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'It's calmer. The prisoners are happier' Chronic overcrowding, contraband smuggling, inmate fights and death: there's no denying that Mountjoy Prison is staring chaos in the eye. However, its new governor is convinced that things are getting better, writes Ali Bracken, Crime Correspondent
A prison official behind the bars
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A new "get tough" regime at Ireland's most controversial jail is in full swing. And inmates determined to get contraband into Mountjoy prison are being forced to go to extreme lengths.
Two weeks ago, prison officers discovered a mobile phone in a baby's nappy. The child was unwittingly being used by its mother to try and smuggle in a phone to a loved one. Prison intelligence recently discovered that a mobile phone at the jail is now worth €4,000, making it the most expensive place in the country to try and purchase a phone.
Mountjoy Prison has more than its fair share of problems. Chronic overcrowding remains a real and present danger and the inhumane slopping-out regime for prisoners continues. But like it or not, inmates at the controversial Dublin jail and the Irish Prison Service (IPS) are stuck with it until the end of 2014. By then, it is anticipated the long-awaited Thornton Hall should finally be ready for occupation.
Until then, new governor Ned Whelan is attempting to bring in sweeping changes that will ease tensions in the tinderbox that is Mountjoy prison. Since his appointment on 1 July, Whelan has made tackling the major drug and contraband problem his main priority. He believes that the sale and supply of illegal drugs at the jail can be directly linked to the majority of violent incidents behind bars. Sophisticated and expensive netting now covers the outside yards making it impossible for people to throw drugs in over the prison walls, previously one of the most popular methods of getting contraband in.
On the day the horizontal and vertical netting was put up in the D yard last month, a prisoner ripped a phone off the wall in the yard and threw it at the nets in an attempt to dislodge drugs caught there. He failed. Several others kicked footballs at the net to knock the drugs free, again in vain. Since then, people on the outside have tried everything to beat the new netting system. The level of ingenuity is impressive. One day, several egg shells ? broken, emptied and put back together again ? were thrown over the prison walls. Inside were several small deals of heroin and cannabis wrapped in tinfoil. Those trying to get the drugs in hoped that when the egg shells broke, the small packages of drugs would slip through the nets. But again, this failed.
While some people still try to launch drugs and other contraband over the prison walls, many others have accepted defeat. Every few days, cherry picker machines sweep the nets and pick up whatever's been caught in them. "I would be telling lies if I said no drugs were getting into the prison," Whelan told the Sunday Tribune during its visit to the prison last week, "but it has been significantly reduced and that is as a direct result of the netting and security measures for visitors and drug dogs. People will always think up new ways to get contraband in. It's our job to stay one step ahead."
One of the most popular methods of getting drugs and mobile phones into the prison has been visitors smuggling items in internally. "This involves visitors smuggling items in their anus," says a senior officer from the prison's operational support group (OSG), which collates intelligence on gang activity at Mountjoy and conducts drug searches. "The lengths people will go to are extraordinary."
Also, when prisoners are due in court elaborate plans are often made for them to pick up drugs from acquaintances. But the introduction of drugs dogs has dramatically reduced the level of success of both these methods. Every visitor must now also book in advance. This enables the prison to keep up to date with intelligence and to spot if someone is having a visit from someone new, which could sound alarm bells.
There have been major problems at Mountjoy and other Irish jails with people being forced to deliver drugs to inmates under threat of violence. "There have been many incidents where people are paid to
bring in drugs to prisoners they've never even met before," adds the officer from the operational support group. "Others have been forced to do it. Often, they have family members in the jail and they're told by people on the outside, 'Your Jimmy will get cut up if you don't bring in this package to so-and-so.' We're trying to put a stop to that."
