Judge Michael Reilly, Inspector of Prisons

Margaret Buckley – a prisoner in Mountjoy Prison at the birth of this State wrote ‘Have you ever stopped to think what a powerful weapon a key is”. Interesting to think about it.

I’m sure everyone here has a preconceived idea of what prison is like. Crime, criminals and prisons are subjects that most of us have strong views on. Our views are tailored by our prejudices. That is fair enough as far as it goes. What is not fair is if our prejudices are informed by misinformation or untruths.

It’s probably fair to say that most people are afraid of people who commit crime. We are afraid that a criminal will injure us or will damage or steal our belongings.   This is not a new phenomenon.  I suppose if we could banish our criminals we would be happy.  But, that is what we did for many years after the passing of the Transportation Act in 1818.   In fact, between then and the 1850s we deported about 53,000 of our people to America and Australia.

As long as criminals were deported society felt reasonably safe from these particular people but deportation did not stop crime, even petty crime.

When deportation ceased we had to “look after” our own criminals. Now society did not feel as safe, as we could no longer banish our unwanted. Therefore, proper secure prisons had to be built.  Mountjoy Prison was constructed in 1850 as a Model Prison.  It was modelled on the design of Pentonville Prison in England.  It had 496 single cells each with a ceramic flushing toilet and a copper wash hand basin.  The prison also had a complex ventilation system which provided fresh air for each cell and also heating during cold weather. The flushing toilets and the wash hand basins were removed in the 1860s.  The reason, apparently, was that it was considered that prisoners coming as the perception was from the uneducated classes, would not know how to use such modern conveniences.

In any event,  because of people’s impressions of the social standing of prisoners I am sure that the removal of flushing toilets and wash hand basins from Mountjoy Prison in the 1860s did not excite conversation around the dining tables in the leafy suburbs of Dublin.

However, the perception that it was only the poor, the uneducated and the destitute that ended up in our prisons was incorrect.  If we look at prisons down the centuries we find that academics, poets, freedom fighters, political leaders, trade unionists, suffragettes, reformers, conscientious objectors and many others passed through the gates of our prisons.

We inherited many of our prisons from the British.  Mountjoy, Portlaoise, Limerick and Cork prisons are still in active use today.   We did very little with them up to the very recent past.  They did not have in-cell sanitation.  They were forbidding places but they served their purpose in that our criminals could be shut away and therefore out of sight and out of mind.  Don’t forget that others were similarly banished by this, our modern Republic.  We need only think of our children banished to our industrial schools, our young women who ended up in the Magdalene laundries or those who spent much of their lives in our mental hospitals.  Society can be judged on how it treats its vulnerable people and we have been judged.   Prisoners are vulnerable people and some are more vulnerable than others.  Prisoners are our responsibility which means they are your responsibility and my responsibility.  No one can shy away from that fact, despite the temptation to say that prisoners are the responsibility of the Governor.  Prisoners are sent to prison in our name.  We decide through our elected representatives what penalties are appropriate for the punishment of different types of crimes.  When people are sent to prison the Governor, on our behalf, manages them.

We now have 14 prisons in the Irish prison system. One is a dedicated women’s prison.   One is a young person’s prison. We also have two open prisons.  We have built some new prisons and wings of prisons and have refurbished certain parts of old prisons.  At present, there are approximately 4,250 prisoners in our prisons.  They are there for a range of crimes from murder to petty theft, from driving offences to public order offences and, at the lowest end of the spectrum, for failing to pay fines.

When you read the reports of some trials in our courts and the descriptions of some of the crimes committed do your prejudices take over and do you say: “there is no punishment too harsh for that person”.  Perhaps you do and that is a natural reaction.  If you do have this reaction you will probably go further and say: “the key must be thrown away.”  I understand that.   What I do not understand are certain elected representatives and certain sections of our popular press making inflammatory statements which feed into our prejudices of what a person convicted by our Courts and imprisoned on our behalf should endure in prison.

The punishment that people who are sent to prison should have to endure is the loss of their freedom and those other rights associated with such loss of freedom. Prisoners are entitled to all other rights such as you and I enjoy.  They are entitled to be treated with respect.

