Inside Mountjoy

  • 1 October 1983
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The problems go beyond overcrowding. The prison is an expensive and primitive response to crime. It is not only inhumane but it doesn't work. By Mark Brennock

One third of the prisoners in Mountjoy have a drug problem. This figure has been confirmed to MAGILL by the Department of Justice. The Prisoners Rights Organisation claim that this figure could be as high as fifty percent.

Despite this, the five day detoxffication programme in Mountjoy for heroin addicts is totally inadequate. The effect of this programme is to make the withdrawal effects more tolerable for the first five days. tt does nothing to cure addiction.

According to a doctor in the Jervis Street drug treatment centre the only effective treatment for heroin addiction is long term rehabilitation and to this end a small number of prisoners are transferred to the Coolmine centre. A recent Department of Justice survey on drug abuse in Mountjoy questioned eight prisoners whp had attended the Coolmine centre. All eight had dropped out of the programme and gone back on drugs.

The Department of Justice survey, published in October 1982, questioned 19 serious drug abusers who had preeviously been in Mountjoy. Seven had gone back on drugs within a day of release, another six had relapsed within a week and all had relapsed within eight months.

Despite this evidence the Department of Justice has not seriously attempted to tackle the problem of drug addiction in the prison.

It is possible for prisoners to obtain heroin within the prison according to the Prison Officers Association. Prison officers say that they have found syringes in the grounds of the prison which have been thrown from cell windows, and they have found prisoners unconscious in their cells with syringes in their arms.

In court drug addiction isn't taken into account by judges when passing sentence as it is seen as the responsiibility of the prison authorities to deal with the problem. A recent development within the prison has been the introoduction of a system of random searches of six or seven prisoners for heroin per week, but it would/ take a major effort by the authorities to tackle the problem and that effort isn't being made.

The majority of patients attending the Jervis Street drug treatment centre are ex-prisoners. This has been confirmed to Magill by a doctor in .the Jervis Street centre. Despite the seriousness of the drug problem in Mountjoy, Barry Dessmond's recent proposals to tackle drug abuse contain no reference to Mountjoy.

THERE IS A STRICT DIVISION BETWEEN the categories of prisoner in Mountjoy and this is reflected by the wings of the prison into which different prisoners are put, and the type of work they are allowed to do. Entry to the prison is through a corridor which leads into a semi-circular cageelike structure known as the circle. Through the metal grilles one can see 'A' wing leading off to the left, 'D' wing leading off to the right and 'B' and 'C' wings in between these two. Each wing has three landings, the floors of which are made of perforated steel so that they are also visible from the circle.

'A' wing is occupied by recidivists i.e. those who have already served at least one prison sentence. The workshops in 'A' wing are the most primitive, the largest being the mat shop. Here prisoners make mats which are then used for "teeing-off" on golf courses. There is also a glove shop where prisoners sit at tables and turn gloves inside out. According to ex-prisoners there is not enough work to occupy them all day. There is a small shoe repair shop where prisoners repair their own shoes and the shoes of prison officers. The other activity in 'A' wing is sewing mail bags.

It is clear that there is a policy of giving the least rehabiilitative work to recidivist prisoners.

Among the inhabitants of 'A' wing is a group of itinerants who live in a cell known as the caravan. Estimates of the exact number in this cell vary between five and ten. Among the duties of the itinerants is to pick up the faeces in the grounds of the prison which have been thrown from cell windows by prisoners because they are locked into their cells from 7.30 at night until 8 o'clock in the morning, and aren't allowed out to go to the toilet. No one else will do this work. This happens every morning, and has been confirmed to Magill by the Prison Officers Association and every ex-prisoner to whom Magill has talked.

'B' wing is occupied mainly by remand prisoners ðprisoners who are awaiting trial. Here there is no prison work - prisoners can spend their time in the exercise yard. There is a small staircase in the middle of the corridor on the ground floor of 'B' wing which leads down to the basement.

