Ireland’s Prison Service – Prisons Prioritise Punishment not Rehabilitation – Former Governor of Mountjoy

Callum Lavery, Mikey Walsh and David Kelly

JR3 Public Affairs Journalism

Are Irish prisons working? Is Ireland’s asylum system fit for purpose? Final-year DCU journalism students conducted in-depth investigations into these two major questions in Irish public life. Working with School of Communications Journalist-in-Residence, Ursula Halligan, and Chair of the BA in Journalism, Declan Fahy, students worked in teams to produce a set of original multi-media articles on these pressing, but under-reported, public affairs topics.

A sharp disagreement exists between a former governor of Mountjoy and the Irish Prison Service (IPS) about whether rehabilitation is a priority in Irish prisons.

John Lonergan, who was governor of Ireland’s largest prison for more than 20 years, said that the current prison system prioritises the punishment and detainment of inmates over attempts to rehabilitate them.

Speaking to The College View, Lonergan said: “I have to be quite honest with you. Rehabilitation would be very, very low down on the priority list if you were really to be honest.”

“The Irish Prison Service would tell you that it is all about rehabilitation . . . Most of it is around punishment and detainment.

“If people were being sent to prison for rehabilitation there would be a completely different approach”, said Lonergan, who retired in 2010 after 42 years working in Irish jails.

However, a spokesperson for the Irish Prison Service strongly disagreed with Lonergan’s view on the emphasis given to reforming prisoners.

The spokesperson said: “Rehabilitation is a priority for the Prison Service and we invest significant resources every year in rehabilitation programmes.”

“The Irish Prison Service provides a wide range of rehabilitative programmes to those in custody including education, vocational training, healthcare, psychiatric, psychological, counselling, welfare and spiritual services.”

A study published in 2013 by the Irish Prison Service recorded instances of prisoner re-offense rate between their release in 2007 and the end of the study in 2010.

The study found a recidivism rate of 62.3% within three years with 80% of those who did reoffend, doing so within 12 months of release.

A former Chief Prison Officer of Arbour Hill, echoed Lonergan’s remarks, citing the removal of successful programmes as one reason for prisoner recidivism.

Michael O’Reilly told The College View: “Rehabilitation is just a big dirty word, because it doesn’t work unless the government backs it to something different. Rehabilitation works for the one off fella, not for the fella that has been keeping me in the job for the past thirty years.”

“There used to be a work party years ago in Mountjoy, and it was one of the best things that they ever had. They should have expanded it, but instead they done away with it.

Most of the scouts halls in this city were built by prisoners and some of the prisoners that went on these work parties have never been back in prison to this day. The got a job on building sites and worked all their life.”

Artist and former prisoner Gary Cunningham agreed that a lack of investment in prison education and training is a reason why recidivism rate remain high.

“The schools in every single solitary prison across Ireland are filled with people that come in every day, and you can imagine it can be a hostile environment sometimes. That works.”

“What also works is work placement programmes and trade school programmes where lads can learn new skills and new trades for lads coming from underprivileged areas, that’s imperative as well.”

“Then they cut funding to these colleges, they cut funding to education and health, I’m the one that went to prison but this is what the government do in the prisons and the way I look at that is that you might as well just write off every prisoner.”

The 2013 study found that male offenders represented 92.5% of the total population studied and had a higher recidivism rate of than female offenders (63% for males and 57% among females).

The most common offences for which offenders were reconvicted was Public Order Offences, but  burglary offenders, while a relatively small group within the study, had the highest rate of reconviction at 79.5%.

Recidivism rate for everyone decreased as the offender age increased.

Acting Executive Director for the Irish Prison Reform Trust, Fiona Ní Chinneide, said that while steps can be taken within prison to deter recidivism, little help is offered to the prisoners by IPS once they leave the system.

“We know the things that reduce the likelihood of reoffending is stable accommodation, something to do; that can be education, training or work in the community and then linking up with family.”

The thing is with prison is that no matter what good work is or is not done in prison cannot change the circumstances  on the outside.

Lonergan said that it is impossible to improve the current system with so little data available.

“There is a total lack of research, universities should be doing a lot more, and the prison service should be doing a lot more. They have a fund every year for research and they don’t use it often.”

“Don’t ever forget now that the establishment doesn’t like research, if you were the Minister, you wouldn’t like someone like me coming in, but it is essential for good positive planning.”

A spokesperson for the IPS said rehabilitation programmes are available to all those serving custodial sentences.

The spokesperson said: “Engagement in such programmes offers purposeful activity to those in custody while serving their sentences and encourages offenders to lead law-abiding lives on release. These programmes are available in all prisons and all prisoners are eligible to use the services.”

“In addition, the Irish Prison Service has contracted the Irish Association for the Social Integration of Offenders (IASIO) to provide two prison-based operational services.”

“In 2018, the prison-based Training & Employment Officers worked with prisoners and other services to place 114 prisoners in work or work experience, 195 prisoners in training or further education, and completed guidance and group work with another 106 prisoners. In 2018, the Training & Employment Officers engaged with 873 referred prisoners.”

“The mission of the Irish Prison Service is “providing safe and secure custody, dignity of care and rehabilitation to prisoners for safer communities.”

Callum Lavery, Mikey Walsh and David Kelly