Because of your prejudices you may be afraid that you might come across a person who has been discharged from prison.  Very few people die in prison. Therefore, 99.9% of prisoners come out of prison at some stage. What would they be like if we took the view that nothing would be good enough for them in prison or in other words that they should be treated harshly?

Let me say this and let me say it clearly.  I have not found one person who has been improved by prison. On the contrary, all available research shows that most people are damaged in one way or another by prison.  Of course, some will gain from vocational training or from education.

So how should we treat prisoners? What are the rules? I asked the same question when I took up my position as Inspector of Prisons on the 1st January 2008.   I thought there would be a manual.   I thought there would be standards against which I could benchmark prisons.   I was disappointed on both fronts.

I looked for guidance on what could be considered best practice. I found such guidance in the various treaties and international instruments that we as a state are party to,  in the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights,  in the European Prison Rules, in the Reports of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, in the jurisprudence of the courts of other countries, in the Prisons Act 2007, in the Irish Prison Rules 2007, in the judgments of our courts and in our Constitution.

I published standards which are all referenced  to our obligations just referred to.   I then found that I needed to give further advice on various aspects of my standards.  I published reports on such issues as the obligations that we owe to prisoners, the size of cells, the use of Safety Observation and Close Supervision Cells, how prisoner complaints should be dealt with, how prisoner discipline should be applied, how deaths of prisoners should be investigated, general health issues, the case for dedicated committal areas and the case for high support units for the most vulnerable. All of these are published on my website (  Compliance with my standards and with the advice given in my reports is what I expect when I inspect prisons which I do on a regular basis – mostly unannounced not only during the working day but at night and at weekends.

You would be entitled to say: “well now that you have published all these standards and reports – do they make a difference to our prisoners?”  I think they do. However, I can only address the physical elements of prison life.  What cannot be addressed that easily is fear, uncertainty and the thoughts that a vulnerable person has when the door bangs at night.  Peadar O’Donnell describes his cell door being closed for the first time on his first day of imprisonment in Mountjoy prison, thus: “I was as full of panic as a child, who, searching nervously in the distant comer of a barn at night time, is trapped by a gust of wind which slams the door and puts out the candle; it was as bad as that”.

There have been considerable advances in penal thinking in the last number of years.  I would like to think that I have, to some degree, been responsible for part of this changed thinking. The Irish Prison Service from its Director-General to its officers deserves great credit for their foresight in driving the changes that we have seen.  We now have a dedicated committal area in each committal prison.  The one in Mountjoy Prison is the model.  We have a dedicated High Support Unit in Mountjoy and Cloverhill Prisons. The one in Mountjoy has been awarded one of its prestigious prizes by the World Health Organisation in addition to other awards. New rules have been laid down for the use of Safety Observation and Close Supervision Cells.  A proper transparent prisoner complaints procedure has been rolled out and I have oversight of same. I now investigate all deaths of prisoners. Recently, I published my assessment on where the Irish Prison System stands today.  I will not waste time as you can also read this on my website.

These changes have only been introduced in the past year or so.  However, reports and dedicated areas will not ensure that the human rights of our prisoners are vindicated or that our prisons are run to best international standards.  We need external oversight and that is where I fit into the picture.  I derive my independence from the Prisons Act 2007.  I think my record to date testifies to such independence but I will leave that for others to judge.  All I can say is that it is of the utmost importance that we have independent oversight and that this oversight is maintained.

Let me now turn to the continuing problems that bedevil our prisons.  Slopping out is still with us but that is fast changing.  The practice, in a Mountjoy context, will be a thing of the past at the end of August after 150 years during which time inmates had to endure this inhuman and degrading treatment.  A new prison is to start shortly for Cork and new wings are to be built in Limerick. This will only leave one wing in Portlaoise  Prison without in-cell sanitation. This is a huge step forward.

Overcrowding is an international problem.  The constant rise in our male prison population has been arrested.  Prisoners should be entitled to 7 square meters if in single cells with an additional 4 square meters for each additional prisoner.  They must have in-cell sanitation which must be screened. Prisoners should, as a very minimum, have at least 5 hours’ appropriate structured activity five days a week for each week of the year in addition to appropriate out of cell time and recreation time. These two times cannot be merged. When prisons are overcrowded there are not adequate services and regimes for the prisoners. This leaves them with nothing to do.

