| 11.6°C Dublin

A prison service on the edge

OUR PRISONS are bulging at the seams. Inside tensions have never been higher, with Mountjoy a burning fuse about to detonate the powder keg.

More courts, more judges, more gardai and more convictions have been feeding the conveyor belt into the Dickensian jail.

The final piece of the jigsaw -- more cells -- is missing.

Overcrowding is the central issue fuelling tension which came to a head this week. The only answer Justice Minister Dermot Ahern has is to fill the prison with bunk beds and mattresses.

This not a solution and adds to the problem. Here is the inside story of penal problem:

Bulging at the seams:

PRISONS Inspector Judge Reilly says Mountjoy can take 573 inmates but when he visited on two nights, the prison population was 660 and 680.

On August 1, 2006, when 21-year-old inmate Gary Douch was kicked, beaten and strangled in a holding cell he shared with six others, the prison's population was 525.

When another inmate, Derek Glennon, was stabbed to death at the jail in June 2007, the population was 568 -- despite a commitment that it would not exceed 480.

In recent weeks, it has held around 750 prisoners, without a single extra cell having been built.

At the same time, slopping out in cells -- considered inhuman and degrading treatment -- still exists for hundreds of prisoners.

Gang Wars:

The gangland culture outside is mirrored inside but with greater tension and viciousness.

Long, hot, boring days incarcerated in overcrowded cells adds to friction. Clampdowns on illegal avenues for contraband -- drugs and mobile phones -- has also added to frustration and to bullying others to get supplies. New security nets at the Mountjoy perimeter, restrictions on contact during visits and modern security technology increase dangers to staff or visitors to non druggies of being coerced into getting drugs inside.

Thornton Hall:

A SUPER-prison Thornton Hall at Kilsallaghan, North Co Dublin, was the planned panacea for all ills in the system.

The reality is that a security firm oversees fields of thistles and rabbits and in the region of €40m has already been spent. It is now to be built in stages, initially holding 700 by 2014 rather than 2,200.

The Prison Service has tendered for a boundary security wall and perimeter road in a public contract estimated to cost up to €10m.

At the same time, former dungeons in Mountjoy jail are being converted into cells, the first new accommodation to be provided there for several years.

Up to 50 new places in the 'C base' may be provided when the original dungeons, currently used as the industrial cleaning quarters, are restored.

Protection Prisoners:

DANGEROUS inmate Leroy Dumbrell, at the centre of this week's crisis, has been assessed by the management as a "protection" prisoner.

As a rule, such individuals tend to belong to gangs and keeping them apart leads to a logistical nightmare inside Irish prisons.

Various gangs form alliances inside which further complicates the allocation of accommodation.

Prison staff consider Dumbrell a "disruptive" prisoner -- different to a "protection" inmate -- and rather than placing him in what is often an overcrowded segregation unit, they want him to come under a specific "regime".

This entails allocation of extra staff and the additional cost factor arises.

A specific regime exists for a certain, small number of disruptive inmates.

One is a notorious inmate and associate of Leroy Dumbrell, who cannot be named for legal reasons.

In future, prisons will have to take on board the ruling of a High Court Judge who said it was not acceptable that Leroy Dumbrell should be kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours of every day with only an hour's exercise break.

Dumbrell, who is serving an eight-year jail term for assault, faced the possibility of solitary confinement for the rest of his sentence, which ends in 2012.

He had been transferred in February from Mountjoy, where it was alleged he had been involved in prison riots and had been held in solitary confinement since. Castlerea Prison governor Martin Reilly said his solitary was "for the good order" and proper governance of the prison.

Independent opinion:

The Mountjoy Visiting Committee's 2008 report -- the latest available -- states bluntly: "Offenders should only be sent to prison if there is room to accommodate them, in a safe and secure manner, and certainly not to prisons already overcrowded, totally unsuitable for habitation and devoid of meaningful volumes of rehabilitation."

The Inspector of Prisons Judge Michael Reilly in his latest report -- August 2009 -- stressed: "Mountjoy Prison cannot, at present, provide safe and secure custody for its prisoners.

"It is questionable as to whether the prison provides a safe environment for staff to work in."

Change:

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), is concerned that not only is the prison population increasing, but the rate of increase is accelerating.

Back in 2009 the average number in custody was 3,881, but figures this year have consistently remained at above 4,200, reaching 4,491 on July 29, 2010.

There was a 63pc increase in the use of three-month sentences.

Recognition

Short sentences of three months or less made up 53pc (5,750) of all committals under sentence in 2009; 70pc (7,655) of sentenced committals were for six months or less (compared with 62pc in 2008).

The IPRT said that this is happening at a time when there is growing international recognition that such sentences are completely counter-productive.

"The real story is that prisons are more overcrowded, more dangerous and services are being reduced."

cmallon@herald.ie