The base is the common term for the basement of 'B' wing. It is darker than the rest of the prison. It is used to accommodate prisoners who are being punisned, prisoners who need to be protected from other prisoners and prisoners who are considered to be disruptive. Prisoners who are being punished are confined to their cells in tLe base for 23 hours a day, and get one hour's exercise" in a cage in the 'B' wing exercise yard. Prisoners who are in the base for their own safety are treated the same as the prisooners up in the main prison. Malcolm Macarthur is one of these prisoners.

Seamus Rooney is also in the base, but he is not there to be punished or protected. According to one prison officer he is there because "he has a habit of climbing onto roofs". During the summer he climbed onto the roof of the prison. When he carne down he asked to be transsferred to Dundrum because he claimed that he was being victimised by prison officers in Mountjoy. Within a week he was transferred back to Mountjoy and put in the base. He and his family claim that he is locked up for most of the day, and that he has no access to recreational or educaational facilities. The three prisoners who climbed onto the roof of the maximum security wing on September 11 also say this. The prison authorities however insist that he is being treated the same as any other prisoner. When this reporter visited Mountjoy on September 19, Seamus Rooney was pointed out as he watched videos in a dark room with four other prisoners.

'C' wing is the hospital wing, which is occupied by alcoholics, some heroin addicts and, according to one prison officer "general headcases". Recently some sex offenders have been accommodated in the hospital wing. The doctors surgery is on the ground floor of this wing. About 140 prisoners are receiving some form of medicaation. Prisoners who have difficulty in sleeping or who are "over energetic" are given tranquillisers.

According to a member of the medical staff, 25% of the total prison population are receiving tranquillisers and two or three prisoners are sent to Dundrum every week.

The only work which could conceivably be of use to prisoners is done in 'D' wing, which is occupied mainly by first-timers and some long-term prisoners. The workkshops are in the basement and the work involves carpentry, leatherwork and upholstering.

There is a new training unit in Glengarrif Parade behind Mountjoy which provides very useful training courses in welding, carpentry and other trades. These facilities are abused by the authorities.

The unit has been used to accommodate prisoners who are not participating in training courses, such as debtors who have defaulted on repayments and the Ranks workers who were jailed earlier this year for contempt of court. In 1981 the then Minister for Justice, Jim Mitchell, perrsonally intervened in the administration of justice by asking the prison authorities to put the jailed Ault and Wiborg strikers in the training unit. Though the courts have committed these people to Mountjoy, in the modern training unit they are sheltered from the realities of life in Mountjoy. This abuse of the training unit prevents other prisoners from learning useful skills.

The newest addition to Mountjoy is the high security unit which accommodates prisoners who are considered to be a high security risk. These prisoners were previously kept in the Curragh military detention centre, and are serving very long sentences. A prison officer was suspended in early September for allegedly smuggling keys into the unit. The authorities believe that these keys were to be given to Henry Dunne, who is in the high security unit.

Henry Dunne was sentenced to nine years in February this year for possession of firearms with intent to enndanger life. His brother Larry jumped bail in June shortly before being convicted for the possession and supply of heroin, cocaine and cannabis worth between fifty and sixty thousand pounds. His sister Colette is serving two years for possession of drugs with intent to supply.

The atmosphere in the security unit is more relaxed than in the rest of the prison. When this reporter visited there were around eight prisoners in the exercise yard doing weightlifting and other exercises. Other prisoners were in a workshop making headboards for beds and uppholstering. The cells in this unit are considerably larger than those in the rest of the prison, and there is hot and cold running water in each of them. On the walls of Henry Dunne's cell there are pictures of his family inset into small heart-shaped cushion-like frames.

THE DAILY ROUTINE OF PRISONERS IN Mountjoy is as follows: At 8 o'clock the cells are unlocked and prisoners "slop out". This involves emptying out 'the chamber pots which have been in their cells since 7.30 the previous night. Beecause there are forty prisoners on each landing emptying chamber pots into two or three toilets, the toilets sometimes get clogged up and overflow onto the floor. Each prisoner has a basin and he can fill this with water and wash in his cell. But if the hot tap on the ground floor is turned on, there is no hot water on the upper two landings; many prisoners wash and shave in cold water.

Each prisoner is entitled to one shower and one change of clothes - including socks and underwear - per week. All the prisoners wear uniform.

