Violence in our Prisons

The response of the Government to the CPT’s recommendations also gives some information on the number of inter-prisoner violent incidents reported by the Irish Prison Service during 2009. There were 814 incidents of violence recorded amongst prisoners during 2009. In Mountoy there were 142 incidents recorded with 19 involving the use of a weapon. A statement by the Director General of the Irish Prison Service, Brian Purcell, indicated that in 2010 there were 117 incidents of prisoner-on-prisoner violence of which 21 involved the use of weapons. The authorities acknowledged there was “a level” of violence (page 24) in some prisons. They did not accept that “within a prison context” Mountjoy could be classified as unsafe, but they did accept that “continuous efforts are required to address the issue of inter-prisoner violence” (page 24). The proposed solution was stated to be “more stringent security measures” (page 24), ignoring the CPT’s comments about the impact of overcrowding, drugs and the poor material conditions. This is a sadly limited approach.

It is also illuminating to consider what the possible rate of such incidents might be in our prisons compared to that in the community as a whole. Without a proper breakdown of the incidents other than ‘violence’ it is difficult to categorise these incidents with confidence. However, it seems reasonable to suggest that these incidents would be characterised as assaults causing harm. There were 3,733 such incidents recorded by the Central Statistics Office in 2009. The population of the state as a whole was estimated by the CSO as 4.459million in 2009. This represents a figure of 8 such assaults for every 10,000 persons. In prison, there were 12,339 committals during 2009. If there were 142 incidents which we can classify as assault causing harm (acknowledging that some might be characterised as robberies or indeed homicides), then this represents 115 such incidents per 10,000 prisoners, representing 13 times the rate in the community as a whole. This of course, can be nothing but a rough estimate given the lack of data to compare the CSO figures to those reported by the IPS and the lack of information about the incidents of violence.

That said, it is difficult to be complacent about a rate of incidents so much higher than the generally prevailing one. No doubt prisons are difficult environments with populations presenting a variety of challenges and needs. However, they are also environments in which there are strict security measures and constant supervision and surveillance by trained individuals and technology.  Moreover, they are environments in which  the authorities are under legal obligations to ensure the safety of those in their custody and care both as against staff and against other prisoners (under Article 2 of the ECHR as well as our own Constitution). This figure is simply not good enough. As an aside, the nature of each incident should be recorded and detailed by the Irish Prison Service and made public.

Rather than seeing the high number of prisoners on protection as a matter of concern about the culture of prison environments, the Irish Prison Service stated its view that it was an indicator of the steps taken to ensure the safety of prisoners. The Service also referred to the recently refurbished Separation Unit at Mountjoy which provides 50 spaces with in-cell sanitation and exercise yards but acknowledged “there are [sic] a cohort of protection prisoners who are subject to a more restricted regime” (page 25).

The response of the Government also details the number of prisoners on 23 hour lock up across the prison estate. There is no indication of the date on which the survey was taken but the numbers are interesting

Prison/Place of Detention Number of Prisoners on 23 hour lock up
Arbour Hill Prison 0
Castlerea Prison 23
Cloverhill Prison 1
Cork Prison 14
Dóchas Centre 0
Limerick Prison 6
Loughan House 0
Midlands Prison 26
Mountjoy Prison (male) 153
Portlaoise Prison 0
Shelton Abbey 0
St. Patrick’s Institution 40
Training Unit 0
Wheatfield Prison 45
Total 308

Without a date on which these figures were gathered it is difficult to analyse them properly. However, if we take the average daily populations from the 2009 Annual Report of the Irish Prison Service, then we can see that 24% of the Mountjoy male population is on protection, with 11% of the Wheatfield population on protection, and 18% of the population in St Patrick’s Institution.

The response of the Government pointed to the emergence of criminal gangs in recent years and described measures being taken to reduce violence as including:

  • Tighter control and monitoring of prisoner visits
  • Pre-approval of prison visits
  • Greater vigilance in examining mail by ‘prison censors’ and searching of other items entering the prison
  • Increased random searching of cells and their occupants
  • Stricter searching of all those committed to custody and those returning from court, temporary release, after visits or on receipt of intelligence
  • Use of modern cameras and probe systems
  • Installation of nets over exercise yards
  • Enhanced security screening for all those entering the prisons
  • The drug detection dog service
  • The establishment of Operational Support Units in prisons dedicated to gathering intelligence on illicit material
  • The famous ‘BOSS’ (Body Orifice Security Scanner) chairs

The Government considered these measures to have had “considerable success”.

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Violence in our Prisons

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