Characteristically, the minister’s edict was an off-the-cuff response to the death of 21-year-old Gary Douch in a communal cell in Mountjoy Prison on Tuesday.
After requesting protection, Douch ended up in a cell with six other prisoners, including an extremely violent inmate who is now at the centre of investigations into this brutal killing. Though violence was no stranger to the other inmates in the cell, the assault was so fierce they were afraid to intervene.
In an upsurge of violence at the jail, there have been four attacks on prisoners in the past week. The latest occurred yesterday when a 28-year-old man serving five years for possession of firearms was stabbed four times.
If the McDowell concept of single-cell occupancy resulted in one life being saved, it would be worthwhile. But the prison system is so overcrowded, it is hard to see how it can work.
Ironically, under his reform programme, the minister has already closed down prisons. Typifying this administration, no extra accommodation has yet been provided.
Ideally, single-cell occupancy should be the norm for all prisoners. However, both Amnesty International and the Prison Officers’ Association believe the minister’s directive cannot work.
What prison officers at the coal face of the system are asking is how they can carry out the instruction since there are no single cells available.
Nevertheless, prison governors have been ordered to implement the policy and, according to a spokesman for the Irish Prison Service, a number of single cells would be cleared and kept available for the “relatively small” number of inmates requesting protection.
The crux is that the current inmates in those cells will have to be moved elsewhere to share with other prisoners already being held in a regime close to breaking point. With 3,288 inmates in the country’s jails, the system is now at 98% of capacity.
To make matters worse, the level of overcrowding has increased because prisons are treated as dumping grounds for homeless people, who often end up in jail because they have nowhere to go, and also for mentally ill offenders who should be in psychiatric institutions.
Along with overcrowding, the lack of things to do is a major problem, particularly at Mountjoy. Out of about 500 inmates there, only 25 are engaged in occupational projects. Cut-backs have resulted in several schemes being axed, creating a classic formula for trouble.
Jammed into cells, and with time on their hands, prisoners could be forgiven for being restless. The end result is that a tinder-box atmosphere now exists at Mountjoy, just waiting to explode.
By no means, is the overcrowding confined to the ‘Joy’. If anything, the scenario at Cork Prison is equally dire.
Because of chronic overcrowding, inmates there have been sleeping on mattresses on the floor. And while the facility was designed for 160 prisoners, up to 270 inmates have been crammed into the jail.
It remains to be seen if the new prison planned for North County Dublin will alleviate the accommodation crisis. What is absolutely clear, is that Mr McDowell’s single-cell solution is virtually unenforceable.
If anything, it will put extra pressure on a prison regime where chronic overcrowding and endemic violence have caused a lethal flash-point.