Sunday 17 February 2019

Violent gangs 'operating international criminal empires from inside Irish prisons'

Under-resourced prison officers are getting injured trying to separate inmates that cannot be allowed to mix with each other on safety grounds, according to the Prison Officers’ Association.

Mountjoy Prison in Dublin
Mountjoy Prison in Dublin
Conor Feehan

Conor Feehan

Violent crime gangs are operating their international empires from behind bars while increasingly exposed and under-resourced prison officers are getting injured trying to separate inmates that cannot be allowed to mix with each other on safety grounds, according to the Prison Officers’ Association.

“Gangs have a hierarchy within the prison estate and have a number of ‘contractors’ that they hire ‘work’ out to. In total there are nearly 30 factions within Mountjoy that cannot mix for a variety of reasons,” said POA deputy general secretary Jim Mitchell.

Speaking at its annual conference in Kilkenny yesterday, he said the proliferation and power of gangs within our prisons is a matter of major concern.

“Because of the number of groups now operating in our prisons the logistical difficulties alone of keeping one group from another are staggering. This has resulted in officers getting injured while keeping groups apart,” he added.

POA general secretary John Clinton echoed this view.

“Irish gangs work on a global basis, they’ve huge resources, huge finances and they can have great influence within the prison system. So when they’re caught by the gardai and imprisoned they don’t go away, there’s no Road to Damascus transformation for these people,” he said.

“They reform within the prison system and then they operate as they do on the outside.

“The impact is very very difficult on staff. The logistics of keeping criminal gangs apart alone is a huge issue. One gang will want to get at the other gang, when they do our members have to intervene, and our members can get assaulted and injured during the course of their duties,” he added.

Mr Clinton said that gang murders and drug shipments are also being organised from behind bars, and the latest advances in technology that have allowed the miniaturisation of mobile phones makes it more difficult for prison officers to detect them.

“It’s well-known that hits have been ordered from inside prison on mobile phones. They can get up to anything that they want to to control their empire from inside prison,” he said.

“If one gang wants to get at another and see that the person they want is in prison, the fact that they are in prison won’t stop them from getting at that person. They will do everything they can to get at them,” he added.

“And the gang member actually knows that if they do get the target they could actually be rewarded by their own gang for doing the job.There are two currencies there that would be very predominant in criminal gangs, money and drugs is what gangs are all about in this country and everybody knows that,” he explained.

Mr Mitchell said the establishment of a unit in the Midlands Prison to deal with violent and disruptive prisoners does not adequately address the difficulties created by these gangs.

He called on Justice Minister Charles Flanagan to place all violent gang prisoners in the high security Portlaoise Prison.

“It’s the only prison in the State equipped to deal with them. The State must take charge of these gangs in the prisons with the appropriate supports in the appropriate environment.  These gangs must be controlled or we will lose control of our prisons,” he said.

But the proposal of placing a large number of gang members in one prison was rejected by Michael Donnellan, the Director General Irish Prison Service.

"We have to keep them separated because we need to disrupt their activity, we need to disrupt their communication, and all the evidence internationally is if we put them all together that that ends badly,” he said.

“Our policy has been for the last number of years is to disrupt the gang structure, place them in several prisons around our estate, particularly in two or three, but we are intending to use Portlaoise more in the second half of the year for the very more serious people who are intimidating within the prison gangs,” he added.

Mr Donnellan also disputed the number of gang factions within the prison system, saying there are a core ten involving around 100 individuals

The POA also took issue with how the statistics on the numbers of assaults on its members are collated.

It said the figures only include direct attacks on prison officers, and not injuries received when they intervene on attacks between prisoners.

“There’s statistics showing there were 107 assaults across the entire prison estate in the last 12 months. However, our thought is that there is significantly more and that assaults of prison officers where they intervene between prisoners attacking each other has not been recorded,” said Mr Mitchell.

“We want the Prison Service to arm our people with proper equipment like pepper spray, body cameras and batons so they can adequately protect themselves,” he added.

Michael Donnellan of the Prison Service said it would never seek to minimize the figures of assault within the Irish prison service.

“As the Director General I take assaults of our staff very, very seriously. I mean last year for instance we had 104 assaults by prisoners on prison officers but on top of that we had 72 injury on duties because of interventions that prison officers make. So I'm very happy to clarify that and to have a way of reporting that so that people can see the full extent of injury on duty within the prison service,” he explained.

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