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Monday, February 21, 2011

Mountjoy Visit

The rattle of keys and banging of big iron doors really drove home the point; this was the closest thing to hell on earth. With the smell of urine engulfing my senses, and the brisk, but very alert movements of prison officers along the corridors, my heart went into over drive. I had found myself being escorted through Mountjoy Prison. I felt the adrenaline pumping throughout my veins in massive quantities. Truthfully I was scared out of my wits but I wanted more, a lot more.

Glaring suspiciously at the black iron piece on one wall which had three symbols formed from brass, I wondered about its significance. First the ship, symbolizing deportation to Australia; then the "auld triangle", formerly used by the prison chief to summon the prisoners to meals, etc. The final symbol was a cross, which represents the prisoners executed here during the 1916 rising. Greeted with a firm handshake and stern smile Stephan Langton of the Irish Prison Services introduces himself.

Enclosed in a tiny cell originally designed for one inmate, is three prisoners, some of whom are imprisoned for public order offences such as being intoxicated in a public places, or inability to pay fines. Unfortunately for these prisoners, this means sleeping side by side with some of Irelands toughest criminals. This wasn’t the democratic society depicted to the outside world.

Mount joy prison was built in 1850 and is the primary committal prison in the state for adults 18 and over. It was designed by prison architect Joshua Jebb. Mountjoy was originally built with the view of it providing a first stop for men. Then they would later be transferred first to Spike Island, and later, Van Diemen’s land. However this is not the case as Mountjoy is currently over capacity and is ready to burst at the seams. The current number of inmates stands at 850 prisoners. This prison was only built for 454.

In a Sociological and Criminological Profile conducted by Mr. Paul O’Mahony in 1997, he concluded that the majority of prisoners in Mount Joy Prison are mainly young male offenders. Further more, the prisoners all have common fibers which attribute to the reason as to why they have ended up in prison. The vast majority of prisoners in Mountjoy prison haven’t completed any state examinations, and originate from five main postal districts situated in Dublin. Among his findings Mr. O’ Mahony also states:

The mean age for the total sample of 124 prisoners was 28 years and the age
range was between 19 and 58. Approximately 38% of the total sample were
under 25 years and about 69% were under 30. Only 6% were over 40 years
of age.

Only 20 of the achieved sample (of 108 prisoners) had ever been married
and only 9 of these were still married at the time of the survey. However, a
further 46% of the prisoners had been in a common law relationship. For
46% of this common law group the relationship had already ended.

Only 3 prisoners had current addresses outside of Ireland. A further two
prisoners had addresses in Northern Ireland. Of the remaining 99 prisoners,
only 12 were from outside the Greater Dublin area. Almost all of the Dublin
prisoners were from areas characterized by a high proportion of corporation
housing and often by the prevalence of opiate drug abuse and high levels of
long term unemployment.

“Things haven’t changed dramatically within the prison over the past number of years, however we have made great progress in terms of hygiene in and around the prison,” stated Mr. Langton. Prisoners have no other option but to use a steel bucket as a toilet and later dispose of this at an arranged time every day. However some prisoners have stated that because of the lack of sanitary disposal facilities they are sometimes forced to put their daily secretions and feces into bins on the prison landings. This simply cannot be tolerated as it is inhumane and also very unhygienic. In a damming report in 2009 by Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Kelly stated “this practice is simply inhumane and degrading for prisoners….. I have witnessed liquids leaking from bags being carried by prisoners to collection points within the prison.”

This is an absolute disgrace within Irish prison regulations and something fast needs to be done if we are to avoid catastrophic levels of drugs, riots, and even murders within the prison. However Mr Langton is confident the new Thornton Hall prison, which is currently being built in Dublin will keep moving despite the country being in arguably the worst economic decline in the history of the state. “It’s a necessity and it most definitely must go ahead,” said Mr. Langton

In 2004 the minister for justice stated that the first 400 cells will be built in four years time and that the prison will have 1,400 cells for 2,200 prisoners. So if this is to be the case we should see the first 400 prisoners moved from Mountjoy prison to Thornton Hall in the New Year. In the same statement Dermot Ahern described Thornton Hall as the cornerstone of the Government’s prison policy.
If the new prison isn’t complete within the next year we could see further outbreaks of violence within Mountjoy, as it simply cannot house the ever increasing numbers through its gates. In October 2005, a prisoner set fire to his cell but it was quickly taken under control. In May of 2006, A 22-year-old prisoner in was treated for a stab wound to his neck at Dublin's Mater Hospital. No weapon was ever found and no arrests were made. In March 2007 another man was attacked by up to four prisoners and stabbed repeatedly in the upper thighs.

In recent times staffs have been attacked with one prison officer getting slashed across the face leaving him permanently scarred. These are just some of the forms of violence as a result of prisoners’ anger at the conditions in which there are living. When asked about the relationship between prisoners’ and prison officers Mr. Langton stated “I reckon that there is a very, very good relationship between prisoners’ and staff members, but on both sides there are always a few who are not very nice to each other….. Not every prison officer is going to get on with every prison officer.”
Mountjoy has become a battle ground for survival amongst prisoners’ and prison officers alike. The violence the prison is seeing now will only continue to get worse until the real problems of living conditions and security measures are addressed. It is a 19th century prison which is detaining 21st century prisoners. Mayhem and chaos will always prevail.

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