 2002 report on the Reintegration of Prisoners by the National Economic and Social Forum.

“I could paint O’Connell Street with policies and government documents, but you look at the reality and they are not being implemented.

Ms Wickham and others accept there have been some positive developments, including the reopening of workshops in St Patrick’s, a new services unit in Limerick Prison, more psychologists, the appointment of 24 addiction counsellors and improved links between prisons and the community on drug treatment.

Like many, she is placing hope on the much-awaited Integrated Sentence Management (see below).

“They are making efforts to introduce it, although it was supposed to have already been piloted. It’s the one thing that will cut down on recidivism and give prisoners some sense of hope.”

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