Breaking out of the prison mindset

The following article is written by Dr Michelle Butler, Lecturer in Criminology at Queen’s University Belfast and ICRN member . It was published in the Irish Examiner on 22/10/10.

The recent disturbance within Mountjoy Prison has once again focused attention on our Prison Service and its ability to provide safe, secure and humane conditions for both prisoners and prison staff.

Commentators argue that overcrowding is directly contributing to violence by increasing the demands on prison officers and limiting their ability to effectively monitor prisoners.  In contrast, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern has stated that this most recent disturbance was an isolated incident and not related to overcrowding. However, the situation would seem to be more complex than either of these positions would indicate.

Violence in prison is linked to many things including prisoner characteristics, drugs, mental health issues, prisoner-officer relationships, officer-management relationships, the prison environment, nature of the regime and overcrowding. Within Mountjoy, all of these factors appear to be contributing to disturbances within the prison since the 1990’s if not earlier.

Undoubtedly, overcrowding is a problem. In 1992, the total number of committals to prison rose from 8,390 to 11,485 and, for the next 15 years, the total number of committals varied between approximately 10,000 and 12,500. In 2008, the total number of committals rose again to 13,557 and, in 2009, to 15,425. While the Prison Service has attempted to increase prison places, this growth in committals has put pressure on the service, evident by the placing of mattresses on floors and the ‘doubling up’ of single cells.  This is of concern as the ‘doubling up’ of cells places prisoners at an increased risk of being bullied and victimised as prison officers are unable to constantly monitor what happens between prisoners in their cell (e.g. the case of Gary Douche).

Nonetheless, regardless of overcrowding, violence would still be likely to occur due to the less than desirable facilities in Mountjoy, presence of drugs, staff shortages affecting the provision of education, workshops and other services, dissatisfaction between prison officers and management visible through work to rules, walk-outs and resignations, allegations of improper conduct by some officers, lack of an appropriate means of dealing with prisoner complaints, insufficient mental health resources and issues/disputes/rivalries which prisoners bring into the prison with them.  In addition, the introduction of tighter security measures since May 2008 seems to have played an especially important role in increasing tensions and contributing to incidents of disorder due to prisoners frustrations with the impact of these measures. All of these factors would lead to violence as prisoners’ vent their anger and frustration and staff attempt to manage as best they can in these circumstances.  Adding overcrowding to this situation only serves to further heighten the anger, tensions, frustrations and concern for personal safety which both prisoners and staff must be experiencing.

While Justice Minister Dermot Ahern may be correct in stating that the recent disturbance in Mountjoy is not related to overcrowding, the level of overcrowding, combined with these other issues, is creating an environment in which disputes between prisoners and staff can quickly escalate into wider more serious incidents of disorder, while simultaneously making it harder for prison officers to manage these incidents. However, Minister Ahern is also correct when he argues that the Prison Service is not in a position to be able to put a ‘no vacancies’ sign on the door.  So, where does this leave us?

Well, perhaps, it is time we seriously consider what we as a country want from our criminal justice system. More people are being sent to prison because of policies and laws which politicians have introduced and we the public have demanded. Yet, we know that prisons are expensive and not especially good at deterring people from committing crime.

People who break the law should be sanctioned but we must examine the most effective ways of doing this and consider how the criminal justice system works as a whole. How criminal justice policies adopted in one area of the criminal justice system will affect the other components of the system need to be considered and planned for accordingly. We also need to debate what it is we want from our criminal justice system and whether the methods we are currently using are achieving this. For example, do we want to lock people up when they commit a crime regardless of whether this will reduce their probability of committing crime again in the future or do we want to find an effective way of punishing offenders which will minimise their future involvement in crime? We do need prisons but it is important to examine whether we are using them in a way which is serving everyone’s long-term interests. For this reason, it is essential that these issues are debated.

Hopefully, the current White Paper on Crime being undertaken by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform will explore these issues and provide us with an opportunity to change the workings of the system, if we find it is not achieving what we want it to achieve.

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