John Lonergan on Prison Culture – This is one great Irishman

The Irish Times – Monday, December 6, 2010
Our society is ill-served by prison culture

Mountjoy Prison control room: The most pressing issue in the prison system is overcrowding. As a first step in dealing with overcrowding, one of the first priorities must be to stop using prison for short-term sentences.
THE VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: After some 40 years working in the Irish Prison Service it is disheartening to say it is a service going backwards, writes JOHN LONERGAN

WHEN I joined the Irish Prison Service in 1968 the system comprised just three prisons – Limerick, Portlaoise and Mountjoy – and the detention centre, St Patrick’s Institution. There were 616 people in custody. Today there are 12 prisons and one detention centre accommodating well over 4,000 offenders. In addition, many hundreds more prisoners are out on temporary release.
The Department of Justice predicts that by 2012 the prison population is likely to reach 6,000. This is no surprise to those who have monitored the issue in recent years and have seen the number of people in custody growing year-on-year. The government’s standard response to the figures is no surprise either: ministers promise to provide more prison “spaces”. The public’s response is equally predictable: there is little or no debate about the desirability of locking up more and more people. Considering that every prison place occupied costs approximately €100,000 per year, it’s amazing that the question of value alone doesn’t generate more media and public interest and debate.
The most pressing issue in the prison system is overcrowding. As a first step in dealing with overcrowding, one of the first priorities must be to stop using prison for short-term sentences. Approximately 80 per cent of all committals to prison are for sentences of two years or less and, even more startling, over 60 per cent are for sentences of 12 months or less. We need to find other ways of punishing people who commit minor offences, especially those that do not involve violence. This is in line with the thinking of the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, who recently recommended that short-term imprisonment should be ended.
During my last full year as governor of Mountjoy Prison, 2009, 1,500 people were committed to the prison for failure to pay fines. Fines are imposed by the courts when they are satisfied that the offence committed does not warrant a term of imprisonment. Though the Minister for Justice has introduced legislation to tackle this problem, there are still thousands of fines warrants out there awaiting execution.
Despite a significant building programme over the past 20 years or so, prison accommodation has, not surprisingly, failed to keep pace with the escalating prison numbers with the consequence that doubling-up has now become the norm in Irish prisons. Indeed, it is no accident that when politicians and officials comment on prison accommodation they usually talk in terms of “spaces” or “places” rather than cells. In recent years as extra cells became available most were automatically doubled-up. It seems that doubling-up in single cells is now official policy, is totally acceptable to the authorities and indeed is seen primarily as a cost-saving exercise worth bragging about.
This is a total reversal of what was considered best practice up to relatively recently. Back in the mid-1800s it became the established standard in England and Ireland that the safest and most secure way of ensuring the well-being and safety of the vast majority of prisoners was to accommodate them singly in single cells. As recently as the 1970s if a prison officer allowed two prisoners to share a cell he would be in serious trouble with the prison authorities.
When people are doubled-up they are never on their own. As a prisoner in that situation you have other people around you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and for the 17 hours you spend in your cell, you’re sharing a tiny space – meant for one – with at least one other person. These conditions are not conducive to sound mental health and doubling-up opens up the strong possibility of bullying and sexual and physical abuse. It puts the safety of prisoners at risk and creates a far more volatile atmosphere for prison staff.
We need no reminding of the scandal of the abuse and the neglect of children while they were in State care from the 1930s onwards. As a society we are still paying a huge price for this neglect. I believe that if there isn’t a halt to the present policy of doubling-up prisoners, some of whom are the most vulnerable people in our society, a similar scandal will occur in 20 or 30 years.
Prison managements are given little assistance in getting to grips with who they are dealing with and in managing the doubling-up of cells they are forced to administer. The public might well think that when offenders are sent to prison the prison authorities are notified in advance and a dossier of information arrives with them. On the contrary, the first the prison knows about a new inmate is when he or she turns up at the prison gates accompanied by members of An Garda Síochána. The only information provided is whatever is contained on the legal warrant – the prisoner’s name, the offence he or she is charged with or convicted of, and the length of sentence. And that’s it; there is no independent information at the time of committal nor, in most cases, will there be for the duration of the sentence.
The prison staff must depend exclusively on the prisoner to provide them with all other essential personal and medical information.The most pressing issue in the prison system is overcrowding. As a first step in dealing with overcrowding, one of the first priorities must be to stop using prison for short-term sentences. This situation requires urgent attention as it places vulnerable prisoners at risk and it’s most unfair to the governor and prison staff who are responsible for providing safe custody for prisoners.
The temporary release system is used as a blunt instrument in relieving overcrowding.
The policy of temporary release was introduced as part of the 1960 Criminal Justice Act and it provided that the minister for justice could release a prisoner at any stage during his or her sentence. This was a progressive piece of legislation that, for example, allowed the short-term release of prisoners to attend the funerals of immediate family members or their children’s Communion or Confirmation ceremonies, to visit sick relatives, or – in the case of low-risk prisoners – to get out to do work in the community. However, over the past 20 years the temporary release system is used increasingly as a tool to manage overcrowding.
The problem with this dual use of temporary release is that there is no transparency or openness in how it works and prisoners and their families have no idea what criteria are being used in the granting or the refusal of temporary release.
There is nothing predictable about how a request will be dealt with or how a prisoner will be told the outcome of their application. The frustration for many prisoners is that they never know why they were refused or overlooked and there is no appeal process.
Over the last decade or so there has been a significant reduction in the number of prisoners granted temporary release for family occasions, in particular to attend the funerals of immediate family members. In the old days it was rare that a prisoner was refused temporary release to attend the funeral of a parent or sibling. Unfortunately nowadays the best most prisoners can hope for is to be brought to view the remains.
It’s worth remembering that in such instances, in addition to the prisoner there is also a family closely involved and they have not been convicted of a crime.
These family occasions are one-off events in the prisoners life and, in the case of Communions and Confirmations they are one-off events in a childs life too, so every effort should be made to facilitate the prisoners release. A generous and humane approach in matters affecting a prisoner’s family can leave a mark on him or her and many times I saw such gestures turn around the prisoner’s attitude and their life.
A final point to make here is that all decisions on temporary release – who is to get it and who is to be refused, as well as any conditions attached to a particular prisoner’s release, such as being handcuffed at all times, even when viewing the body of a parent – are solely in the hands of officials of the Irish Prison Service. These officials don’t know the individual prisoners and do not always consult the relevant prison governors in considering applications or setting out conditions, and even when they do, they often ignore their views and recommendations.
The lack of consistency and transparency in the temporary release system is directly linked to it being used primarily to deal with overcrowding. I believe that the time has come when that should cease. A far fairer system would be to increase remission and then all prisoners would be treated fairly and in a totally above-board way. People might well have issues with the idea of sex offenders or child abusers or violent armed robbers being eligible for remission. My response is that legislation introducing extra remission to deal with overcrowding could specify the crimes that the new extra remission will not apply to. The outcome would be that all prisoners would know exactly where they stood.
I have only touched on some key issues here. After 40-odd years working in the Irish Prison Service it is disheartening to say that it is a service going backwards. The welfare of prisoners and staff is being seriously compromised by this mindless expansion of the system. Not only that, our society is ill-served by a prison culture that locks people up in overcrowded facilities, creates little opportunity to equip them for a better life and instead fosters violence, addiction, a sense of abandonment and a deep alienation from the community at large.
John Lonergan’s memoir, The Governor, the life and times of the man who ran Mountjoy, is published by Penguin Ireland