Sunday 25 August 2019

'I learned a lot in Mountjoy Prison, but mostly to keep my hands in my pockets...'

Dublin's Mountjoy Prison
Dublin's Mountjoy Prison
David Diebold

David Diebold

IT'S something I'm reminded of every time my hand reaches for a handrail in a public place. I'll go to grab the thing out of habit, then snatch my hand back, almost as if it's been burned.

'Almost 20 years after this newspaper sent me on a two-day news assignment to experience and report on Mountjoy Prison from the inside, it's not the deafening clanging of metal doors that still haunts me; nor the isolation cells and their sweet and sour stench of sickness and disinfectant.

I thought I'd find these hard to shake, or the sheer claustrophobia of tiny, brick caves packed with humanity and stacked along catwalks; eyes peering through grates and grills; endless echoes in halls filled with shouts.

But it's handrails that stuck. I hate them.

"Don't worry," said Pampers. "This place is a holiday camp compared to some of the prisons I've been in." He plunged his mop into the bucket, and kept talking out the side of his mouth. "We're all the one here. There's no difference. Except for the rapists and child molesters." He paused and looked up, squinting right at me. "And the rats."

"There's rats?" I said, my voice suddenly sounding too high and feminine to my ears. I cleared my throat. He looked me up and down, turned his head and spat. "Rats," he said. "Squealers. Snitches." He shook his head, leaned into the mop handle to squeeze the water out, then continued mopping.

Pampers was a trustee. Someone told me he got his nickname because he thought he was stealing a truck full of cigarettes and it turned out to be a shipment of 10,000 nappies. He wouldn't say if this was true. He looked over to where two more prisoners in football shorts were laughing over floor-brushes. "Just keep a lookout over your shoulder," he said.

The two prisoners in shorts were named Finbarr and John. Finbarr told me he had two years left of an eight-year sentence for armed robbery and had only just 'cleaned up'. "If you want drugs in here, you'll get drugs," he said. "Just like any jail."

What were the chances of being beaten up or raped? That's what I really wanted to know. "It's not like the films," said John. "If someone tried something on with you, they'd get smashed up by everyone. And you're not going to get beaten up for nothing - you'll have to have done somethin'."

Out in the yard, grey rags of filthy plastic bags fluttered in barbed wire and a dog barked somewhere so far away that it seemed like a tantalising memory, even though O'Connell Street was only a 15-minute jog away (I reckoned, given the chance, I'd sprint it in five).

"If a football comes over the wall, steer clear," someone advised. People on the outside would try getting drugs inside by stashing them in footballs. "Likewise dead rats. Leave 'em alone too."

"Why would I want to go anywhere near a dead rat?" was all I could think of babbling

"You don't," was the answer. "They'll have drugs in as well. Maybe even a phone."

'The Judge' got his nickname because he kept meticulous records of all his cases and helped other prisoners with theirs. He was finishing 18 years. "I escaped from the Mater with a firearm in '94," he grinned. "Then I absconded in '98 and robbed again." But, he said, he had a trade. "I'm a criminal," he said. "I'm waiting to get out so I can do what I'm best at, and that's armed robbery."

"Come on," said the guard, nudging the air with his chin in the direction I was supposed to be going, which was toward the front gate.

On the way, we had to negotiate a spiral stairwell between caged floors. I slid my hand along the battered rail. "Stop!" snapped the guard. He stared at my fingers where they gripped the painted ironwork.

I looked at them, trying to figure out what I'd done wrong, then saw that it was something more like fear on his face than anger. I lifted my hand and looked at it. "You really don't want to touch the handrails," he explained, taking a deep breath. "Ever."

Prisoners, he explained, had more than once hidden needles there, just to terrorise whoever ended up with it stuck in their hand. They would need to be tested then, for HIV or hepatitis, and results could take weeks. "You think a day is a long time in prison. Try waiting weeks to find out whether you've been infected with a potentially deadly virus."

I looked at my hand all over, imagining the sudden, sharp pinprick I might have felt, and I shuddered, suddenly sick with the sensation.

When the thick door finally opened and I stepped out onto the North Circular Road and it slammed shut behind me, all I could do for a minute was stand there as the rush-hour traffic thundered past, and breathe in the exhaust fumes. A bus trundled around a grumpy cyclist on its way to a bus stop lined with glum shoppers. It was the sweetest thing.

My mobile chirped into life just as I reached the train station. It was my wife.

"So, how was your day?" she said. "Speak to anyone interesting?"

"Um." I started trotting up the station steps and reached for the handrail, then recoiled like it was a snake. I stopped dead to check my hand. Impatient commuters pushed past. "Hello," I could hear my wife say. "You still there?"

"I'm here," I said. I looked around. Fact was, I'd never been so glad to be anywhere in my whole life.

I shot a glance at the railing, shoved my free hand deep into my coat pocket, then disappeared up the stairs into the busy station.

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