VIDEO: Cork Prison: New development to confine jail’s Dickensian conditions to the past

Cormac O’Keeffe visits the new Cork Prison which is due to open by the end of the year. With larger cells, a Visits Garden with a play area for children, among other facilities , it is hoped the new prison will offer a healthier environment for prisoners and their families than current conditions at the existing prison which have been widely condemned

VIDEO: Cork Prison: New development to confine jail’s Dickensian conditions to the past

THE Visits Garden alone signals the contrast between the old and the new.

Roofed and planted, with a modern play area for kids — complete with a soft playground surface — it will be a popular place for family visits.

Still under construction, it forms part of a significantly expanded visitors area, with separate rooms for family visits and standard visits.

Entrance to the new Cork prison currently under construction.

When this reporter visited the current Cork Prison in November 2013, the visitors centre was hardly conducive to a proper family visit: Families battled with everyone else to hear amidst the clatter. Visitors — mainly girlfriends and mothers — had to step up onto the bar of a chair to get enough height to reach over a 3ft high partition which jutted out from the counter.

Security area for visitors and staff the new Cork prison currently under construction.

“The visitors’ garden is the only one in the country,” says Ciaran Nevin of the Irish Prison Service and project manager, during a tour of the new prison.

Leading the tour is Tim Healy of PJ Hegarty construction company, which is building the prison.

“The garden is a new addition for prisons,” he says. “It will be all fenced-in, with a covering. There will be seats here and a play area, with a soft playground rubber base and there will be planting. It will be a very attractive area.” The existence of the garden suggests this will be a different prison to the one just metres away on the other side of Rathmore Rd.

Prisoners entrance in the new Cork prison currently under construction.

DICKENSIAN

During the tour of the old prison, the Irish Examiner was given a rare glimpse of just how grim the conditions were.

Even the governor, Jim Collins, told us so: “Everything about Cork Prison is grey and drab, but it is what we have to work with.”

The prison is a hotchpotch of tightly-packed grim buildings. Inside, while walls are brightly coloured in red, magnolia and peach and the floors are spotless, it is within the straitjacket of Dickensian sanitary conditions and overcrowding.

We witnessed the morning ritual of prisoners carrying plastic buckets from their cells to communal bathrooms and entering the contents into filthy-looking toilets. The prisoners gave the buckets a quick wash under a tap. Some used a disinfectant spray. None seemed to wash their hands.

These same men had been holed up for 12 hours overnight in their cells, the size of a box bedroom, which, in the main, they share with another man in a bunk bed.

Successive reports from domestic and international watchdogs repeatedly condemned the conditions in Cork as “inhumane and degrading”.

When we visited the prison, there were 226 prisoners, in a prison with a maximum capacity of 194 and designed for 146. Back in the summer of 2010 it reached a mind-boggling 330, with up to 60 cells containing a third person sleeping on the floor.

During our 2013 tour we saw little white bags caught up in barbed wire outside a prison block.

We were told prisoners had defecated into these bags overnight and shoved them out through narrow slits in the cell windows.

The atmosphere was even more grim, and certainly more claustrophobic, in the D wing of the prison where the medical unit and discipline unit cells were.

Corridors were dark and narrow and the only outdoor space was a small, bleak yard covered in metal grilles and high walls.

Among the inmates down here, we came across one who was clearly mentally unwell.

21st CENTURY

In the new prison, there is natural light throughout, and spaces are wider and higher.

Each cell has in-cell sanitation: A toilet and a wash basin, with hot water, and a small shower area. This area is partially partitioned from the bunk beds.

The bulk of cells can house two inmates, and at 12sq ft the cells are bigger compared to less than 8sq ft in the old prison.

The new prison will also have a seven-cell high support unit, for prisoners with a mental illness, and two safety observation cells, for serious medical issues, such as situations of attempted suicide.

There will also be eight segregation cells for those being disciplined and two specially adapted cells for those with disabilities.

The first thing that strikes you as you come up the narrow Rathmore Rd is the imposing grey perimeter wall around the new prison.

This, it turns out, was one of the reasons Hegarty won the lucrative tender. The massive walls were pre-manufactured off site, brought in by truck in panels and assembled by crane on site.

They are 7.2m high — or the guts of 24ft.

Inside the new Cork prison currently under construction.

DIGI 8

The prison is laid out in a digital 8 structure — not, they are pains to point out, in a H-shape, so as to avoid any H-block reference.

