It is not the fault of the Anglo Trio but they are beneficiaries of a jail system that is unable to perform its only and basic function, lock up all convicted criminals equally and without favour, writes John Cuffe
John Bowe, Willie MacAteer, and Denis Casey, a trio found guilty for their part in a €7.2bn fraud that has shattered the lives of many of the ‘little people’ are, after one night in Mountjoy, now ensconced in the low-security Training Unit that sits on the Mountjoy campus. After their appeal, no doubt, they will apply to be sent to Shelton Abbey, a Victorian pile in Wicklow, or Loughan House in Cavan.
There is a pattern within the prison service for people like the Anglo Trio. After arriving in Shelton/Loughan and serving a few months, they will be given time out to further their ‘careers’ and job prospects, and their time in jail will be minimal.
At no stage am I blaming the Anglo Trio for the system in which they now find themselves. Instead, I point to the almost deferential way that white collar crime is treated in this country.
Almost apologetically, we sentence people convicted of same. The prison system then picks up that vibe and some misfortunate is kicked out of his precious and scarce single cell to allow a guy, who once owned a briefcase, wore a suit, carried a business card, and had a corporate seat in the Aviva or Croke Park into the jail equivalent of those external status symbols. To the newcomer, shocked that he was placed in jail when he is already seething that bigger fish are swimming freely, the securing of a single cell is small beans. To the ODC (Ordinary Decent Criminal), that cell was his kingdom.
A man who had differences with a member of the gardaí online recently copped a five-year jail term, possibly a correct sentence, I am not sure, but then the head-scratching comes into play. Three men found guilty of the most serious fraud, involving billions, fraud that wrecked a nation, are given almost red carpet treatment by the penal system. Indeed, to them, the trio themselves would be aware of other players in this ‘game’ who were never hauled before the courts; those sentences must seem odious and unfair.
However, the scales of justice that sit atop our courthouses in many towns wears a blindfold, carries a sword, and scales. But does Lady Justice dispense her punishment and sentences equally? Why should three men that lived in ‘normal’ houses, drove nice cars, had ‘big’ jobs, the ears of the powerful, and abused it all by engaging in virtual treason — yes treason, this nation and its citizens are indebted for decades to come thanks to their book cooking — be placed in the Training Unit whilst three other prisoners are either transferred out or back into the main jail?
I don’t buy the low threat to security they pose. If that were, then they could have easily been fined an inordinate amount of money, and placed on licence in the community. What this sequence of events has done within the prison community is this: It has shown staff that voices from the exterior impinge once more on the running of our jails.
Of course, that will be denied; and, of course, staff will believe that as they whistle away their days on duty. The inmates already within the system, those who also are of a low security threat — and I confidently say that more than 90% of prisoners are a very low security threat — what message this sends out? What does the guy serving six years for Vat avoidance on garlic think of the guys serving half of that for bursting a nation to the tune of €7bn upwards?
That type of carry-on tears another strip away from staff and prisoner. Cynicism abounds, belief and faith in an already creaking system continues to be eroded. Despite what most people think, those three prisoners would be no more under a threat than anyone else within the walls of the main Mountjoy jail. Those under threat are sex offenders; those who are termed ‘rats’; and those in drug disputes or allied to the numerous gangs that are free to roam outside. Most prisoners would find those three an object of curiosity and fun but never a threat.
The only ones that cannot handle prisoners such as the Anglo Three is the State itself. So a series of non-committal conversations, unfinished sentences and looks take place. It’s as if the jail system is unable to perform its only and basic function — lock up all convicted criminals equally and without favour. Someone decides those prisoners are to be seen as ‘special’ and treated as such. That undermines the entire system and dismays both prisoners and staff.
Even in the final acts of trying to clean up this mess that the crash of 2008 brought with it, its tsunami of long-term nation debt, job losses and sadly house loses, those convicted, the very few convicted of their part in it, are like Nama and the developers, they are also given special status within the lowest tier of respectability in this nation, our prisons. Continually we tend to doff the hat where and when possible, even to those we jail.
John Cuffe is a criminologist and a former senior prison officer.
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