‘Prisoners are human beings... but a big percentage never had a chance in life’

JIM COLLINS jumps up out of his seat as soon as we enter the room.

He comes round to the other side of the long table fronting his own large desk and points up to an overhead photograph of Cork Prison.

“We’ve no proper perimeter wall for the prison,” he says, his finger circling an assortment of odd-shaped buildings and walls.

And the image is telling. An industrial estate, back gardens and wild green areas literally back onto prison walls or small exterior walls, as low as 6ft in places.

“They can easily put a ladder up and throw stuff in. You can easily walk up to walls here. There is no perimeter wall.”

We have been brought to the governor’s office before we embark on a detailed visit of Cork Prison.

We stay standing by the photograph. He declines to have his own picture taken and presses on us the issues.

DRUGS

“We have been bombarded for years with drugs, that’s why we have the netting.” He says there is also a strict no physical contact during visits, except for those on enhanced regimes — inmates who are well behaved and trustworthy — who can enjoy family visits on Sundays, when contact is allowed.

“We have mothers and fathers trafficking drugs. Drugs can be secreted up rear ends and we do not have the right to search them internally. We have the OSG [Operational Support Group], the intelligence unit and the dog unit, but there are ways of bypassing them.”

He adds: “I have parents saying ‘it’s appalling I can’t hug my son’. I say, ‘you’re right, it is appalling, but it would be worse if I had to tell you he overdosed’. I’ve had to say that over the years.”

CONDITIONS

He says overcrowding and slopping out are the dominant problems. “I have 143 operational cells, 153 in total, but a number of those are for disruptive prisoners and for medical care. We had 330 prisoners in the summer of 2010, 50 to 60 people on the floor.

“Cork has been the most overcrowded prison since 1982, since the then minister for justice decided to double up with bunk beds in the single cells.”

He says that in recent times a massive effort has been put in to reduce the chronic overcrowding levels. “It fluctuated between 290 and 330 and now it’s down to 226 today. It’s a constant effort to move them on, shipping them out to Midlands [Prison]. That’s a huge drop, but requires a huge amount of work. These are people from Cork, Kerry and Waterford, so it has consequences for their families visiting, moving them to the Midlands.”

He says Cork is the second biggest prison in the country after Cloverhill Prison in Dublin in terms of committals — ie, people sent to prison either on sentence or remand. “We are obliged to take committals on foot of a valid warrant.”

And one of his biggest problems in this regard is the continuing high number being sent on foot of failure to pay fines. “It’s an issue for me: the man hours spent, the processing, the discharging. It’s all time consuming.”

On the internal conditions and the slopping out, he says: “The CPT [Committee for the Prevention of Torture] have been crucifying us and the Penal Reform Trust and the Inspector of Prisons — I don’t need to be told the conditions are unsuitable.”

NEW PRISON

“We’ve had four sets of plans for this prison. Cork has been targeted by the CPT. We are probably the worst prison. “If the fourth attempt [for a new prison] is a failure the Inspector of Prisons said he would close the prison down. I don’t disagree. In 2013 we shouldn’t be in this position.”

Looking again to the photograph, he points out the grounds of the new prison, comprising of a large unused field and the current car park. It will give double the space, but will only give slightly increased capacity, at a maximum of 300 inmates, all in double cells.

“It will be a modern complex, twice the space,” Mr Collins says. “It will not hugely increase our capacity and we will still have to take committals on demand, but for the first time in the history of Cork Prison we will have in-cell sanitation. That’s a basic need.”

He says the builders would be on site before Christmas and that the prison should be built by the end of 2015, with staff training thereafter.

He points to two separate perimeter walls, one by the car park and the other on the far side of the current prison. They are partially built. When the money ran out that was it. “These [the new] plans are the fourth attempt. We need to do something. It is appalling in this day and age to put three people into a single cell with no in-cell sanitation. That’s what we got. Today we have on person on the floor [a third person in a cell].”

He says Justice Minister Alan Shatter visited the prison after he took office. “I remember he walked out the front door and looked back. He said ‘we are going to have to do something with this’, but said he had to try and get the money. In fairness to him he has.”

