In an interview with Frank Shouldice of RTÉ's Primetime, John Lonergan reflects on his 42 years with the Irish Prison Service, outlining his opposition to Thornton Hall, among other critical issues.
Often criticised for being "soft" on prisoners, Lonergan firmly believes that the "same principles apply to human beings irrespective of where they are. While he believes that those who commit offences must be held accountable, he doesn't believe that the answer is exclusively one of punishment: "I don't think you can tell someone 'I respect you as a human being' while subjecting them to inhumane treatment." Prison should be about trying to change the behaviour of the prisoner, states Lonergan.
Aftercare is "totally non-existent" in Irish society, states Lonergan, outlining how young people on release from prison return to exactly the same circumstances and environment that led them to being imprisoned in the first place, and so the cycle continues.
In response to questions from clients of the McVerry Trust, he talks about the escalating drugs problem, which has seen heroin addication soar from 8& of prisoners when he took over Mountjoy in 1984, to as much as 80% or 85% today. There are only 9 drug-treatment beds in the whole prison system, according to Chaplain, Fr Harry Gaynor.
Lonergan states in the interview that Governors have little power to deliver anything in terms of real change within the system; policy is handed down rather than developed from the ground up. There were many Ministers that he never met, nor did they visit the prison [at time of writing, Minister Ahern has yet to visit Mountjoy.] He was totally isolated within the Irish Prison Services in recent years - this he describes as a "reward" for standing up for what you believe in. He describes a new approach within the prison service of "secrecy and suppression."
The two main power blocks within the prison system are described by former First Chief Officer of Mountjoy, James Petherbridge, as the Department of Justice and the staff, mainly represented by the Prison Officers Association - and the support of both is needed to effect any real change.
The worst experiences were when people were killed in the prison, "a horrific experience" and from his personal perspective, those were the days when he had failed.
The one regret he has now on his retirement is that he should have, at some point when the prison was grossly overcrowded, refused to take prisoners.
He also outlines his frustration at watching positive initiatives like the Connect Project, the Work Party, the Drama Project and the Dóchas Centre being dismantled - and being replaced by nothing.
Finally, he travels out to the greenfield site of Thornton Hall, finishing with:
“It just doesn’t justify the amount of money that has already been spent on it, and if those 30, 40 or 50 million were spent on Mountjoy 20 years ago you’d have a pretty modern facility now in Mountjoy, and would have saved the tax-payer hundreds of millions."
"We will never see the day when we need the size of this site to provide prison accommodation, and if we do, God help us.”
Watch the clip here.