Drugs in prisons are also an international problem. The sale of and the taking of drugs in prisons really mirrors what happens in society. Prisoners incur enormous debts for drugs that they get in prisons. In many cases, the uninvolved parents or family of a prisoner who has been supplied with drugs will have to pay, and this payment may attract a premium of up to 10 times the original value of the drugs, and the drug barons will make sure they are paid.  It is not only the poor, the uneducated and the destitute that make money for the drug barons.   Of course, they contribute to it but in most cases their contribution is financed by petty thieving.  However, free society has a part to play. Would we have such a drug problem if the drug barons were reliant only on the poor, the uneducated and the marginalised?   I say no – if those in middle class society who live in the leafy suburbs and who have good jobs and a reasonable standard of living did not engage in recreational drug-taking the drug barons would be less powerful and the impact on prisons might well be less.

Prisoners on protection are a huge problem.  A prisoner on entering prison may well have a drug debt and is afraid.  He may well be a member of a particular gang, be from a particular geographical area of the country or come from a different ethnic background.  No one can say on entering prison who their friends might be.  It is difficult to blame such persons for seeking the protection of the Governor.  However, this means that these prisoners will only receive limited out of cell time, have little if any access to education, vocational training or interaction with others, be they prisoners or staff.   If you had a dog and kept him locked up for 23 hours a day he would likely not be the good-natured pet that he had been after a prolonged period of such lock up.  Would you be any different if you had to suffer this for your own protection?

Let me now turn briefly to a hobby horse of mine and that is why we need to send so many people who have been charged with minor offences to prison.  Let me give you an example.  If you live on Main Street and on a constant basis the windscreen wipers of your car are damaged, or you are kept awake by some drunk roaring and shouting, or you are a shopkeeper who has to experience shop lifting you will probably be delighted if, having rung the Guards, a culprit is identified and prosecuted.  You may have some passing interest if this person is brought to the Court and you may take certain satisfaction if he gets a sentence.  But what does it achieve?   It means that for the duration of the sentence this particular person will be out of circulation.  But what happens when he gets out of prison?  The whole thing starts again.

If you look at the majority of these people who commit these petty crimes you find that they have little or no education, are on the margins of society and probably have a drink and/or a drug problem.  If these people were from middle class society would that society rally around and try to get help for them?   I think it would. They might be offered rehab or some other help and someone would take them under their wing. What happens if you do not come from that middle class society?  You go to prison. You are angry, you are not improved by prison and so, as I have said, the cycle starts all over again.

Would it not be better to try another way?   I tried another way in North Tipperary.  I set up the Nenagh Reparation Scheme. This is a scheme designed to divert those who have committed this sort of petty crime and who have appeared in court from prison by society taking responsibility for these people.  You can read about this on the net.  I would just like to say that on all the evaluations of the scheme, the rate of recidivism is dramatically lower than those who have been imprisoned.  So this achieves the same result as prison. If a person can be diverted from continuing committing petty crime while in the community for the duration of the time that he might have been sentenced, will not the person on Main Street or the shopkeeper be just as pleased?   He will not have had his wipers damaged, he will not have been kept awake at night and he will not have been subject to shoplifting. The real upside is that the offender as well has learned and may have been diverted from a life of crime.

I have also been a huge supporter of Problem Solving Courts.   I chaired one half of the National Crime Council.  My subcommittee produced a report which advocated the introduction of Community Courts in Ireland.  You can access this report on the Crime Council website.  I feel this is the way to go. I would like to talk more on this particular topic but I am afraid that time does not permit.

Great strides have been made to bring the fabric of our prisons, the vocational and educational training provided and the welfare of our prisoners into the present century.  No prison has done more in this regard than  Mountjoy which has, over the years, attracted considerable criticism, not alone from the Irish media but from international bodies and from me in my reports. Mountjoy was built as a Model Prison. It lost its way and deserved all the criticism but now it is fast regaining its former status and will soon be the flagship prison in Ireland.

I would just like to conclude by paraphrasing an election slogan of the recent past -“a lot done but more to do.”

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