Mr Collins says to have a fourth failure would be “unacceptable”.

It’s a bracing rush through the issues facing Cork Prison as we head on our tour. Mr Collins comes across as a serious man, intense even, and has the air of someone operating at speed to keep a very leaky ship afloat.

AFTER THE TOUR

More than four hours later we return and are directed to sit at the long dining table in front of his desk and offered tea.

Sitting down, the full size of the room hits home. Everywhere, it is lined with documents, binders, folders, files and records of one sort or another. The governor’s considerable desk is likewise buckling under a load.

He asks how our tour went and we mention the conditions. “The conditions aren’t great,” he says. “Everything about Cork Prison is grey and drab, but this is what we have to work with. The Irish Prison Service is not the best in the world. About 80% of facilities are up to speed. Unfortunately we’re sitting in a prison which is last in line.”

He mentions the recent efforts to ease overcrowding by moving people to other prisons.

He also stresses that there isn’t the same drug problem in Cork as elsewhere and that prisoners come down from Dublin to get off drugs.

“The drugs situation here is a direct consequence of no contact visiting,” he says. “The Penal Reform Trust say you can’t breach child contact, but I’m not dealing with a normal setup. I’m dealing with hardcore criminals trafficking drugs any way you can. You can’t pick who has no contact, you have to have a blanket approach.”

The workshops are brought up, to which he replies: “Anyone who wants to work here can. A lot of the guys here, on the outside they sleep all day and are up at night. That does not change here. The amount that are motivated is very small.”

We talk about the part of the prison that struck us most, the D Block and the prisoner we saw there who clearly did not seem well.

“It’s a hospital they should be in. There was one individual who assaults three officers, but you can’t punish psychiatric prisoners — the man is not well. We treat him humanely, get the doctor down, try to get him into Carrigmore [psychiatric hospital] or the CMH [Central Mental Hospital]. But we are a small cog and there’s a huge waiting list. We do the best we can.”

As earlier, Mr Collins highlights the impact committals for relatively minor offences have on prison numbers and calls for a rethink.

FINES

“People given short terms for fines don’t need to be in prison: take 50% of their dole instead. If a bank made a bad call with a loan and the person can’t pay it back, take a euro off him a week. Sending them to jail does not do anything. These people should not be in prison. Prison should be for those who are dangerous and a risk to society.”

He pulls out a sheet with some figures he gathered after our morning meeting.

He says that within the last month there were 177 committals on fine warrants alone. He said 167 (94%) were given temporary release (TR) — 156 of which were released on the day they entered. Some 11 were kept overnight probably because they had a further journey home.

“The turnover is phenomenal,” he says.

SOCIAL SERVICE

Mr Collins says the prison is in many ways as much a social service as a security facility.

“If you have a brain you can stimulate yourself here, but a lot of clients are not stimulated. They left school at 10 or 14, come from dysfunctional families, alcoholic families and have their own addictions. Prisons can save people. We have alcoholics in and out and prisons have kept them alive. We dry them out, give them nourishment.

“They are in a terrible condition coming in, they are rank, literally falling in the gate. Then three or four days later they are looking for TR [temporary release],” says Mr Collins.

“There isn’t the psychological space on the outside. Here there is, they are better looked after here. Judges put them into prison because they know they are better looked after.”

HUMAN BEINGS

He is clear why people in wider society should be concerned about the welfare of people who have committed crimes.

“They are human beings. A big percentage never had a chance in life. Born into a criminal family, there can be one route to go. Would I like my son or daughter sleeping on the floor and defecating into a bowl?”

He says decent food for prisoners is a right as is treating people with alcohol and drug addictions.

“What people who say just lock them up don’t realise is that they are always discharged back into society. If you treat them like in the old films, like dogs, they will go straight back in society that way. If you treat them rough they are going to go back out rough.

“If society does not take care of them as a whole there’s going to be chaos out there.

“Our job is not to punish people, but to care and contain them.”

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