Saturday 16 December 2017

Review: The Governor -- the Life and Times of the Man who ran Mountjoy by John Lonergan

Penguin Ireland, €16.99, Hardback

The former governor of Mountjoy Prison John Lonergan has never been afraid to wear his liberal credentials on his sleeve. An effective communicator, he has been the most high-profile person ever associated with the prison service in Ireland.

At times he was so omnipresent it must have seemed to the public that he was the prison service, and effectively ran it. But his new autobiography, The Governor, tells a somewhat different story.

It shows a man with a humane and progressive outlook, at odds with the bureaucracy; of being ignored by Justice ministers; of clashes with the department and prison service elite; of being regarded as a "maverick"; of seeing himself being "in Siberia"; and of politics being played by civil servants.

In reading the book, you begin to wonder how much more he would have achieved had he, like others, played the game, become a fawning politico or, in that awful phrase, been more 'on message'.

But that obviously was not the governor's way.

Agree with him or not on his views on crime and punishment, he is forthright about what he saw as his leadership style and modus operandi.

In a wake-up call for bullying bosses, he said leadership was about getting the best out of others and "you definitely don't do that by humiliating and terrorising them". Naive or not, his view on prisoners is that there is good in every human being "and my job was to find it and nurture it".

His contempt for certain politicians also comes through, including ex-Justice Minister Ray Burke, who referred to prisoners as "thugs and scumbags" on one occasion.

Ray, of course, went on to do porridge with the said "scumbags".

Lonergan's style saw him advance progressive changes like the women's prison but also saw him criticised for his policy on drugs and not taking a firmer line during the 1997 hostage siege at Mountjoy.

He did not agree with the official line that everything that can be done to stop getting drugs into prison should be done, irrespective of the consequences. He didn't believe it should be done at any cost.

He mentions the Irish Independent for an exclusive story during the hostage siege, which revealed that Army Rangers visited the prison and offered to blow open a steel door to free the hostages. Lonergan stopped the papers going into the prison because he felt the story would affect negotiations.

What is surprising is that he admits he had no formal training to manage a hostage situation yet he took over as siege commander; while his hostage negotiators had no training either. Surely a glaring failure by the Department of Justice?

When the siege ended, prison officers rang this newspaper to complain about his handling of the situation. He says that the word was that some officers believed he was personally to blame for the siege because of his approach as governor, while others felt he should have used force early on to end it.

But, ever the optimist, he says the siege fizzled out after a week and that his strategy was based on saving life.

He is right to point out the vast number of people in prison are poor and from socially disadvantaged areas.

But maybe more white collar criminals are destined for prison? Let's hope so.

Irish Independent

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