Monday 20 January 2020

Little hope in troubled jail regime

The Dochas governor's resignation raises serious questions about our prison service, writes Colum Kenny

The women's experiences on getting out of jail included "overdose, gang rape, prostitution, homelessness and polydrug use". Of the 22 women who were released from prison during the six months, only seven returned home and did not report any trauma. And, "three of the original cohort of 40 women died".

The Irish Prison Service claims boldly on its website that it is "dedicated to a brighter future for everyone". But it is no joy going to jail, even to a female prison like the Dochas Centre.

"Dochas" means "hope", and the Dublin jail for women looks nice enough on the outside. Even inside, most people who end up there are neither hardened criminals nor celebrity killers like Catherine Nevin and the Scissors Sisters.

But even Dochas has its problems, with a doubling up of prisoners who must share cells with people who may be sexual predators. It is also claimed that officials from the Department of Justice have taken to visiting women prisoners without the consent of the prison governor.

And now the women have lost their governor, who was one of the most experienced people in Ireland at tempering justice with mercy. Governor Kathleen McMahon quit last week in circumstances that raise worrying questions about the prison service and about how we conduct official business in Ireland.

I remember visiting the women's prison at Mountjoy more than 30 years ago, when it was just a wing of St Pat's. And a dismal place it was too. The Dochas Centre was intended to improve things, to give women a better chance of rehabilitation.

Today, more women are going to jail and for worse crimes. But it is unclear exactly how hardened our female prisoners are now. McMahon seemed to clash with the Department of Justice last week over how nasty her women were, although her answer to RTE's Pat Kenny was a bit vague.

Asked to outline the reason for increasing crime by women, McMahon said that "a lot of it is petty crime", drug or alcohol related. But Brian Purcell, director of the Irish Prison Service, says that a quarter of the female inmates are doing time for murder or manslaughter or conspiracy to murder -- while another quarter are in for serious robberies, and almost a quarter again are serving lengthy sentences for drug offences. Many are serial offenders.

The Dochas Centre has been no panacea for the problems of women prisoners, as may be seen from the facts outlined in the first paragraph. Those grim facts come from an 18-month-long process-evaluation and treatment outcome study of female drug-using prisoners admitted to the Dochas Centre, published in 2006.

The most recent annual report by the Dochas visiting committee, appointed officially as an independent voice on prison conditions, relates to 2008. It notes that Dochas is "designed to accommodate 85 prisoners but frequently runs at 136 per cent capacity, around 115 prisoners. This is clearly a problem which impacts on physical conditions for prisoners and prevents the correct use of leisure space designed to facilitate recreation. This must be addressed as a matter of urgency".

The problem remains serious. One reason for Governor McMahon's resignation was, she claims, a failure by the Department of Justice to consult her about putting in bunk beds to hold more prisoners. They say that she was consulted and that the only alternative was to put mattresses on the jailhouse floor or release prisoners early.

Her resignation has revealed a way of doing business that seems dysfunctional. Last week, she painted a picture of officials entering the prison and meeting women without her knowledge, and of the same officials allegedly making promises of concessions to high-risk prisoners while turning down concessions for low-risk prisoners that the governor herself had recommended.

If these allegations are founded on fact, then the behaviour of such officials is disruptive and merits independent investigation. The Department of Justice must deal daily with some very dangerous people and with threats to the nation. But state security is no excuse for randomness and irregularity. Officials are struggling to cope with the failure of their ministers to make adequate provision for Ireland's crime problem.

In any dispute like this there are personal histories and organisational undercurrents that are not obvious to the outsider. Similarly, claims by prison officers at their annual conference last week that overcrowding and the gang problem in men's jails are getting worse are coloured by their demands for better pay and more recruitment to their grade. But what remains worrying is the manner in which strains about the appropriate treatment of women prisoners has been handled.

For one thing, citizens are already concerned about the levels of serious crime and about a failure by the state to deal with violent people who are holding communities to ransom and sowing terror through execution-style killings. If the very government department charged with the task of doing this cannot even run a women's prison without prompting its governor to retire early, then one wonders about its ability to do more complex and serious work.

And then there is the way that Governor McMahon was allegedly sidelined, at least in her version of events. The maladministration of public affairs that has left this State on the verge of economic ruin should at least be resulting in a more transparent and accountable method of administering public funds. This episode suggests that the Minister for Justice still believes that a top-down bossing about of people with experience on the ground is an appropriate way of doing business.

The women prisoners themselves remain a problem. Even if you take the view that all criminals deserve to be locked up for as long as possible, and in horrible conditions, you have to admit that there is no point in doing so if it just makes matters worse. It costs taxpayers a lot of money to run jails, and the US option of privatising prisons is open to cronyism.

Best practice suggests that a balanced prison regime, that combines deprivation of liberty with respect for the individual and appropriate treatment or education, has some chance of discouraging criminals from reoffending. It is value for money.

It has long been the practice in Irish prisons to allow mothers out on temporary release to attend religious ceremonies in which their children are involved, says former Governor McMahon. To reverse that practice now, as she believes is intended, would be an act of pettiness that would merely underline the absence of a convincing long-term strategy to deal with crime in Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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