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Our prisons are not working

30 November, 1999

Reform of the Irish prison system will take place only when society demands more than simple retribution and vengeance and starts to look for restorative justice, writes Fr Fergal McDonagh, chaplain to Arbour Hill Prison, Dublin.

During the 1988 U.S. Presidential election, negative advertising focused on the prison system under Democratic candidate Governor Dukakis. The video footage focused on a revolving door, and Dukakis was made to look soft on crime. Here in Ireland the image of a revolving door has been used in the past by whoever happens to be in opposition to criticise the Minister of Justice and the Government.

The last general election saw various parties try to out bid each other on the number of additional prison spaces they would create. I have a vague idea that the final and winning bid was for 2000 additional prison places. If the additional prison spaces were to eliminate overcrowding and the practice of “doubling up” – where a one-man cell is used to hold two or more prisoners – then I would welcome the additional places. The reality is somewhat different. True, the new Midlands Prison in Portlaoise provides for one man one cell, but the new remand prison in Cloverhill, Dublin is based on a three-to-a-cell occupancy level.

Designed to be overcrowded
In addition, we have interpreted international regulations to suit ourselves. A basic internationally accepted principle regarding prisoners being held on remand is that, since they are innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law, they cannot be forced to work while in prison. Ireland had interpreted this principle as meaning that we do not have to provide work for those who are held on remand. Since we do not have to provide workshops for remand prisoners, it means that we can use the space we have saved for … yes, you guessed it … more cells. One would have thought that the new remand prison would have a full compliment of services available to prisoners such as probation and welfare as well as psychology. However, such a presumption would be wrong. While it would be as practical as building a hospital and not employing any surgeons, that is what we in Ireland have done in the Cloverhill Remand Centre in Dublin. It was designed as an overcrowded building, without workshops, probation and welfare staff, or psychologists.Need for debate

Perhaps it is time for some debate on what we as a society expect of the prison system. If all you want is people locked up, then we are a success. However, if you want prison to be a place where prisoners are helped to address the issues in their lives that have led them to prison so that they are less likely to re-offend on release, then our prisons need resources. Psychologists have a huge part to play in the rehabilitation of prisoners but every prison needs a minimum of one full-time psychologist. Larger prisons require even more, and the same applies for other services.

Major change will  occur only when Irish society demands more than simple retribution and vengeance and starts to look for restorative justice. I’ve often heard prisoners use the expression, “If you do the crime, you gotta do the time.” This is a simplistic view of justice and can be compared to going shopping. You pick up a can of beans and the price is 45p; you commit a certain crime and the price is four years. Restorative justice seeks to move away from this simplistic view and tries to engage with the prisoner to ensure that the crime is not repeated and that the damage done to the victim is, insofar as possible, undone. In order for this to happen in our prisons, resources have to be invested.

Media’s responsibility
In Ireland, we have, by and large, been served well by our media.  They have been informative, and much of the abuses of the past would probably have remained hidden were it not for good investigative journalism. However, the media’s response to crime has often been a disservice to our society. Sensationalism has often replaced common sense. Hysteria has often been delivered when what is needed is reasoned debate. Incitement to hatred and bigotry is often the hallmark of Irish journalism. What does it say about us when our newspapers can run a front page banner headline, that screams “BEAST CAGED.”

We were outraged a few months ago by comments in a Sunday newspaper abut the participants in the Sydney Special Olympics – but very few of us are concerned about the continuous description of prisoners as beasts or psychos. These are our brothers and sisters, and even if we are unable to accept them as such, they have parents, relatives and friends whose only crime is to be related to someone who is in prison. And continuously calling them beasts or psychos hurts the innocent too.

Hang house
Demonising people and calling them names is simplistic and irresponsible. It harkens back to the worst days of our prison system when we allowed hanging. The hang house in Mountjoy Prison is a two storey building at the end of D-Wing. The execution room is on the first floor, and present for the hanging would have been the Prison Governor, Chief Officer, doctor, chaplain and the hangman. When the execution had taken place, those present went down the stairs to the lower level where the prisoner’s body would have fallen. When he was declared dead by the doctor, the witnesses would leave by the door while a bricked up window was being knocked out by sledge hammers. Apparently, the condemned man even in death was not fit to pass through the same door as good people like the Governor, doctor or priest. His body had to be taken out through a window, but not just any sort of window. Even in death we had to demonise him – the window through which his body was taken was one that light could and would never shine through, and once his body was taken out, this window would be bricked up again and remain sealed until the next man or woman unfit to go through a door with good people was taken to the hang house to be executed. You see, in a way you can’t kill a human being. In order to do so, we need to demonise them, we need to remove from them the symbols of being human and replace them with the symbols of an animal. Once we do that, then we can do what we do to animals – we can kill them, and feel we are doing nothing wrong.


I know not whether Laws be right,

Or whether Laws be wrong;

All that we know who lie in gaol

Is that the wall is strong;

And that each day is like a year,

A year whose days are long.


But this I know, that every Law

That men have made for Man,

Since first Man took his brother’s life,

And this sad world began,

But straws the wheat and saves the chaff

With a most evil fan.


This too I know – and wise it were

If each could know the same –

That every prison that men build

Is built with bricks of shame,

And bound with bars lest Christ should see

How men their brothers maim.


With bars they blur the gracious moon,

And blind the goodly sun;

And they do well to hide their Hell,

Or in it things are done

That son of God nor son of man

Ever should look upon!



This article first appeared in Reality (March 2001), a publication of the Irish Redemptorists.