Reason squeezed out in debate on overcrowding

OVERCROWDING in Mountjoy jail has been blamed for tension, fights, drug abuse and even deaths among prisoners and now its latest crime seems to be that it squeezed out John Lonergan.

Although the country’s best known prison governor insisted this week that he wasn’t leaving early the post he has held for 26 years in protest at conditions in the Victorian premises, the mathematics suggest otherwise.

Divide 540 (the number of inmates Mountjoy can safely accommodate) by 670 (the number it housed on Tuesday this week and an increasingly typical occupancy rate in recent times) and you end up with a situation where one in every five prisoners shouldn’t be there.

It means one in every five prisoners is in a bunk – or just as likely on a mattress in a corner of the floor – that is encroaching on someone else’s already very limited physical and psychological space.

So you don’t just have the 130 extra prisoners unsuitably housed – if you presume they are lodged in what are meant to be single cells, you have 260 who are discommoded, and more if they are deposited in two-man cells.

That’s about half the official occupancy of the prison.

And if half the official occupancy of the prison are on edge, what’s that likely to do to the other half?

The maths lesson can end there with the conclusion that the result of this particular equation is a potentially incendiary situation.

So who cares? The natural reaction of the majority of those who go through life without incurring a prison sentence is that prison is meant to be a miserable experience.

It seems entirely logical that inmates give up their right to the normal comfort, privacy and dignity that civilised people desire and need the day they decide that the normal rules of civilised society don’t apply to them.

For victims of crime and their families especially, there can be an understandable feeling that no hardship is too extreme for someone who has caused them physical and/or emotional pain and ruined their peace of mind forever.

So what if prisoners don’t get a decent night’s sleep, have to pee in front of their cellmates, stink from the scarcity of washing facilities and never get a moment when they can be alone with their thoughts?

So what if they take out their frustrations on each other? Shouldn’t part of the punishment for crime be having to spend time in close proximity with others as low as yourself?

Arguments to the contrary are hard to make. Prisoners are a tiny minority of society and, generally speaking, a minority of their own making. Shut them up and shut them away seems to be the strategy that suits most people on the outside.

But the fact is that this tiny minority has a disproportionately large impact on the rest of society in many different ways. From a purely economic point of view, the day-to-day costs of running the country’s prisons will be more than €320 million this year, so it makes sense to look for value for money.

If the way to measure value for money is that a prisoner doesn’t commit further crime and return to prison, then value is badly lacking as recidivism rates are high.

You can argue that means prison can’t be all that bad or you can see it as a failure of the prison system to rehabilitate the prisoner.

Penal reform campaigners go with the latter interpretation and they say that as long as prisons remain overcrowded and crisis-managed, there will not be the time, space, training, educational or psychological supports to encourage and equip an inmate to aim for a life away from crime once they return to the outside.

There is also a moral argument. Prisons in most western countries are meant to punish crime by depriving the offender of their liberty – not by depriving them of basic needs such as a toilet, a shower, safety and sufficient comfort to sleep.

Mountjoy, where slopping out – the nice term for urinating and defecating in a communal bucket which is emptied once a day – is the norm, where showers are usually a once a week treat and where beds are too often a mattress on the floor, is considered in breach of international protocols such as the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Slopping out never killed anyone, people will argue. But overcrowding has.

In 2006, Gary Douche, a 21-year-old drug addict, pleaded to be placed in a protection cell because he feared an attack by some other prisoners.

Single cells are scarce, however, so the prison authorities did the next best thing and put him in a crowded holding cell with five other inmates. Safety in numbers, seemed to be the thinking.

But one of those inmates was Stephen Egan, who had a history of mental illness and had recently been transferred from the Central Mental Hospital. Egan beat him to death in front of the others who were so terrified they didn’t alert prison officers to the assault or to the mangled body that lay in their midst for most of the night.

The official inquiry into the killing is still ongoing but it is bound to address the fact that there were not enough cells to safely accommodate a dangerous prisoner and a prisoner in danger.

The incident also debunks another myth – that everyone in prison is a hardened criminal. Many are drug addicts first and foremost and criminal by consequence. Others are mentally ill. Others are suspects awaiting trial, applicants for bail, asylum seekers awaiting deportation, loan defaulters and people whose crime is the non-payment of fines for minor misdemeanours.

Whether they should be in prison at all is up for debate, but the fact is that since 1997, the average daily number of people behind bars has risen from 2,442 to well over 4,000, with some projections that the figure will rise to 5,000 this year so there simply isn’t room for all of them.

A case at Limerick District Court last month illustrated the point when a serial offender with 96 previous convictions was given a fresh sentence of 10 months for theft. He was released two days later because of overcrowding at Limerick prison.

The judge demanded an explanation and the prison’s assistant governor said there were health and safety issues to consider.

But what about the health and safety of the public? There’s a fair bet that someone with 96 previous convictions is probably going to offend again while out of prison – particularly when they know there’s a good chance they’ll only serve two days of 10 months.

There’s a related issue in the release of people on bail – some awaiting trial but also some who have been convicted and are awaiting sentence.

Victim support groups would argue that the latter category at least should be in custody and their argument would seem to be supported by figures released this week that reveal 15 murders and hundreds of other serious crimes were committed in the last two years where the prime suspect was out on bail.

If all of those people were to be kept behind bars, overcrowding would reach a new crisis point. The Government’s response is to plan extra prison spaces. Although very much delayed, the so-called Thornton Hall superprison, with its intended 1,400 spaces, is still on the cards.

In the short-term, 200 extra places are to come on stream in a new block at Wheatfield and in the medium-term, 300 new places are placed for Portlaoise and the Midlands Prisons.

But is the answer always more spaces? Penal reform campaigners argue prisoner numbers will always rise to meet the space available as prison is a politically easier option than community sanctions or rehabilitation programmes.

They argue it’s not enough to address the space issue but that the real solution lies in finding out who’s taking up the space and why and what can be done about that.

Crime and punishment is always an emotive issue but the fear is that in discussing overcrowding, reasoned debate will be squeezed out.

More in this section

Price info

Subscribe to unlock unlimited digital access.
Cancel anytime.

Terms and conditions apply

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.