McVerry: prison service 'in denial'

A PRIEST who has been visiting Irish jails for more than 30 years has said overcrowding is "infinitely worse" than it has ever been.

Fr Peter McVerry said the government and Irish Prison Service were in a state of "denial and complacency" and appeared to have no idea how to alleviate the problem.

He said sometimes up to six prisoners were locked up in a cell for all but an hour a day, and that it was surprising there had not been more violent attacks in prisons.

People were going into prison drug-free and emerging as chronic drug addicts, he said, with no other option available to them behind bars.

"Society is actually less safe as a result of the system because they are coming out much worse than they went in. You have people going in drug-free and coming out drug users. And by sending people to prison, judges are making them more dangerous. The situation is much worse than it has ever been: the overcrowding, the violence and the drugs. The tensions in these prisons can be horrific."

He said figures disclosed by the Sunday Tribune revealing that over 300 inmates were forced to spend at least 17 hours in their cells understated the problem.

McVerry, who has been visiting prisoners for the past 35 years, said the vast majority of prisoners in the entire system had only six hours out of their cell each day.

"The 317 prisoners mentioned in the report, who are on protection, are in fact locked up for 23 hours a day. This includes 37 young people in St Patrick's Institution, which is an even worse disgrace. If you kept a dog in a room for 23 hours a day, you would be rightly reported to the ISPCA. Some of these prisoners are in cells, in the base in Mountjoy, with five or six other prisoners."

He said it was astonishing that this tinderbox environment had not led to more violence.

"How they can live together in a cell for 23 hours of each day without killing each other baffles me. The overcrowding prevents the Prison Service from dealing with the drugs issue because there is no spare capacity that you can move people to. There is not a drug-free square metre in Mountjoy Prison for instance.

"Young people coming in are aligning themselves with some of the gangs for the sake of their own security. It means when they leave, they remain in that gang."