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Independent: The Turmoil in our Prisons

9th May 2010

Jim Mitchell, of the Prison Officers' Association, recently highlighted gang culture as the most pressing problem facing Irish prisons today.

Two articles by Jim Cusack, writing in the Independent, provide a sobering picture of the seemingly ubiquitous presence of a behind-bars gang culture.

Cusack outlines the daily struggle to maintain distance between opposing group members, involving the extensive use of "segregation and separation".

Some of the most vulnerable prisoners are those on remand, awaiting trial, and posing a potential problem to senior gang members; evidenced by the large numbers of prisoners who seek protection at the committal stage.

At the moment, the protection of vulnerable prisoners is managed through the use of segregation, 23-hour lock-up (a staggering 25% of prisoners are reported to be kept in this manner) and prisoner transfers. These measures are clearly not ideal, nor are they particularly successful, and sources in Mountjoy claim that "a constant stream of prisoners [are] taken to the accident and emergency department of the adjoining Mater Hospital".

The sources cite Mountjoy, Cork and Limerick prisons as the worst examples in the Irish system, and support the damning findings of Judge Michael Reilly who slammed the over-crowding and poor conditions as critical factors in escalating tensions and violence on the inside.

On 26th of March this year, prisoner numbers reached 4, 258. A moratorium on recruitment and limited overtime means that officer numbers are falling just as prisoner numbers and violence are rising.

Efforts to tackle the problem include an Operational Support Group, established in 2008, which aims to gather information on illicit materials inside prisons and target searches, and the introduction of sniffer dogs and scanners.

A source quoted in the articles advocates the implementation of a UK-style incentive scheme which attempts to modify prisoner behaviour according to a series of positive and negative reinforcements; this initiative is believed to have proved successful in creating safer environments.

While the number of ad hoc crisis measures implemented continues to mount, the brutality of many prisoners' early home lives, mentioned in the articles, surely points to the fundamental role of chronic, culturally ingrained, intergenerational violence and family disruption which precedes the commission of criminal acts for many prisoners.

But the outlook is not universally bleak. Amidst the chaos and bad news, Cusack also reports on more positive findings, from the successful completion of Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations by nearly 200 prisoners in Mountjoy last year, to the well-stocked library and vibrant arts programmes available. 

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