Ahead of schedule, and close on the heels of Kathleen McMahon of the Dóchas Centre, the Governor of Mountjoy Prison, John Lonergan, has announced his decision to retire, three years before expected.
Speaking to Conor Lally in the Irish Times, Lonergan claimed that the prison population was estimated to reach 5,000 before the end of 2010. This represents a huge 20% increase within 12 months and would seem to suggest that calls for reform, made by IPRT, Governors McMahon and Lonergan, and others, were being routinely ignored.
Lonergan cited Judge Michael Reilly’s report which claimed Mountjoy was operating beyond capacity. He described the current situation as “warehousing”, saying that overcrowding was key in the escalating tensions and violence perpetrated within the walls of Mountjoy.
Overcrowding is also cited as the reason for the chronic drug problem experienced in Mountjoy, as Lonergan describes conditions as “brutal”, a description that should shame the Government. Lonergan believes that a move to single occupancy cells could greatly reduce the gang culture within prisons, a more considered solution than the POA calls for mace spray and a longer term solution than the current use of sniffer dogs and scanners. Similarly, the provision of effective rehabilitative services is crucial to ameliorating the pervasive influence of drugs amongst prisoners. Again, in the face of overcrowding these cannot be used with any effectiveness.
Lonergan attributes responsibility for the current situation to the Government, claiming that the Irish Prison Service are resolved to do what they can with the resources they are provided. Critical of the lack of control he exercised, the departing Governor claimed that there was a frustrating lack of any discretionary power, including in terms of resources and allocation of money.
Lonergan has been a vocal opponent of the new Thornton Hall complex, arguing instead for the complete reboot of the existing Mountjoy site, writes Tom Brady in the Independent. However, as with the myriad other issues he raised in his time as Governor, this point was never given credence.
Lonergan, through his extensive service, has retained his compassion and commitment to the underdog, persisting as an advocate of penal reform, a thoroughly unfashionable topic.
“We should have the philosophy that only those who have to go to prison should go to prison.”
Some of Lonergan's key points:
- Government should take ultimate responsibility, not the Irish Prison Service
- Mountjoy has detoriated in his time there as successive administrations saw no political benefit in reform
- Despite a lack of public consensus on the need for penal reform, it was necessary
- Imprisonment is often tantamount to the warehousing of drug addicts
- Jailed drug addicts should be offered health and mental health services, the tightening of control around the supply of drugs within the prison was never destined to solve the problem, as drug addiction was an “ingrained” problem which required an holistic approach
- Prisoners were consistently drawn from a few of the most acutely disadvantaged areas in Ireland
- Irish prisons were worse now than when the Whitaker Report was published in 1985
- Mountjoy was operating at over-capacity, with unacceptable use of mattresses on floors to cope with the excess
- An estimated 5,000 would be in prison by the end of the year
- Rehabilitation facilities were suffering in such overcrowding
- Overcrowding meant staff were unable to control events within the prison, resulting in a stronger position for gang members
- Irish Times: 'Brutal' conditions foster drug use, says Mountjoy governor
- Independent: Retiring prison boss attacks 'appalling' Mountjoy
- Irish Times: Progressive thought key at prison - Lonergan
- Irish Times: 'Humane' voice of governor praised