After "slop out" prisoners collect their breakfast which they bring back to their cells to eat. During the winter there is an hour's exercise in the morning from 9 o'clock to 10 o'clock. In the summer work starts at 9 a.m. Prisoners work in the workshops or attend classes until 12.15 when they collect their lunches and return to their cells where they are once again locked up until 2 o'clock. From 2 until 4.30 the prisoners return to the workshops or to classes. At 4.30 they are locked up to eat their tea. From 5.30 until 7.30 is recreation when prisoners can play pool or watch teleevision. The television is turned off every evening at exactly 7.30 and ex-prisoners say that this is particularly frustrating if the programme that they are watching has only a few minutes left to run. Every Thursday prisoners can watch the first ten minutes of "Top of the Pops". There are, however, video facilities and prison officers often record programmes which are shown later in the evening and ; screen them the following day.

At 7.30 prisoners are locked up for the night. They spend over 15 hours a day alone locked in their cells.

PRISONERS ARE ALLOWED TO RECEIVE one half-hour visit per week, with the possiibility of an occasional extra visit in exceptional circumstances. The visiting room contains two long tables, one on each side of the room. The tables are about seven feet Wide, with a six-inch high glass partition along the middle to prevent anything from being passed by hand to the prisoner.

At 4 o'clock on Monday September 19 the visiting room was full. About twenty prisoners sat along the table on the left, and another ten sat along the table on the right. Four prison officers looked on. Several prisoners and their visitors were kneelling on their seats and leaning . across the table towards each other, perhaps in search of privacy, perhaps simply to be heard.

One prisoner at the table on the right was trying to talk to his child while his wife looked away towards the door with her head in her hand. Her eyes were red and shiny, it appeared that she had been crying. At the table on the left another couple were having a quiet row.

'That was the half-hour that those prisoners spent with their families that week.

THERE IS CELL ACCOMMODATION IN Mountjoy prison for 480 prisoners, but there . are often over 500 prisoners in the prison. Sometimes prisoners spend their first night in the prison sleeping on pool tables, on other occasions prisoners have slept on the floor of the welfare office. This has been confirmed to Magill by prison officers and exxprisoners. Some single cells are occupied by two prisoners, contrary to prison regulations. This is very uncomfortable for the prisoners involved, as the cells are very small. The overcrowding problem has eased somewhat over the summmer, but it will become chronic when the courts resume in October.

The current solution to the overcrowding problem is early release, known as "shedding" by the authorities. During the day phone-calls come in to the prison from courts around the country telling how many prisoners are arriving that evening. When the total number of incoming prisoners is known, it is compared to the total number of cells that are available.

There are usually too few cells.

Then the releases start. According to the prison governor, prisoners are released on the basis of files which are kept on them. These files are examined at "review meetings" which take place every Tuesday within the prison. For each prisoner there is a report from the welfare staff, the psychiatrist and the Garrdai in the prisoner's home area. If a prisoner is close to the end of his sentence and there is nothing in his file  which indicates that he should not be released, he is released when there is a shortage of accommodation.

According to the Prison Officers Association, however, the releases occur in a much more haphazard fashion. They say that accommodation is often needed too urgently to allow for this type of review. Five or six cells may be needed within a matter of two .hours or less. There is a white card outside each cell which gives the name of the occupant and his expected release date. According to the POA a senior member of staff is sent out to walk along the landings and select five or six prisoners who are close to the end of their sentences.The prison officer returns to the, office with the names of the prisoners and other prison officers are sent to the workkshops to find the prisoners who are to be released. They are sent to their cells to pack their belongings and by late afternoon there may be five or six prisoners taking an unexpectedly early trip home.

The effectiveness of prison as a deterrent to crime can be judged by the fact that two thirds of those imprisoned in 1981 had previously served prison sentences .

The dehumanising nature of the work given to reciidivists in Mountjoy offers no hope of rehabilitation for these prisoners.

The system of releasing prisoners due to overcrowding means that Mountjoy even fails in its most basic function - that of containment.

From January to August this year over £26 million was spent on the prison service. For the first eight months of this year each prisoner has cost the taxpayer £80 a day. A third of them will be involved with drugs when they are released.

The majorityof them will return to Mountjoy. •