The real issue with gangs in prison

11th May 2010

Reports in today’s Evening Herald suggest that the presence of senior so-called ‘gangland’ figures is having a corrosive effect on the control of drugs in Irish prisons.

This is on the back of statements last week from Jim Mitchell of the Irish Prison Officers Association that the growing influence of gangs within prisons is contributing to increased violence in the prisons.

There are two ways of looking at this – firstly that prisons are suffering the symptoms of a social problem in the community.  This is essentially the line of the Minister and the IPS and there is some truth in it.

However there is also another perspective – that our prisons and how we manage them are in fact a significant factor in the growth of these gangs.  Given the dysfunctional nature of overcrowded prisons, where effective security is not possible, the influence of power of a small number of senior gang figures is growing.  This contributes to bullying and pressure on younger prisoners to align themselves within the prison.  The control of drugs and other contraband is a clear pressure point within the system and Paul O’Mahony has highlighted on numerous occasions the central role of prisons like Mountjoy in the development of Ireland’s drug problem. (See the DPAG paper from 2008, Key Issues for Drugs Policy in Irish Prisons)

There is a real danger in assuming that once serious organised crime figures are imprisoned, that the threat they pose is exhausted. If prisons don’t segregate and manage these prisoners effectively – and this is increasingly difficult in our chronically overcrowded institutions – they can cause very significant further harm while in prison. Prison violence is dramatically increasing, protection is becoming a norm and criminal enterprises are being managed from behind bars.

Gang culture is a key factor in all of these problems – and the only policy response at this stage is to house even more prisoners together in larger institutions. What results can we expect?

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