Inside the new Cork prison which is laid out in a digital 8 structure — not in a H-shape, so as to avoid any H-block reference.

Tim Healy takes us to the main gate into the new site. Visitors push the intercom and are let through from the control room. A 35-vehicle visitors’ car park is provided.

The next security line is the visitors and reception area — a large waiting room serviced with a canteen staffed by St Nicholas Trust. It is very bright and airy, with lots of light from a glass atrium overhead, and a play area for kids.

Visitors go through a pushbar entrance into a screening area, which will be fitted with walk-through X-ray security and baggage scans. Staff have to come through this too and drug dogs are also on standby.

Visitors will then proceed to another area for their visits.

Back outside, Mr Healy points out that the windows for the ground control room — which controls all access into and out of the prison — are bullet proof.

Beside it are large sliding metal doors for vehicles — such as prison and delivery vans — coming in. Once they pass the first door, they enter an area, protected by a further gate which controls entry to the first courtyard in the digi-8 layout.

THE BRAINS

The front building is known as the Gate Lock. This contains the administrative section. It includes the governor’s office and administration, the boardroom and staff facilities — locker rooms, showers, and gym room.

The ground floor houses a large CNR (control and restraint) room where staff can run drills for riot control.

The building also houses the control room.

“This is the most secure room,” says Mr Healy.

“It’s a totally different zone. This is the brains. It has total control of the whole facility: from the front gate to the cells.”

He said it is protected by two doors: “You won’t force your way through that. You need a palm-reader — the only one in the building – to get into this room.” Three to four staff operate the room, including a supervisor, sitting in front of a bank of up to 40 screens.

“It has the facility to monitor every door, if a lock is turned. If there is a fight they will radio down. They can lock down any part of the prison.”

The window from the control room captures the front courtyard of the prison’s digi-8 layout, all the blocks three floors.

The right block contains the kitchen facilities and laundry and the education classes. The middle block facing the control room houses the reception area for all committals into the prison. The medical unit and the psychiatric unit is also based there.

The vast kitchen area in the new prison. Tim Healyof PJ Hegarty construction company said the equipment cost in the region of €800,000 to fit out. It will double as a training area for inmates to learn cooking skills.

The block to the left houses the visitor area, teacher admin and various workshops — from hurley manufacture, to pottery, to home economics.

We are brought into the committal reception area.

Each prisoner has to be registered and photographed here. They surrender their possessions, which are put into lockers. They then sit on the BOSS (body orifice security scanner) chair, which scans them internally for any hidden contraband, such as drugs and mobile phones.

New committals and those returning from temporary release are often targeted by gangs to smuggle items into prison.

They have showers and wait in holding cells until they are brought to their cells.

Inside one of the cells in the new Cork prison. The bulk of cells can house two inmates, and are 12sq ft compared to less than 8sq ft in the existing prision.

The ground landing on B wing houses the segregation cells and the close observations cells. Prisoners in segregation have their own yard, and prisoners in A and B wings also have their own recreation yards.

The large sports hall is under construction, and will contain a five-a-side pitch and a stage for any performances. A gym is in a separate building between the two wings.

GREEN FINGERS

A horticulture area of around an acre juts out from the back of the site.

View of the the hall, garden area (behind) and security wall in the new Cork prison currently under construction.

While there have been some concerns among locals that people may use their property to throw contraband into that area, Mr Nevin says it has a 5.2m-high (17ft) wall and gardaí will be patrolling it.

There is a “cordon sanitaire” around the main complex and the internal courtyards are 50m from the perimeter wall.

This is a significant improvement on the current prison which needs netting over the courtyards to try to prevent contraband being thrown in. As it is, people can literally walk up to the wall, parts of which are just six feet in height.

Mr Nevin says they have tried to compensate locals in some way for the disruption of the build and the impact on the privacy of some residents with the new wall. He says the Prison Service has given €139,000 to two local schools to build new playgrounds.

He said they have been told this has helped those with attention deficit disorder, in that they can use up energy before classes. It has also apparently assisted children with autism, providing them with a safe place to play.

The new staff gym. For prisoners a large sports hall is under construction and will contain a five-a-side pitch and a stage. A gym will be housed separately.

OPENING

Mr Nevin says the IPS will continue their monthly meetings with residents for 12 months after the prison opens, due at the end of the year. Before that — in another first for the IPS — they intend to operate a dummy run for the prison weeks before they take the prisoners in.

