Michael Clifford: We need proper scrutiny of life behind our prison walls

If there were no shortcomings or criticisms of Dóchas prison from the inspector in her monitoring reports, the failure to publish is completely baffling, writes Michael Clifford.
Michael Clifford: We need proper scrutiny of life behind our prison walls

The Mountjoy Prison complex, which houses the Dóchas Centre.

The recent publication of the Inspector of Prisons Annual Report has highlighted some major deficiencies in the complaints system within Irish prisons. 

The criticisms were well made, but the report also referenced issues that require further examination at the Dóchas Centre for Women.

In the early months of the pandemic, the inspector made a single visit to all the State’s prisons to check on conditions, apart from the Dóchas, which she visited three times in April and May 2020.

There was a high degree of cocooning in the Dóchas at the time, due to the pandemic, but that alone should not have required three visits. 

The inspector, Patricia Gilheaney, does not record why the extra visits to the Dóchas were undertaken, but she did compile a report on the issue for the justice minister, which, according to her annual report, she submitted in August 2020.

The report on the visits has not been published. 

Responding to the inspector’s annual report, Fíona Ní Chinnéide of the Irish Penal Reform Trust called for the publication of this and other reports. 

The lack of any published prison inspection or monitoring reports in Ireland during the first half of the pandemic has prevented proper public scrutiny of the treatment of men and women behind prison walls,” said Ms Ní Chinnéide.

At this rate, the report into the Dóchas and the other prisons will not see the light of day until the pandemic has passed, and any shortcomings highlights can be dismissed as history. 

If there were no shortcomings or criticisms from the inspector, the failure to publish is completely baffling.

That is not the only troubling information in the annual report as far as the Dóchas is concerned. 

Inspector of prisons Patricia Gilheaney. Picture: Jason Clarke Photography
Inspector of prisons Patricia Gilheaney. Picture: Jason Clarke Photography

Ms Gilheaney reported on the receipt by her office of “unopened letters” which prisoners are entitled to send. 

This is designed to ensure that a prisoner can communicate with the inspector in confidence about issues the prisoner does not want to share with management. 

In 2020, the inspector’s office received 59 such letters emanating from nine prisons.

Fifteen, by far the greatest number, came from the Dóchas. Of those, 11 were sent in October 2020. 

The previous month was significant in the women’s prison because the chaplain, whose role includes advocacy for prisoners, left her post, citing health concerns due to a culture within the prison which she described as one of “fear, indifference, hostility, and ineptitude”.

The chaplain, Claire Hargaden, explained her decision in a letter to the director-general of the Prison Service, saying that the prisoners lived in fear. 

“Upon making a compliant, some have found themselves under a spotlight and victims of harassment and further unfair treatment,” she wrote. 

Around the same time that Ms Hargaden left her post, the governor of the Mountjoy campus, Martin O’Neill, went on extended leave. Ms Hargaden had mentioned Mr O’Neill in her letter to the director-general.

“Gov O’Neill’s presence has been a foil to this [culture], providing support that has alleviated both my stress and the significant stress of the prisoners here, and modelling a compassionate, intelligent leadership that is so desperately needed," she wrote.

However, it is impossible for him to be here at all times and, as the prisoners have described it to me themselves, their lives are ‘hell’ when he is not here.” 

Is it a coincidence that in the month after the departure of Mr O’Neill and Ms Hargaden there was a flurry of confidential correspondence from the women in the Dóchas to the inspector? 

Had their lives indeed become the ‘hell’ that Ms Hargaden described? The inspector does not provide any answers to these questions in her annual report.

There may well be good reason why Ms Gilheaney is reticent on this matter, and a hint to that effect is contained in another paragraph in the annual report.

In the chapter entitled ‘Investigations’, the inspector writes the following: “In July 2020, the inspector raised a concern with the minister. The minister requested the inspector to carry out an investigation under Section 31(2) of the Prisons Act 2007. The terms of reference were agreed in September 2020. The investigation was ongoing at year-end.” 

The interior of the Dóchas Centre in Mountjoy, pictured in 2004. Picture: Collins, Dublin
The interior of the Dóchas Centre in Mountjoy, pictured in 2004. Picture: Collins, Dublin

Last November, the Irish Examiner  published the detail of the investigation in question, which has not been made public, and concerns serious allegations emanating from the Dóchas about management practices.

The issue was brought to the attention of Ms Gilheaney and, as she references in her annual report, she “raised a concern with the minister” who requested the investigation. That investigation was due to be completed last December, but now, six months later, there is still no sign of it.

The various investigations, unpublished reports, and confidential correspondence with the inspector from women prisoners would be worrying under normal circumstances, but things have not been normal in the Dóchas for a while. 

The chaplain’s 2019 report, published last September in the Irish Examiner, highlighted a number of serious issues, including:

  • Overcrowding;
  • Out-of-cell time reduced by a third;
  • Complaints about verbal abuse, xenophobic remarks, threatening language, and pointed “exclusion/favouritism of others”.

The report noted these incidents were attributed to a small number of staff, and not the vast majority.

There is nothing in the inspector’s report to indicate whether any of these issues have been addressed. 

Instead, there is delayed publication of reports which could throw light on the situation, but is a matter for the department. 

What is increasingly obvious is that the inspector’s office does not enjoy the kind of independent, robust powers that would provide proper scrutiny of life behind the walls of the Dóchas Centre, and all the other prisons in the State.

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