Tackling drugs and toilets in prisons

A piece in yesterday’s Tribune looks at recent announcements by the new Governor of Mountjoy Prison, Ned Whelan, regarding the question of drugs in prison. Mr Whelan has announced he intends to take a ‘zero tolerance’ policy when it comes to the availability of drugs in prison. New ‘sophisticated’ nets and the canine unit are both described as key features of this approach.

When the question of drugs and prison has achieved public prominence recently, it has almost always been in the context of discussions about the latest tactic to eliminate the supply of drugs and other contraband into individual prisons.  Sadly, we rarely see a debate which looks at the much wider context and causes of drug supply within the prison system.

We need to think about the issue of drugs and prison in a much broader way than talking only about nets and dogs.

These kinds of tactics do very little indeed to tackle demand or the causes of drug misuse, which is a driver in so much crime in Ireland. Nor do these measures do anything to prepare those using drugs for release, which again is critical to ensure that drug-related reoffending is tackled after prison.

It is imperative that equal if not greater attention be devoted to the question of need. We would do well to have the same impetus to tackle that side of the equation as to deal with supply. A policy which prioritised need and demand would involve the expansion and increased resourcing of prison psychology services. It would see greater investment in the very welcome and very busy service provided by Merchant’s Quay Ireland in the area of addiction counselling. It would see a far greater presence of drug free landings where all prisoners who wish to enter them upon admission to the prison could reside. At present, the only drug free unit within Mountjoy is contained in the Hospital wing and is limited to those involved in drug treatment programmes. In addition, such a policy would examine harm reduction strategies, including needle exchange. All of these services would be linked, seamlessly, to appropriate, well resourced and prepared services on the outside.

We are, of course, far from such a scenario. However, it is likely that prioritising the language of supply reduction will mean that these alternative discourses are silenced, with negative consequences for how we think about and respond to drug misuse within prisons. Dealing with the question of supply solely will not achieve a solution to the question of drugs in our penal institutions. Indeed, the Department of Justice has itself recognised that an entirely drug-free prison is unachievable, unless we want to introduce regressive practices and sever links with the outside world.

It also must be recognised that the chronic and continuing problem of overcrowding in many of our prisons is doing nothing to assist in the provision of drug treatment services. The Inspector of Prisons has said that Mountjoy should hold, at a maximum, 540 prisoners, yet it regularly holds over 700. Moreover, there are roughly 260 prisoners within Mountjoy on methadone maintenance programmes. With pressures such as these, it is inevitable that the provision of addiction counselling and other supports is seriously stretched.

The figure of 260 receiving methadone in Mountjoy indicates the extent to which our prisons, and offending, are tied to the question of drugs. According to the latest Annual Report of the Irish Prison Service, there wer 2,500 individuals receiving methadone in the Irish prison system last year. Out of an average daily population then calculated at just under 4,000 or a committal figure of around 13,000, this is startling.

Drugs are a huge and dominating presence within the prison system and also a major factor behind offending. It is impossible to separate drugs and prisons policy and we can’t understand prison without understanding drugs, drug addiction and the drug trade. This is very much a social issue and requires a social and health response, a prison-only response is likely to be futile. There is a much bigger point there regarding how we see our prison system – sometimes almost as if it is separate from those other systems, whereas it is only one part of it and one which is forced to deal with so much social and drugs policy failures.

Within prison, the presence and trade in drugs leads to pressure, violence, internal economy. Ben Crewe’s latest book draws this out in a way that I have not seen previously. His analysis, based on an ambitious and insightful ethnographic study of a medium security prison in England shows in impressive detail the way in which drugs have dominated prison culture, inter-prisoner relations and penal regimes. In the Irish context, there is little in the way of examination of prison life. Though not dealing with drugs specifically, Clara Geaney’s MA thesis at Dublin Institute of Technology is an important assessment of what it feels like to do time in Ireland.

When we talk about drugs and prison, we also must not be blind to the way in which we sentence drug related offences and deal with, in particular, drug addicted prisoners. We need to look very carefully at how our sentencing policy deals with drugs and drug offenders. In addition, we must also be alive to how increased jail terms for such offences are acting to drive up our prison population.

In the same article in The Tribune reference is made to the recent provision of ‘toilets’ in Mountjoy prison. This does not mean that in-cell sanitation has been approved, instead, it seems that something which resembles a toilet, but is in fact still essentially a bucket, has been introduced. While anything that increases an individual’s sense of dignity within a prison is to be welcome, no amount of dressing up will get away from the fact that 30% of our prisoners continue to slop out, something described in the Annual Report of the Inspector of Prisons for 2008 as amounting to ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ and which has been criticised by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture on each of its visits. There remains no coordinated policy to eliminate slopping out. This seems to be another piecemeal, ad hoc response to deal with a prison crisis.

So what’s the solution? Thornton Hall has been cast as the solution we must wait for and it will replace Mountjoy’s Dickensian conditions. I wouldn’t write Mountjoy off just yet. The history of Irish prison policy has tended to show that planned replacements for old prisons have tended not to act as replacements at all, and old prisons continue to be pressed into service. Prison is, again, the wrong place to be looking for a solution to these problems. Instead, we need to re-think our prison policy and make meaningful the commitment in the Revised Programme for Government that prison should be a last resort.

Tackling drugs and toilets in prisons

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