Since the beginning of the year, there have been 256 drug seizures at the jail. Some 452 phones have been confiscated as have 93 weapons. One child visiting a relation recently brought in an innocuous looking toy red car. Concealed beneath it was a mobile phone later detected by prison officers. Other hiding places for phones include a packet of biscuits with the middle hollowed out. Chess boards, too, have been used to hide mobiles and phones have been concealed in latex gloves in mops and buckets used by prisoners at Mountjoy. One talented inmate even managed to construct a USB device that also served as a phone charger before it was confiscated by officers.
At Portlaoise prison in 2007, officers found two mobile phones hidden in a book of evidence posted to Jeremiah Cooper by his associates. Every person convicted of a crime is legally entitled to the book of evidence used against them in court. Cooper is considered by gardaí as a serious gangland criminal; he is currently serving 14 years for imprisoning an entire family during a raid at their home. "I've been getting phone calls and letters from mothers saying they are so relieved because the new security regime means their sons are finally getting off drugs," says Whelan. "And people are telling us the pressure is now off them to try and smuggle drugs in on behalf of others."
And the pressure isn't just off visitors, says chief officer at Mountjoy Danny Robins, but inmates, too. "The majority of prisoners support the new security measures. Everything is calmer. There is far less tension in the prison, we can feel it. It's palpable. The prisoners are happier. It makes our jobs easier and their lives easier."
Mountjoy prison is the biggest methadone clinic in Ireland. Last Wednesday, 260 inmates out of 702 were on methadone maintenance programmes. Whelan also intends to introduce a "drug free" landing on the D wing; up to 70 inmates will be housed on the wing and will receive certain privileges for keeping off drugs.
But the Joy's problems cannot be ignored. Eleven months ago, the inspector of prisons Judge Michael Reilly described the prison as "inhumane" in his report. He called for the prison population – which then stood at 680 – to be cut to 540 amid fears someone would be killed or injured due to chronic overcrowding. The intended capacity is 489 and the prison service says the bed capacity is 680. Last Wednesday, the population of Mountjoy prison was 702.
"It sometimes rises to as high as 750," says Whelan. "We can't put up a sign on a door saying 'full up'. We are duty bound to take all prisoners sent to us. The alternative is that I start releasing dangerous people back onto the street."
On Friday, a prison officer required 16 stitches after he was slashed across the face by an inmate in the separation unit, an area for prisoners in protective custody because of fears for their safety. He was stabbed on the right side of his face by the prisoner, who had fashioned a makeshift knife, known as a 'shiv'.
The inspector of prisons was particularly critical of the slopping-out regime. There are no toilets in the majority of cells at Mountjoy, meaning that if someone needs to use the toilet overnight, they must do so in a bucket. The situation remains the same today as it did last year.
"Obviously, the ideal situation would be in-cell sanitation. But this is an old Victorian building, built in the 1850s," says Whelan. "No-one is happy with the slopping out regime but the situation is what it is." Mountjoy is piloting portable toilets in the coming weeks. Essentially, the bucket used will still remain in the cells but the portable device looks like a toilet, so the idea is that an element of dignity will be restored.
The inspector of prisons was also scathing last year over the problem with cockroaches and mice at the jail. "We now have a relentless regime of cleanliness. New machines have been bought and prison staff and inmates are in charge of cleaning," says Whelan. "
A lot of the issues raised by the inspector of prisons have been addressed." During the Sunday Tribune's visit, several inmates were out cleaning the landings and there was no visible dirtiness.
Another situation Reilly described as particularly dangerous was that which saw inmates at Mountjoy sleeping in the shower room and reception area because of overcrowding. "That situation has now stopped," said Whelan. "It should never have happened."
Whether the next inspector of prisons' report into standards at Mountjoy describes it in such unfavourable terms remains to be seen.
A significant effort has been made to tackle the drugs problem and enhance security since Whelan took control. But there are some problems within Mountjoy that can only be fixed by its closure. Unfortunately, that will not take place for at least another four more years.
"My job is to try and rehabilitate and protect everyone within the prison," adds Whelan. "I take that responsibility very seriously." August 22, 2010