Saturday 25 January 2020

John Cuffe: Our prisons are justice system's poor relations

John Cuffe

Prisons are always a headline away from crisis. The fact that they operate spotlight-free for months on end all comes asunder when something goes wrong. The escape of the criminal serving time for the manslaughter of Garda Gary McLoughlin shone a light on our jails.

What and who runs our prisons? We know that the Garda Siochana has a commissioner, the Army a general and the Navy a commodore as their visible head. All those men would have served in the ranks and be familiar with the day-to-day running of the various sectors and constituents.

The fourth equation in state protection, the prisons, has as its head a civil servant based in Longford. The nation has 13 prisons overseen by their governors. Any decision of importance would be cleared by the Irish Prison Service (IPS) in Longford before it is implemented in a prison.

Prisoners frequently request transfers for family reasons, governors may wish to transfer a prisoner for operational reasons such as discipline or good order. Prisoners may be transferred to alleviate space in one jail and to an institution with more space.

Only the IPS can make the final decision on whether this move may or may not occur.

All prisons and all prisoners are different. The people who know them best are those who spend 24/7 with them. While there are common themes in the running of all prisons, each individual prison will have its own localised modus operandi.

The central command structure is often out of synch with the local. A simple example of this being a prison store taking a phone call from central command in IPS, wondering why the amount of fruit and veg being consumed has suddenly risen. Exasperated, they will politely explain it has to do with the increase in numbers. A joined-up system would flag this occurrence immediately.

When I joined the prison service in 1978 prison space was measured in cell space. The ideal and most humane way to incarcerate a person is to give them a single cell unless they wish to double up. Nearing my retirement the IPS used the phrase "bed space" for prison accommodation.

Instantly, a prison with a hundred single cells could now legitimately hold 200 prisoners without a single cell being built. The problem with that was yard and recreational space did not increase, neither did educational nor work opportunities. Naturally where space becomes crowded, tension increases.

Prisons take in between 17,000 and 20,000 committals per year. That is the population of a good-sized town. The spin the media is fed is the constant figure of approximately 3,000 prisoners serviced by 3,000 prison officers.

The staff of 3,000 is broken down into staff on duty serving the prison, courts, hospital escorts, workshops, cooking, cleaning parties, gyms, search teams, visits etc. Of course, staff are entitled to rest days and an amount may be out sick. In my own case in my latter year I exercised a hundred-plus prisoners with three officers patrolling the yard. The dilemma often is whether to take the censor from his office to staff the yard or let him sort the mail that will keep the inmates happy.

Like any town of a population of 20,000, prisons will have their share of drama. Factor in the unnatural setting of a small area where people are closely confined, add in those with medical and mental health problems, and let's not forget those suffering real anger management issues, and we see that each prison takes a certain nous and understanding in its daily running.

Escapes bring the media spotlight down. So too does suicides. Tragic and utterly debilitating to prisoners and staff, suicides shake a prison to the core. And yet we hear about the two to seven per year that tragically occur, while we seldom hear the larger figures for a normal town of twenty thousand.

Prison staff save the lives of prisoners, often on a weekly basis. When the various other agencies are long gone home it's the prison officer who sits and chats, advises or listens to the prisoner left behind.

Prison staff walk a line where they may go home the victim of an assault or verbal abuse. Nobody knows this other than their colleagues and immediate families.

To coin a metaphor, we can compare prisons to the provinces: Munster and Leinster are the Garda and Army, Ulster is the Navy and the prison service is poor old Connacht. Tolerated but not really wanted. Starved of real investment, starved of real reform, starved of real enthusiasm from their leaders, prisons bob on like a cork in the water and we only notice them when the proverbial hits the fan.

So how can prisons be used to better effect? It is my view that unfettered access to free legal aid adds to the difficulties. It is a virtual guarantee to each offender that no matter how many times they transgress, the State will pick up the tab. There is, therefore, no deterrent to desist from a life of crime.

This leads to overcrowded prisons and that leads to revolving doors and shorter sentences.

The legal fraternity, the courts, the social workers, the probation service, gardai etc, are all tied up in time-choking cases.

And as the legal system grinds its way through the treacle-like pace of the criminal justice system, it's failing miserably in its primary duty, ie to protect the populace and dispense fair justice to one and all.

Prisons should never be used for debtors or fines. Take a monetary fine from wages, social welfare or other sources. On the other hand let people never assume that prisons are choked with people in for trivial fines.

Prisons should be places of reform, run fairly, strict but humane. That they are in some decent shape at the moment is due to the decency of the staff and the willingness of the majority of compliant prisoners. Prisons need to be smaller and returned to single cells where dignity, security and safety can be guaranteed.

In 2005, we saw the demise of a very successful open prison in Shankill, two well-run prisons were closed in Spike Island and the Curragh. Why? It's not that space was rampant.

This week the prisons are running above their legitimate capacity. This is intolerable to those that dwell within the walls of our institutions, be they staff or prisoners.

The arrival of a drug onslaught in the early 1970s was never tackled nationally in our towns, villages and estates. Today the life of a dog has a higher premium than those who would cross the drug barons.

Prisons were ignored in this epidemic. Valiant and brave work, often with the resultant injury and assault on staff, has stemmed the flow of drugs into our prisons.

But until there is a coherent attack taken on the purveyors of drugs, death, and misery then don't expect prisons to be immune from that epidemic.

Those most vulnerable to the excesses and influence of drugs are the very ones who wind up in jail. Lip service and good surveillance will only cure part of their problems. It's time for packing floor space to stop, time for mattresses to be dumped, time for bed space to belong to hotels, and time for the Prison Service to be no longer the Cinderella or Secret Service.

John Cuffe worked for 30 years in the prison service. He has a BA in Sociology, an MA in the Criminal Justice System Ireland and a H Dip in Public Service Management

Irish Independent

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