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Saturday 3 December 2016

Oberstown: a campus producing graduates in crime and violence

A generation of dangerous criminals is being created by the system's failure to tame teenage tearaways and to prevent their graduation to a life in Ireland's murky criminal underworld

Jim Cusack and Philip Ryan

Published 02/08/2015 | 02:30

HORRIFIC ATTACK: Cratloe Woods in Limerick, where former Oberstown inmate Thomas O’Neill took part in a gang rape
HORRIFIC ATTACK: Cratloe Woods in Limerick, where former Oberstown inmate Thomas O’Neill took part in a gang rape

One of the most violent young men in the Irish penal system - Leon Wright - is one of the failures of the Oberstown child detention centre.

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Wright is serving a six-year sentence for what was described in court as a litany of violent offences, including a stabbing rampage along O'Connell Street in Dublin and a vicious assault on two female gardai.

He spent three separate terms in Oberstown, each period of between one and three months. Staff, already overwhelmed by the numbers passing through the State's only detention centre for young offenders, were unable to cope with Wright.

He had 79 juvenile convictions, many involving violence, and the State was unable to provide any kind of prolonged secure detention. Staff at Oberstown - where 30 are at present on sick leave from injuries sustained in attacks by inmates - were unable to provide any kind of continuity and the type of personal interaction that might have made a difference to Wright.

Many juvenile offenders begin behaving when they reach 18 and face adult prison time but Wright (26) was so far off the rails when he left the State's child detention system that he continued on his rampages of violence.

Shortly after his release from Oberstown, he went on a rampage in Dublin city centre. Armed with four knives, he robbed a group of teenagers of their mobile phones and stabbed one in St Stephen's Green and attacked two gardai before being brought under control.

Three months later, he broke into a house in Lucan, west Dublin, and threatened a man and his teenage daughter with a large knife. When gardai arrived, he lunged at them with a carving knife. During a stand-off, Wright cut himself with the knife.

Another of the ex-Oberstown inmates was responsible - at the age of only 19 - for one of the most horrifying gangland killings gardai have ever encountered. Before leaving Oberstown, this young criminal had amassed - like many other inmates - dozens of convictions before being detained in Oberstown for nearly a year. Free of drugs, he had co-operated with staff who had hopes of him reforming.

However, he quickly fell back into cocaine addiction and his old criminal ways, and in February 2008, was responsible for the gruesome killing of Eddie McCabe (21), a father of one who was repeatedly stabbed and beaten with a heavy object and then had a sewer rod forced through the back of his head and out of one of his eye sockets.

The ex-Oberstown youth who committed this crime was subsequently arrested and sentenced to a lengthy jail term. He cannot be named for legal reasons.

Such sorry tales were supposed to be a thing of the past, but the centre hit the headlines again this week when four teenagers climbed over the walls and escaped, leading to a major search by gardai.

The redeveloped Oberstown campus is meant to be the jewel in the crown of the State's reform of the youth justice system.

Damning reports by human rights organisations condemned the notorious St Patrick's Institution, part of the Mountjoy prison campus, on Dublin's North Circular Road, to closure.

In March, the process of transferring offenders from St Patrick's to Oberstown began, but staff were ill-prepared for the influx of older and more dangerous criminals.

Before then, the Oberstown centre held around 35 children, aged between 12 and 17.

Once the new development is completed, however, it is expected that Oberstown will house around 90 detainees, some of whom will be well into their late teens.

The older offenders have also had a negative influence on the younger detainees, and staff say this has "changed the dynamic" in the centre.

In the last four months alone, 31 staff members have been injured during clashes with offenders.

Morale is at an all-time low, and highly critical Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) reports have done little to boost confidence, according to sources.

"I have read about incidents in their reports over the years that I've personally been involved in, and they always play down the violence towards staff and act as if the young person is the victim of an attack or abuse," an Oberstown staff member told the Sunday Independent.

"We do not use riot gear, pepper spray, or batons - just our wits and our arms and legs," an Oberstown source said.

Unions representing staff are currently locked in negotiations with management over working conditions at the campus.

The system is also failing the young criminals it is supposed to help.

The lack of secure accommodation for law-breaking teenagers was highlighted yet again in the case of a 16-year-old Limerick youth, who was described by his own family as "dangerous".

Despite Limerick District Court directing no less than six times between July and September 2008 that the youth be detained at Oberstown, he was turned away on each occasion he was brought there.

Gardai who had driven the youth from Limerick to Oberstown were obliged to drive him back to Limerick and free him on each occasion, as no suitable secure accommodation could be found - a common experience for gardai around the country.

Girls and boys as young as 12 can be detained in Oberstown alongside some of the most violent young men in Irish society.

Cratloe Woods rapist Thomas O'Neill is another alumni of the north Co Dublin detention centre.

As a teenager, O'Neill, from Limerick, was one of a gang who took part in an attack on a woman who was raped while her boyfriend was locked into the boot of their car.

At the time, in 2003, O'Neill should have still been in detention in Trinity House, Oberstown, but had been so unruly that he was transferred to Limerick Prison, where he was released three months later on New Year's Eve.

Having just served one year of a sentence for assaults and aggravated burglary, the gang ring-leader then took his crew on a crime spree of burglaries, stealing a bottle of tequila before arriving at Cratloe Woods, where they took turns to rape the woman.

Warren Dumbrell was also detained at Oberstown as a youth and has since graduated to become one of the most notorious inmates in the Irish prison system, due in no small part to his leading role in the infamous 1997 Mountjoy siege in which jail staff were held hostage.

He is now serving life for murder for a killing in Inchicore, Dublin.

The ultimate outcome for some of Oberstown's detainees is premature death, whether as a result of gang violence, alcohol or drug-abuse.

Gerard Eglington was involved in a burglary and high-speed car chase when he was a teenager that resulted in the tragic deaths of two gardai.

As a 15-year-old, he was detained for four years for being a passenger in a stolen car, which was deliberately driven into a garda vehicle, killing gardai Tony Tighe and Michael Padden, on the Stillorgan dual-carriageway in south Dublin in April 2002.

Ten years later, on September 24, 2012, Eglington himself was dead after he was shot at point-blank range with a shotgun at his home in Portarlington, Co Laois, where he had moved with his partner and her 11-year-old daughter.

The killing has been attributed to the Crumlin-Drimnagh drugs gangs feud in Dublin, which has been fuelled by the actions of hardened criminals, some of whom have also been through the doors of Oberstown.

Sunday Independent

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