The prison service - Dangerous, crowded and ineffective

THERE is an impression that our prisons are full of drug dealers lounging on bunk beds as they flick through the channels on their huge plasma screen TVs, all the while coo-cooing their budgies.

At the same time they keep their fingers in their sinister pies, retaining control of crime empires by using mobile phones. Sometimes they even call radio talk shows on their phones to defend their reputations.Occasionally, they are interrupted, possibly by a fellow inmate high on drugs or maybe with a trip to the gym to work on their pectorals.

There may be an element of truth, maybe even too much truth, in all of this but the wider reality is that our prisons are violent, grim places that are overcrowded and dirty, awash with drugs and intimidation.

Places that offer little prospect of a rescued life for at least half of the inmates. Places that offer little enough refuge for someone who might wish, and not everyone does, to return to society a reformed and valued person. One-quarter of released prisoners reoffend within a year, and nearly half within four years.

Prison officers have warned that we are on the cusp of ceding control in sectors of our prison system to gangs and that they are becoming increasingly dangerous places for staff and inmates.

Last February, two bullets and a note were handed into staff at Mountjoy prison. The letter identified prison officers and how they spent their time outside prison. While prisons protect society from the inmates, they do little enough to protect the inmates from themselves or the antisocial culture and behaviour that caused them to be in prison in the first place.

Overcrowding is a constant theme and has been highlighted by scores of consultation documents. All the while, homeless, mentally ill and drug-addicted inmates flow into a dysfunctional system.

The absolutely savage murder of Gary Douch, in August, 2006, took place in a basement that held 17 people during the day and seven inmates at night in a space no more than 19 square metres.

Within a fortnight of Douch’s death, other events took place in Mountjoy that confirmed the killing was a symptom rather than a one-off event. A Nigerian inmate was stabbed repeatedly; a man died from a drugs overdose; another hanged himself.

Overcrowding may be eased when the prison at Thornton Hall, in north Dublin, is completed. That facility will hold 1,400 prisoners, with the capacity, if required, to take 2,200 inmates. Hopefully, that eventuality will allow our prison service to be more effective in changing the lives of those in their care.

For many years it has been obvious that many of those in our jails are there because of their background. An all but complete absence of white-collar criminals from our prisons only confirms this. For too many years our prisons have been little more than holding pens designed to take offenders off the streets.

Unless that changes, and the possibility of personal reform is made real, worthwhile and attractive, we will do a great disservice to all prisoners and little enough to protect ourselves from crime.

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