Kathleen McMahon handed in her resignation as governor of Dóchas women’s prison claiming there had been “serious undermining” of her position. Ms McMahon, who will leave on May 21 after ten years at Dóchas and 33 years in the service, complained of a lack of consultation and respect by Prison Service management.
In her letter to Mr Purcell she cited “dreadful” overcrowding through the introduction of bunk beds, which has seen up to 137 women crammed into a centre designed for 85. She said large numbers of women were so low a risk to the public they should never be jailed.
She said the progressive rehabilitative regime was being eaten away by overcrowding and warned: “I would say it probably would go back to the way it was years ago: self-mutilation, bullying, depression, lesbianism.”
On RTÉ radio yesterday, Mr Purcell praised the work of Ms McMahon: “I’ve known Kathleen over a long period of time. She’s done an excellent job in the Dóchas Centre. She’s a woman with a heart of gold.”
However, he rejected the Prison Service had undermined her. “She, in particular, mentioned the issue of bunk beds and she felt there was no consultation with her on this. In fact, there was consultation with her about the bunk beds. But, like in relation to the male prison, I’ve two options in relation to prisoners: hold them or release them. The reason bunk beds were introduced in the Dóchas Centre is that I had a situation in Limerick Prison where I was forced to accommodate three prisoners in single cells in conditions which are nowhere near as good as Dóchas Centre.”
Mr Purcell rejected Ms McMahon’s claims that a large percentage should not be in prison. He said 25% were serving time for murder or manslaughter offences and 20% were imprisoned for supplying drugs. A further 25% were serving sentences over 12 months for offences such as robbery.
He said the balance could be best described as “serial offenders”, with a string of convictions the “length of your arm”, and judges may have felt they had little choice but to impose a prison sentence.
Liam Herrick of the Irish Penal Reform Trust said: “This unprecedented public gesture by a prison governor sounds a clear alarm call for government that even our most progressive prison can no longer achieve its stated purpose.”
Fine Gael justice spokes-man Charlie Flanagan said the move by Ms McMahon was “further confirmation that the prison system is falling apart with death and serious injury to prisoners and staff becoming an inevitability”.