Special intelligence units struggle to keep feuding gangsters separated in overcrowded prisons
By JIM CUSACK
Sunday May 09 2010
SPECIAL prison intelligence gathering and security units are facing a daily battle to stop Ireland's gangland feuding from spilling into jails, a senior official in the prison service has told the Sunday Independent.
He also revealed that work is to start next January on the new 1,400-prisoner jail at Thornton Hall north-west of Dublin. It is hoped this will lead to the closure of Mountjoy Prison which has been repeatedly condemned as unfit for purpose by inspectors and visiting groups.
Staff in Mountjoy are under constant pressure to prevent violence from erupting. Since it was set up in 2008, the Prison Service's Operational Support Group (OSG) has grown in strength and effectiveness despite continued serious violence from gangs inside jails.
A senior member of staff in the Prison Service, speaking on the record, but anonymously, admitted that gangland violence has led to almost-daily shifts of prisoners around the system to avoid severe violence and a daily battle to prevent killings or serious injury.
Threats to prisoners and staff are constant and a key part of the Operational Support Group's work is to gather intelligence on who is threatening who. Particularly vulnerable are prisoners on remand awaiting trial. Gang leaders on the outside are in constant fear that these "committal" prisoners will turn state's evidence against the gangs in return from more lenient treatment.
The Prison Service source said: "The emergence in recent years of criminal gangs has had significant implications for the management of Irish prisons. Rivalries and feuds which develop on the outside are being carried over on the inside of Irish prisons.
"Prison management have to ensure that the various factions are kept apart and, as far as possible, that gang members do not have influence over other inmates or criminal activities outside the prisons.
"Gang members are being managed on a daily basis through segregation and separation throughout the prison system. Membership or allegiance to these criminal gangs fluctuates on a continuous basis with some persons breaking links and others becoming affiliated."
He spoke about the actions being taken to prevent trouble while trying to keep as much drugs and contraband out of prison as possible.
"A number of initiatives have been introduced with a view to preventing identified gang leaders from conducting their business while in custody and also to prevent them exerting inappropriate influence over other persons. For example, a number of serious criminal gang members are now segregated in a specific area of Cloverhill Prison.
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"The security initiatives undertaken by the OSG have made it more difficult for prisoners to engage in illegal activities while in prison. These initiatives include the introduction of drug detection dogs and the installation of airport-style security including scanners and X-ray machines.
"A core function of this group is to gather and collate intelligence information on criminal gang members in Irish prisons and to carry out intelligence-led searches.
"The majority of prisoners who seek to go on protection do so, not because they fear random acts of violence in prison, but rather because of issues that occurred on the outside," the source said.
"Typical reasons why a prisoner would request protection are: gang rivalry, drug debts, perceived cooperation with gardai, or because they gave evidence in a court case," he said. "This is evidenced by the fact that it is at committal stage that the majority of prisoners who seek protection express their wish.
"Efforts are made on a continuous basis to reduce the number of protection prisoners. Regular transfers take place to other institutions where a prisoner will not require protection.
"In addition, the recently refurbished Separation Unit in Mountjoy Prison has opened and provides 50 spaces with in-cell sanitation and secure exercise yards for this category of prisoner.
He agreed with the views of the Prison Officers' Association and the Prison Inspector, Judge Michael Reilly, that a great deal of the trouble in prisons is due to overcrowding and poor conditions, particularly Mountjoy, Cork and Limerick. He said: "The Prison Service is experiencing increasing difficulties in light of the high numbers being committed to custody."
In the past two years there has been a dramatic rise in the numbers in custody (up by 735 or 21.5 per cent). The prisoner population reached an all-time high on March 26, 2010, with a total of 4,258 persons in custody.
This is attributable to the increasing success of the gardai and extra court sittings which have resulted in higher committal rates.
- JIM CUSACK