They will invite 150 or so volunteers —judges, guards and others — to stay for 48 hours so they can see how staff operate the prison.

Visitors and prisoners meeting area in the new Cork prison currently under construction.

And after Hegarty finishes construction it will run an 8-10 week familiarisation period with staff to aid in the handover.

Entering the kitchen area, Mr Healy says the equipment cost in the region of €800,000 to fit out.

But it also doubles as a training centre for prisoners to learn cooking skills. They will use the produce from the horticultural project.

As the tour comes to an end, Mr Healy says that at its height, there were 275 workers on site. Bar very small items, all supplies came locally or from within Ireland, bringing benefit to many businesses in the area, including local shops.

Mr Nevin says that given Hegarty only came on site in January 2014 and began working in earnest at the end of February, it was “phenomenal” it had almost completed a complex 17,000sq metre facility.

The inspector of prisons said in his 2013 report that Cork Prison was “not fit for purpose” and was “dangerously overcrowded”. He said if the new prison wasn’t built or was unduly delayed it would be a “dereliction” of his duty not to call for the prison’s closure.

The Committee for the Prevention of Torture — the strongest and most trenchant critic of Cork Prison — will be due back in 2018.

That will be enough time to see whether all the good intentions, and all the promising signs, such as the Visits Garden, have bloomed into a modern prison.

Timeline

OCT 2005:

The Prison Service says there is a “re-evaluation” to close Cork Prison even though €5.5m had been spent on plans to develop the jail. It follows a report by the then prisons inspector Mr Justice Kinlen, in which he said Michael McDowell, then justice minister, planned to replace the prison with a jail for 800 on Spike Island in Cork.

APR 2007:

McDowell confirms that a new 450-inmate prison to replace Cork Prison and parts of Limerick Prison is to be located on the army lands in Kilworth.

OCT 2010:

The then prisons inspector, Judge Michael Reilly, says slopping out is “inhumane and degrading” and that the State faces “the live prospect” of being sued in Irish and European courts.

FEB 2011:

The 2010 report of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) slams “debasing” and “degrading” conditions in a number of prisons, including Cork, as a results of slopping-out. It says 309 prisoners are crammed into cells at Cork Prison designed for 146, with no in-cell sanitation. In one cell three prisoners on protection, spending up to 23 hours locked up, do not have a chamber pot and share a bottle to urinate in and use a plastic bag to defecate in.

JULY 2011:

The report of the Prison Service Thornton Hall Review Group says there is “urgent and critical need for intervention” in Cork Prison. The group says it is “extremely overcrowded” and that this combined with the poor conditions exposed the State to “legal and financial risk”. It urges the closure of the prison and the construction of a new prison in Kilworth, Co Cork, which would provide 200 cells with a capacity for 350 prisoners. It says 150 spaces should be provided in “secure step down, housing-type facilities” on the site.

DEC 2011:

Then justice minister Alan Shatter asks the director general of the Prison Service, Michael Donnellan, to devise a specific strategy for Cork Prison.

FEB 2012:

The Cork Prison strategy report says prisoner numbers have been reduced to 250, to be cut further to 220. It says the inspector of prisons set the maximum capacity at 194. It says the Prison Service and Cork Prison examined options for the jail and that all recommended a new 150-cell prison on the car park site.

MAY 2013:

Donnellan announces that slopping-out would be gone from all prisons, including Cork, by early 2016.

MAY 2013:

In a report, the prisons inspector Judge Michael Reilly says the prison “is not fit for purpose” and it is “dangerously overcrowded”. He says that if for any reason a decision is made not to build the prison or if the construction is unduly delayed it would be a “dereliction” of his duty if he did not call for “the closing of the existing prison”.

JUN 2013:

Cork Prison Visiting Committee says there is a “constant and unacceptable overcrowding problem” in the jail, which it describes as “archaic and Dickensian” in parts.

DEC 2013:

Contract for new prison (overall cost €42m) signed with PJ Hegarty & Sons, O’Carroll’s Quay, Cork.

JAN 2014:

Donnellan signs off on internal designs with Hegarty.

FEB 2014:

Hegarty begins construction on site.

DEC 2015:

Prisoners to be transferred from old to new Cork Prison. All new committals go the replacement prison and old jail is mothballed.

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