Prisons fight losing battle with vicious gang culture
Life in Ireland's ageing jails has become hellish as gangsters bring their brutal feuds inside with them, writes Jim Cusack
Sunday May 09 2010
The statement by the Prison Officers' Association (POA) last weekend that a quarter of the State's prisoners are under 23-hour lock down for their own protection from gang members was not as much of a revelation as it was perceived to be.
Judge Michael Reilly, the Inspector of Prisons, came up with his figure of 26 per cent of the prison population, or 825 prisoners, being locked down because they or prison staff believed that their lives were in danger. They are, effectively, in prisons within the prison system.
This record number of inmates locked away for 23 hours a day, 365 days a year, has come about as a result of the entry into the prison system of the increasingly brutal feuding between large drug gangs on the outside.
Garda successes against key figures in these gangs have led to both senior and junior members being imprisoned together, which has meant the duplication of criminal structures within the prison system. As on the outside, the major gangs from Limerick and Dublin have established an ascendancy over rivals and non-gang members, forcing them off the ordinary wings and into the protection cells.
There is, prison sources say, constant violence from the big gang members against others, along with attacks and verbal threats against staff, particularly from younger gang members trying to impress their bosses.
Asked how young gangland figures were behaving behind bars, an experienced prison officer last week replied: "If I had a euro for every time they threatened to kill me, I'd be a millionaire."
He echoed the sentiments of the POA that staff members are barely able to cope with the levels of violence and intimidation and are suffering from stress.
The violence and brutality towards non-gang prisoners was displayed vividly in mobile phone images sent out from Wheatfield Prison earlier this year by members of Limerick's Southill gangs, which are led by members of the notorious Dundon family.
The pictures were of an "ordinary" prisoner who had been stripped naked, beaten and then tied to a bunk bed. They had put lipstick on his lips and drew the words "f**k me" on his forehead.
Last month, young members of the south inner city Dublin gang that is led on the outside by Freddie Thompson texted images of themselves brandishing "shanks" -- knives made from box cutter blades with improvised handles. The leader of this inmate gang, 23-year-old Joseph Duff, is serving an 11-year sentence for possession of drugs and a gun.
His trial in 2008 was told that he came from an extremely violent background. His father beat him mercilessly when he was a child. People in Drimnagh, where Duff comes from, confirm this but say Duff, too, is extremely violent.
In the images and texts sent out from Mountjoy Prison, the unrepentant gang members promise to mirror the bloody feuding that has so far claimed the lives of 17 people on the outside.
Keeping apart the feuding Dublin and Limerick gangs is a logistical nightmare for prison staff, complicated by inter-relations and inter-rivalries. The Thompson gang in Dublin is related in its drugs business to the Dundon-led gangs of Limerick.
Thompson's rivals, formerly led by Joseph Rattigan, are related to the Dundon rivals, who are a spread of several Limerick families from the Island Field to Moyross.
A truce in Limerick at the end of the 1980s did reduce tensions between the two sets of prisoners inside, but the terrible conditions in Limerick's 19th century prison have resulted in an almost permanent state of tension and for safety's sake the two sides are still kept apart.
The appalling pressure-cooker conditions in Dublin's Mountjoy make it the most dangerous of the institutions within the prison system according to staff -- whose views are reflected in annual reports by Judge Reilly and his predecessor, Judge Dermot Kinlen.
The sanitary conditions in Mountjoy, where more than 270 prisoners have no in-cell sanitation and have to "slop out" each morning, have been described repeatedly by the International Committee for the Prevention of Inhuman and Degrading Treatment as "inhuman and degrading" -- and it is a view which Judge Reilly says he shares.
Limerick and Cork prisons also lack in-cell sanitation.
In Mountjoy, there is constant fear of violence from the Thompson gang members who are also allied with members of the northwest Dublin gangs formerly led by Eamon Dunne, who was assassinated while socialising in Cabra two weeks ago.
The 150-year-old prison is constantly overcrowded and its lay-out does not make it easy for staff to provide protection for vulnerable prisoners.
There is, according, to one source, a constant stream of prisoners being taken to the accident and emergency department of the adjoining Mater Hospital to receive treatment for injuries sustained in beatings, stabbings and slashings.
Much of the violence is meted out to non-gang prisoners, who are put under pressure to hold drugs or mobile phones. Staff say that even though stringent search measures at the "front" of the jail, introduced in July 2008, are stopping most of the drugs and phones coming in with visitors, Mountjoy and Cloverhill in Dublin have a constant stream of contraband being thrown over the back walls of the jails.
They say that some of this is intercepted, but pressure on staff means there are frequently insufficient prison officers to monitor what is coming over the wall into the exercise yards during the day breaks between 10am to 12pm and 2pm to 4pm and all day on Saturday and Sunday.
An experienced Dublin officer said: "There is a class of prisoner now that you didn't have before. They think nothing of attacking prisoners or staff.
"There are less staff and the prisoners are getting bolder. Discipline is virtually non-existent. There is a moratorium on staff recruitment and overtime is down. Drugs are a big issue.
"It is harder, more stressful, for staff because of what they have to deal with. There are officers threatened every day of the week and there should be a system in place that the ones who behave get rewarded and the ones that don't be dealt with. There should be incentives and disincentives."
He said that prisons in the UK have such systems and consequently have to deal with less violence.
Despite all the violence and gang activity in the prisons, surprising numbers of inmates still try to make the best of their time.
Last year, nearly 200 inmates in Mountjoy managed to succeed in junior and leaving cert exams and some even achieved Open University degrees. Crafts and other skills courses are well attended and the prison has a lively arts programme and well-stocked library.