John Lonergan: a pain in the butt to the authorities

Another member of the awkward squad bites the dust. The governor of Mountjoy prison, John Lonergan, announced his retirement during the week. Lonergan was head of the country's biggest prison for 22 years. He is going early, but he knows better than to wrap his exit around a principled stand. He knows that if he were to say he is resigning over the failure of government to observe basic human rights, he would be ignored. So why bother?

His colleague in the women's prison, Kathleen McMahon, did last month when she resigned from her position. She said her role had been completely undermined.

Most people don't really give a fig about the degradation of human beings in some of the state's prisons. The general impression is that these people are criminals, and must pay for their crimes. In large swathes of society, the word is that prisons these days are holiday camps, in which the inmates pass the time enjoying themselves, until they return to the real world, and the real problems endured by law-abiding citizens. This fiction reassures those who wish to avert their eyes from the reality of prison life.

"You can measure the civilisation of a society by the way it treats its prisoners." So said Winston Churchill, although the quote is also attributed to the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. Nobody would ever have accused Churchill or Dostoevsky of being a bleeding heart liberal. Neither did either man live through enlightened times. Yet anybody issuing such a statement today would largely be ignored, if not ridiculed.

The reality is that society cannot afford to face up to such a basic truth. It would suggest that our level of civilisation has moved little from times when the official governing principle was that some lives are of far less consequence than others.

When Mountjoy opened in 1850, most people outside the walls of the prison were living in slums. Human beings were packed into rooms with minimum sanitation facilities and treated little better than animals being bred for slaughter or export. That was the level of civilisation that pertained in Irish society. A small minority lived in comfort and excess, while the multitudes existed on little more than forlorn hope.

One hundred and sixty years later, conditions beyond the walls of Mountjoy are in a different universe. Despite the many problems that do exist, there is no going back to the slums, the degradation, the complete disregard for the most basic tools of survival.

Within the walls of Mountjoy, little, as Lonergan often pointed out, has changed. The same architecture survives to cater for human beings as was deemed fit a century and a half ago. Last week there were 670 inmates in a prison designed for 540. Even within the context of a Victorian slum, the cells of Mountjoy are overcrowded.

Notions of rehabilitation have also fallen into disrepair. It's just too much trouble, too many resources to be invested in something which only immediately benefits the criminal and might not reap any discernible economic rewards for years, if not decades. Instead, drugs fill the vacuum, as Lonergan pointed out last week.

"If living conditions are brutal, you have a lot of doubling up [in cells], a lot of idleness, then that supports a drug culture rather than reducing it."

A price for that will be paid further on down the road, but who's counting?

Lonergan's thoughts on prison conditions have been echoed by successive annual reports of the inspector of prisons, practically all of which have been ignored.

The get-out-of-jail card for society is that prisons house dangerous individuals, who have perpetrated serious crimes on innocent people. This is hokum. The vast majority of prisoners are not dangerous, and in an enlightened society, they would have been subjected to an alternative form of punishment.

Lonergan often noted that practically all of the inmates in Mountjoy come from a few postal districts in the inner city area. It is safe to assume if the same inmates had grown up at a salubrious address, they would have discovered that it's much easier to appropriate large sums of money by entering one of the so-called professions. On such basic twists of fate are the lives of many predestined.

John Lonergan was a pain in the butt to the authorities during his tenure in Mountjoy. He didn't spout radical politics or attempt to foment revolution. He merely held a mirror up to society. The truth he relayed was inconvenient. We are not civilised.

It's the last thing a minister for justice wants to hear, and Dermot Ahern's reaction to Lonergan's pending retirement says it all. "The minister wishes him well," a spokesman said. Such was the extent of the minister's gratitude to somebody who effectively kept a lid on the dustbin of society for over two decades.

Another member of the awkward squad bites the dust. The former head of the Equality Authority, Niall Crowley, was royally shafted in December 2008. Kathleen McMahon quit in frustration. Now the turbulent priest Lonergan has cleared out. Prospective candidates will be well aware of the job specs for such positions in the future. Know your place. Do not embarrass or discommode the governing titans.

Lonergan has indicated that he will continue to vocalise his inconvenient truths. Right now, with society loosened from so many moorings, the country needs somebody of his calibre holding up a mirror. Long may he run.