The justice minister rarely orders a statutory inquiry under the Prisons Act.
In November 2018, following a report in the, then-justice minister Charlie Flanagan ordered one into covert surveillance in the Irish Prison Service.
The allegations on which the newspaper report was based were substantially upheld in that investigation.
Today, thereports on an ongoing statutory inquiry which was not heretofore public knowledge. This concerns issues in the Dóchas women’s prison, which is part of the Mountjoy complex.
The issues arose following a complaint made by a prisoner that she had been induced by two senior staff members to implicate another senior staff member in malpractice.
Following that, personnel from the Prison Service’s headquarters came into the prison — during the pandemic — to deal with the matter.
Soon after, the focus allegedly switched from dealing with the prisoner’s complaint to investigating the senior officer whom the prisoner said was targeted by her two colleagues.
The Inspector of Prisons was made aware of the situation and contacted justice minister Helen McEntee, who ordered the inspector to conduct the statutory inquiry under the 2007 Prisons Act. According to the Department of Justice, the inspector — Patricia Gilheaney — is due to report in early December.
There are worrying features to the inquiry as revealed today. In the first instance, the substance of the inquiry has some parallels with an investigation last year into a prisoner’s complaint in Portlaoise prison.
Gangland figure Freddie Thompson complained that three officers in the prison’s A block — which houses some of the State’s most dangerous criminals — were undermining senior officers through making highly disparaging remarks about them to prisoners. Thompson claimed that this put the safety of the senior officers in danger as prisoners might consider them untrustworthy.
The complaint was upheld by an external investigator.
The matter currently being investigated in Dóchas also concerns a claim that a prisoner is being used by members of staff to blacken the character of another staff member. It remains to be seen whether the Inspector of Prisons finds that there is substance to the allegations in the Dóchas case.
That a similar theme arises in a separate prison should, of itself, be a cause for concern.
Apart from that, there are other issues around the Dóchas centre that have been highlighted in recent months. In early September, theobtained, after lengthy, inexplicable delays, the 2019 annual report of the chaplain for the Dóchas centre.
The chaplain, Claire Hargaden, who was appointed to her post full-time in 2019, listed in her report various aspects of conditions in the prison which she found unacceptable. These included:
- Overcrowding in the prison which resulted in between 130 and 150 inmates being regularly detained in a facility designed for 105. In one instance, five women were forced to share a “small makeshift bedroom”;
- Out-of-cell time reduced from 11 hours and 10 minutes to seven hours and 35 minutes, a decrease of 32%. According to the report: “It would seem to the chaplaincy service that an appropriate response to overcrowding would be an increase, not a decrease, in out-of-cell time”;
- Complaints made to the chaplain from women about verbal abuse, xenophobic remarks, threatening language, and pointed “exclusion/favouritism of others”. The report notes that these incidents are attributed to “a small number of staff” and not the vast majority;
- Next to impossible for the women inmates to book family visits, including with their children.
In a letter to the director-general of the Irish Prison Service, Ms Hargaden wrote that she had witnessed a culture of “indifference, hostility, and most, unfortunately, ineptitude” in the prison.
The women in custody, she wrote, tell her that they live in fear.
Now it emerges that there are also completely separate issues in the prison to those highlighted by Ms Hargaden.
Prior to today’s publication, the current statutory inquiry was being conducted without any public knowledge. In some ways, that is entirely understandable. It also, however, points to the context in which prisons appear to be viewed in the political arena.
There are no votes in prisons. The principal concern, politically, is to ensure that whatever goes on never makes it into the public square in a manner that might embarrass. In addition to that, oversight of the prisons is vested in an inspector who operates under relatively constrained powers.
In such a milieu, it is inevitable that problems which arise will not be dealt with properly, as would be the case if the system was subject to requisite vigilance.