The Mountjoy Prison governor, who ends his 42-year career next month, said he accepted some years ago that inmates are always going to be at the bottom of the social ladder.
He said he served his time in the prisons under the philosophy – do what you can on a human level.
“There are so many vested interest groups, and some of them legitimate vested interest groups, challenging and looking for their portion of the cake and prisoners are at the very bottom,” the outgoing governor said.
“As well as that you have to deal with attitude, which is very much anti-prisoner.
“Most people feel that prisoners aren’t punished enough, even though a prisoner is a fellow human being and somebody’s son or somebody’s daughter.
“People only realise the conditions in prison when they’re personally involved in it and that means if they’ve a family member in prison.”
Mr Lonergan said the Victorian Mountjoy, awaiting to be vacated for a new home in north Dublin, was fundamentally the same as 160 years ago.
He revealed the extent of unresolved overcrowding last night, with about 670 prisoners locked up – about 200 too many according the outgoing governor.
Despite the conditions Mr Lonergan said: “I would argue that there is still a bit of humanity in Mountjoy – it is how the prisoners are treated.”
Mr Lonergan’s decision to retire comes less than a month after his colleague in the women’s prison, Kathleen McMahon, announced plans to step down.
The former governor of the Dochas Centre, housed next door to Mountjoy, claimed the Prison Service was undermining her views on prisoners’ rights, such as temporary release of low-risk inmates.
Mr Lonergan said he was a great supporter of Ms McMahon’s work and identified with her concerns – which he maintained he became conditioned to.
“The options and flexibility you have as a governor are very small and limited and getting worse by the day,” he continued.
“The biggest single factor is a total lack of control over finance.
“There’s very little you can do without money to do it and I’m afraid a governor in a prison doesn’t have a euro to spend in terms of his or her own discretion and that’s where it all begins and ends,” he added.
Elsewhere Mr Lonergan said he had no plans for the future but hoped to use his free time to highlight injustices and support the underdog.
“Fundamentally society is unjust,” he added.
“Some people are born into horrible conditions and they draw the very short straw and it is our responsibility to make sure that every child has an equal opportunity in Ireland.”
In a statement, the Irish Prison Service said: “The director general of the Prison Service would like to thank the governor for his 42 years of service and wishes him well on his retirement.”
A spokesman for Justice Minster Dermot Ahern added: “The minister also wishes him well in retirement.”
Charlie Flanagan, Fine Gael justice spokesman, praised the outgoing governor’s work over the last four decades.
“John Lonergan has been an outstanding prison governor and made a vital contribution to the criminal justice system,” Mr Flanagan said.
“He was both compassionate and humane, and worked consistently to steer Mountjoy through some very difficult times.
“His departure will be a significant loss to the prison system, particularly so soon after Kathleen McMahon’s decision to leave the Dochas women’s prison.”