McDowell to blame for jail conditions

THE necessity to establish an independent inquiry into the death of a prisoner in Mountjoy Prison is indicative of the intolerable overcrowding conditions that have been allowed to flourish in recent years by the policy of the present Government, spearheaded by Justice Minister Michael McDowell.

It is, indeed, a tragedy for the family of Gary Douch, as the minister said, but the unfortunate fact remains that the three-year sentence he had been serving became a death sentence.

Neither was it an isolated incident of serious violence in Mountjoy. A few days before this tragic death, a Nigerian inmate, imprisoned for life for the death of his wife, was attacked by a gang and stabbed three times, which may cause him to lose an eye.

A murder accused in Cork Prison was attacked there at the weekend and sustained a wound to the forehead. While it was considered to be of a minor nature by the Irish Prison Service, it points to a very worrying pattern of inmates being able to mete out their perverse sense of justice.

Although this cannot be allowed to continue, it will be more difficult to control because of the overcrowded conditions existing in the prison system, exacerbated by Mr McDowell’s decision to close down three prisons.

Mountjoy Prison itself is earmarked for closure and be redeveloped as a village complex, but in the meantime the prison, which dates back to 1850, is the main committal prison in the State for males aged 18 years and over, serving sentences up to life imprisonment.

It has been seriously criticised by the Prison Officers’ Association because of its overcrowding, which may have been a factor in the 21-year-old’s death.

Significantly, the late Mr Douch was reported to have requested to be put on protection because he believed he had reason to fear for his life. Yet, it is understood, he was put in a cell with several others who had also sought protective custody.

Irrespective of whatever reason a person may be in jail, they are entitled to the protection of the State, and in this case that onus was fundamentally breached.

The independent inquiry will be conducted by Michael Mellett, who works with the Independent Monitoring Commission, as well as the garda investigation and another by the Prison Service.

The Mellett inquiry, according to the minister, will make any observations and recommendations as it sees fit.

It may well do, but any such recommendations would be futile if they are not implemented, and not ignored as others have been.

Only a matter of a few weeks ago, retired High Court judge, Dermot Kinlen, who is now Inspector of Prisons, described the present prison system as a “total failure”.

It is symptomatic of the concern held by the inspector, a respected authority on prisons, that his indictment of the prison system was expressed in the first interview he gave on national radio.

Appointed to his position by the current Government, Mr Kinlen has previously produced a number of revealing reports which illustrated the shocking conditions he encountered in the prison system but which were ignored. What cannot be overlooked, is the level of overcrowding existing in Mountjoy.

Staff are not responsible.

The minister is.

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