Doubling up in prisons 'creating culture of sex abuse', warns former Mountjoy governor

Putting inmates together in single cells is increasing risk of sexual assault for prisoners

Former Governor of Mountjoy Prison John Lonergan


THE 'doubling up' of inmates in single prison cells is perpetuating a culture of sexual abuse where prisoners are raping their cellmates, former governor of Mountjoy Prison John Lonergan told the Sunday Independent.

Mr Lonergan spoke out just days after Justice Minister Alan Shatter apologised to the family of Gary Douch, a vulnerable prisoner who was beaten to death while packed into a holding cell with a mentally disturbed prisoner with a history of violence. There was no sexual element to this attack.

According to Mr Lonergan, the practice of 'doubling up' in single cells has become the "norm" in Irish prisons.

The former governor said the culture of sexual abuse is of particular concern in the women's prison. He also cited violence and bullying as a problem.

He told the Sunday Independent: "Quite a number of men and young women are being forced into a position they wouldn't normally put themselves in. It's a very significant issue in the women's prison in particular.

"Men would force themselves on other men or women would force themselves on other women and introduce them to sexual activity that they wouldn't normally partake in. The culture of non-reporting for fear of repercussions would exacerbate the problem.

"It helps people to continue this culture of abuse and it is creating a lot of difficulties.

"The culture in prisons is that you don't report this kind of thing. And when people spend 18 hours a day locked up together, you can imagine the situations that this would bring about for some people.

"We certainly were aware of it during my time. I absolutely believe this is still going on. And I am quite satisfied that the risk is very real," he added.

Describing how 'doubling up' has now become the norm, Mr Lonergan said: "I have been on the record for a long time as totally and utterly resisting it."

Cell-sharing runs contrary to international standards, including the European Prison Rules, which stipulate that single-occupancy should be the norm. The standards have been set to ensure prisoner safety, rather than a so-called 'soft touch' approach to prison sentences.

When contacted over Mr Lonergan's claims, a spokesperson for Justice Minister Alan Shatter referred the Sunday Independent to the Irish Prison Service (IPS).

An IPS spokesperson would not comment on Mr Lonergan's claims on the culture of sexual abuse in our jails.

However, he disputed that 'doubling up' is now the norm in prisons.

"The Irish Prison Service is implementing the inspector of prisons' standards in relation to cell occupancy. Fifty per cent of all prisoners are housed in single cell accommodation. Other prisoners are housed in double or triple cells. But the majority of prisoners are housed in single or double cells.

"To give you an indication on a given day, on April 1, 2014, Mountjoy has 543 single cells. The number in custody was 587 that day."

Mr Lonergan also moved to highlight the fact that there are many people in prison with mental health problems because their needs are not being met by society.

"Twenty-five per cent of prison inmates have been in-patients, which means they have more serious psychiatric illness, and 40 per cent have been in contact with psychiatric services, according to Dr Paul O'Mahony," he said, quoting a study conducted in 1986 and again in 1996.

"They commit serious crimes and have symptoms of mental illness and therefore there is a dilemma – as a psychiatrist I know used to say – is it madness or badness or a bit of both? Does the mental illness cause the bad behaviour or vice versa? My experience is that it would be the first.

"Many people in prisons have psychiatric conditions where their needs are not being met outside, and then (they) end up in prison."

Cliona Saidlear, a spokesperson for the Rape Crisis Network, said the State has a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all inmates and to protect them from sexual abuse.

She told the Sunday Independent: "As a society it is important what we tolerate, and it is unacceptable in terms of any institution – be it a a hospital or a children's home or a prison. We cannot have a double standard. It is unacceptable towards anyone.

"We have rape crisis centres which reach into prisons, but we are incredibly short-staffed, so a lot of our outreach programmes have stopped."