Inmates under protection as gang culture explodes
A QUARTER of the prison population is under special protection in the nation's jails.
The dramatic growth in gang culture in the prisons has meant that more than 1,000 inmates must be kept under observation and cannot mix freely with the others.
The culture has now spread to almost all jails, including St Patrick's Institution for young offenders between 17 and 21 years of age.
The dangerous rise in gang-related violence and consequent segregation of at-risk inmates was revealed yesterday by the president of the Prison Officers Association (POA), Jim Mitchell.
He told the association's annual conference in Killarney that hardly a week passed without stabbings or assaults taking place in the prisons. "These criminal groups, while vying for control of the drugs trade, see the prison system as a proving ground and each gang will viciously protect that patch or the consequences for them will be dire," he said.
"Prison officers, those charged with maintaining control, are becoming fewer while gang recruitment is growing because for many prisoners there is more safety in belonging to a group rather than standing alone."
Mr Mitchell told Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, who attended the conference, that they needed a place to put those organising the violence and a regime that was robust enough to protect the officers who had to deal with them.
"The escalating violence and gang culture in our prisons is of immense concern to us," he added.
Mr Mitchell said that 10 years ago the only protected prisoners were sex offenders. Now almost one in every four inmates required protection, either out of fear, drug or financial debts, or they were members of the wrong gang or because of internal feuding in the gang.
He warned that the spread of the gang culture to St Patrick's Institution meant that the problem was building up for the future as the juveniles become caught up in the violence.
Prisoner protection was also labour intensive as they had to be kept apart from the other inmates, could not take part in routine exercise and recreation periods and in many cases, were locked up 23 hours a day for their own safety.
Mr Mitchell highlighted the plight of young inmates, who were recruited by the major criminals behind bars to smuggle in drugs and other contraband for them.
"The big boys are under regular scrutiny by the staff and they recruit prisoners, who are below the radar, using either fear or inducement. In the meantime, the gang leaders stay in the clear."
He suggested that a separate unit for the gang leaders would reduce their control over other inmates by limiting their access to the general population.
He called on the Prison Service to listen to those "with their finger on the pulse" in the prisons. He supported the view of the governor of the Dochas women's prison, Kathleen McMahon, who said she was retiring early because her job had been made impossible by lack of consultation with her.