The Governor of the Dóchas centre, the main female prison in the state has resigned because of the “serious undermining” of her position and an “overall lack of respect by senior personnel in the Irish Prison Service”.
The first hand evidence given by Ms McMahon of the degree of overcrowding and its effects on rehabilitative regimes and simple day-to-day living gives an insight into the reality of what we have known for some time. Overcrowding is becoming chronic in the Irish prison system and that this is leading to increased tensions, diminished services and fewer opportunities to facilitate those imprisoned to change their lives. As the former Governor notes, what had been a flagship, progressive regime will be replaced by one in which tensions, self-harm and bullying would reappear, and in which health, educational and training facilities would become overloaded.
While this is extremely worrying, particularly as there appears to be no concerted strategy to deal with the issue of growing prison numbers in the short, medium and indeed long term, there is a concern arising out of Ms McMahon’s description of life in Dóchas which is a new one and perhaps even more significant and disquieting.
Ms McMahon states that the relationship between those in charge of the day to day regime within the Dóchas Centre and officials from the Irish Prison Service had deteriorated because of unannounced visits and lack of consultation in operational decisions, such as that to place bunk beds in rooms designed for one prisoner.
Ms McMahon expresses the view that the Irish Prison Service is afraid of media coverage suggesting the regime in Dóchas is too relaxed. In addition, the former Governor believes that a decision has been made to “introduce a more punitive regime involving holding as many women as possible in an already overcrowded centre” and that a new policy of denying temporary release to low-risk prisoners had developed.
Irish prison policy-makers can be criticised for allowing the prison system to ‘drift’ along, allowing the neglect of penal regimes and exhibiting a lack of energy in prison policy-making over several decades. Inertia has been a major feature of Irish prison policy-making since the foundation of the state. As O’Donnell writes:
Debates about crime and punishment in Ireland tend to have a staccato quality. There are moments of intense concern, often after a particularly heinous killing, and then long periods of stasis. Sometimes fundamentally new ways of doing justice are promised. But they are not always introduced,their impact is seldom assessed, and the focus can waver.
The background is of a criminal justice system where reform is slow and piecemeal. It took sixty years for revised prison rules to appear; the Probation Service is still guided by a piece of legislation more than a century old; and it remains impossible to link the information systems of the various criminal justice agencies.
One of the advantages of such a state of affairs is that the country
has been insulated from the punitive chill that has so affected England and the USA.
Ms McMahon’s view that a more punitive turn is evident in the thinking of penal administrators may suggest that this state of affairs is beginning to come to an end. If a more determined effort to enforce a punitive agenda is becoming apparent, this is a matter of major concern. If this is the case, no longer could it be said that overcrowding and poor conditions are, somehow, ‘accidental’ by-products of a lack of coordination, planning and strategy. No longer could it be argued that such conditions were an unfortunate by-product of a lack of forward-thinking or long-term perspectives on penal planning.
It would be quite easy to impose a punitive agenda in the Irish penal system. It appears that individual Ministers and civil servants have an influence over penal direction which vastly outweighs that of interested groups, criminal justice professionals and even the legislature. Conditions are already such that regimes are difficult and facilities limited.
If it is the case that a concerted effort to make the Irish prison system more harsh, then questions need to be asked: where is this coming from; do we want it and where will it lead us?
For the comments by a member of the Mountjoy Visiting Committee on the “appalling conditions” in that prison read here.