Tuesday 21 November 2017

Review of women's prison urged after governor quits

The Government was pressed today to carry out an urgent review of the country's only women's prison after its governor resigned citing overcrowding.

In a damning critique of the Irish Prison Service, Kathleen McMahon, who heads up the Dochas facility in Mountjoy, also claimed she was being undermined.

Her remarks coincided with scathing criticisms from a member of a Government appointed watchdog tasked with inspecting the Dublin jail who branded conditions in the men's wing appalling.

Fine Gael claimed the frustration expressed by Ms McMahon confirmed the prison system was crumbling, while Labour said the reasons behind the resignation were of grave concern.

Charlie Flanagan, Fine Gael justice spokesman, said: "It is very significant for a person of Kathleen McMahon's standing and experience within the Irish prison system to be so explicit in her criticism of conditions that staff and prisoners are being subjected to.

"I have consistently made the point that unless radical action is taken and prison capacity is increased, fatal incidents inside our prison walls will become inevitable."

Ms McMahon said there were 137 women being housed in a centre built to cater for 85.

She also claimed women were being jailed for offences too minor to warrant a prison term.

The governor also launched a withering attack on the prison service, claiming it was characterised by a lack of consultation.

Labour Party Senator Ivana Bacik said an urgent review of the Dochas prison was needed.

"Kathleen McMahon has highlighted the huge problems that chronic overcrowding has caused in the Dochas Centre," Ms Bacik said.

"She has pointed out that large numbers of women prisoners are so low risk they should never have been jailed in the first place.

"The Minister for Justice, and the Prison Service, now have serious questions to answer about the issues raised by the Dochas centre governor as to how our prisons are run.

"I believe we need an urgent review of women's imprisonment in Ireland."

Ms McMahon's criticism coincided with a scathing attack from Paul MacKay, outgoing member of the Mountjoy Visiting Committee, claiming inmates were living in appalling conditions.

The committee was appointed by the Justice Minister to report on conditions in the state's oldest jail.

Writing in The Irish Times, Mr MacKay said the jail was rundown and overcrowded, with prisoners sleeping in cells infested by mice, ants and cockroaches.

Others are having to sleep in shower or reception areas, he claimed.

Mr MacKay said the full capacity of the jail should be 489, but the true number stood at 630 in recent months.

Mr Flanagan described Mountjoy as a disgrace, insisting it was filthy, overcrowded and riddled with drugs.

He suggested the Government reviews the planned new Thornton Hall project, designed to replace Mountjoy, but Mr MacKay said it will not be ready for at least five years.

"That such conditions prevail in a state institution is an indictment on this Government's failures on all levels when it comes to the penal system," Mr Flanagan added.

"I believe that if the United Nations were to inspect Mountjoy, the Minister for Justice would find himself in serious trouble as having overall political responsibility for a disgraceful prison, where staff and inmates live and work in appalling conditions."

Fine Gael said measures needed to be taken as a matter of urgency, including introducing full-body security scanners, the use of community service for minor offences and providing support to prisoners with drug problems.

In a statement, the Irish Prison Service said Ms McMahon had not raised the matter with Director General Brian Purcell before announcing her resignation.

"The Director General expressed his disappointment that she had not discussed the matter with him prior to notifying him of her intentions," it said.

Mr Purcell did not agree with Ms McMahon's criticisms, it added.

Press Association

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