Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 8 Mar 1990

Vol. 124 No. 6

Adjournment Matter. - Death of Girl in Dublin Prison.

I wish to give some time to my colleague Senator Upton and also Senator Cosgrave if he is in the House. I would like to thank the Cathaoirleach for giving us this opportunity of having a debate on the Adjournment on this issue and I am delighted to see the Minister for Justice here.

I would like to offer my condolences to the family of Sharon Gregg, the first woman who has died in a prison in the history of the State and to remark on a very alarming increase in deaths in prison.

Any of the remarks I have to make I do not want the Minister to take them too closely to heart. He has been recently installed in his job. I hold successive Administrations collectively responsible for the extremely serious state of the prison system at the present time and there is no section of that prison system that is more appalling than the women's prison in Mountjoy.

At the outset, I must state categorically that I am calling for the closure of that prison today. I spent the morning and early afternoon in the women's prison in Mountjoy and what I saw there has convinced me that there is no alternative to the closure. I know the Minister has suggested that there are proposals for refurbishment, renovation, an updating of the prison but to my mind it is not possible to refurbish the women's prison in Mountjoy. It is simply not possible.

It is an ancient arcade, a 140-year old prison that is described by the women themselves and indeed a lot of others involved in the system, as a kip, if Senators will excuse the word. It is overcrowded. There are 22 cells. There are small cells where women are crowded together into a very close proximity. They are dreary. There is inadequate ventilation. There is a section for the women who are HIV positive, who have the virus. In all, you have got remand prisoners, convicted prisoners, young girls from the age of 15, 17 or 18, girls who would be otherwise detained in a juvenile institution if they were of the opposite sex, along with older prisoners. There are first offenders with multiple offenders and recidivists. I believe that we are in breach of the recently signed United Nations Convention on Civil and Political Rights in relation to the lack of segregation between remand prisoners and convicted prisoners. That is something the Minister should take on board. There is also a major problem of people in the prison for drug-related offences.

One of the serious aspects is that quite a number of women in the prison would have been on maintenance programmes in the communty but now they are refusing to continue on those maintenance programmes. For the relatively short time they are serving their sentences — the average sentence would be in the range of 12 months — they are in a continual state of withdrawal and are suffering from withdrawal symptoms. There is no valid reason that the doctor cannot continue the programme that was prescribed by a medical doctor outside prison. It is just not good enough. It can be done in the male section, but it is not done in the women's section. This gives rise to all sorts of harassment, stress and rows and leads to punishment and to very serious incidents involved in punishment.

One serious matter was described to me today by a couple of women there and I must ask the Minister to investigate it, there must be an inquiry into it, in the past month two girls were suffering from withdrawal symptoms, one of them lost her head, as she put it herself, and she was subject to punishment, one month's loss of remission and she was locked up for 20 days from 4.30 p.m. to 8 a.m. which is a period of 15½ hours. She said also that her hands were held behind her back by two male prison officers, that she was taken up to the punishment unit, which is known as the black hole where there is no natural light, and was stripped by male officers. This is what the girl alleged to me. Two other girls made allegations of the same nature. They also alleged that they had put in half sheets but had not been replied to. I have to ask the Minister to investigate those very serious complaints. There must be a question mark about the use of male prison officers in the female prison. Why is there a need for them there? The female prisoners perceive them as the "heavies" who are there in the event of an emotional scene taking place or any bit of trouble and they are always seen as a threatening presence. That was mentioned to me repeatedly while I visited there. We should think in terms of not having male prison officers there.

The question of boredom seems to be the most pervasive aspect of the prison system. Most complaints were about having nothing to do all day long. The sewing room is an absolute disgrace. Likewise the laundry where the women were huddled together around a stove for warmth. The prefabricated room used for education is totally inadequate. On a wet day the rain is coming through and classes have to be abandoned. There is always a waiting list for classes and on average a prisoner can attend for about half an hour a week. That is an absolute disgrace and something must be done about it.

Prisoners complained that they had not seen the visiting committee in months. It is the specific statutory function of the visiting committee to visit once a month. They have indicated that one or two individual members have come but as they have not seen the visiting committee as a body, to whom can they make complaints about conditions? One woman stated to me that she had been trying to get somebody from the Rape Crisis Centre to see her because of problems she was experiencing as a result of having been raped shortly before her conviction and that the Rape Crisis Centre had tried to get in but had been refused permission. That is another allegation that I would like to see investigated by the Minister.

The Minister must realise that all of these factors and matters relating to the conditions under which the women are detained accumulate; the boredom, the drugs, the hassle, the close proximity of one person to another, the small cells, the higgledy-piggledy nature of the prison where there is no segregation and no privacy. All of these combined lead to enormous pressures on people, and in such circumstances it is not difficult to perceive the situation where somebody does inflict self-injury and indeed would take her life. Self-injury seems almost to be a way of life in the prison. It is remarkable from what I have heard that there have not been more deaths because of the degree of self-injury that has been reported. I must ask the Minister, therefore, to close the prison rather than refurbish it. Thousands of pounds, or millions of pounds, spent on the women's prison in Mountjoy is not going to improve what I would regard as a place that has long outlived its usefulness.

Secondly, I suggest that the Minister look first at the training unit which is in the general complex and is a modern building, as a short-term, interim arrangement, because it was intended basically as a training unit. My information is that it operates to a lesser degree as a training unit than it should and that it is also a place where people are put whom the State generally does not accept should be in prison at all, for instance, student protesters, or farmers who are protesting or somebody like myself who was protesting on behalf of the street traders. I spent a week there in 1987 because I would not sign a bond to keep the peace and not to engage in that again. We are talking, in other words, about the acceptable face of the prison. This unit is a bright and modern area and that is where the women prisoners could be put in the interim. Then in the long term we should look closely at the recommendation of the Whitaker committee that there be alternative sanctions for most of the girls and women in prison, that there would be a type of open structure or of hostel structure for most of them who have families and that there would only be one small unit for those who are a real threat to the community. The Minister should look at that first and foremost as the way of going about it rather than his proposed measure to refurbish it. I hope he has not made that proposal with any great degree of seriousness because I do not think it is likely to be successful.

When we have a death of this nature it is not good enough for the Department of Justice or indeed the Minister for Justice, to say there is going to be an internal inquiry. We have had an internal inquiry for every single death that has taken place in recent years. We do not know what the outcome of those inquiries has been so how can we devise a programme unless there is a public inquiry and the information is made available? I have asked the Minister that in future we would have a public inquiry into matters of this nature so that the public can know what happened rather than the Department of Justice paying lip service to dealing with it and then getting off the hook by saying that an inquiry is being carried out.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

I understand Senator Upton will share his time with Senator Cosgrave and there are only four minutes left.

At the outset may I join with Senator Costello in expressing my sympathy to the family of Sharon Gregg? I also want to fully support the call from Senator Costello for the closure of the women's prison in Mountjoy. The facilities there are quite unsuitable and inadequate. The basic structure dates back to the last century, the Famine time in this country. The facilities are quite inadequate; prisoners of differing categories are all lumped together into the one environment — remand prisoners being kept in the same areas as convicted prisoners, prisoners with differing level of conviction are all being kept together.

On top of that you have the appalling problem for those prisoners — I should say patients — who suffer from the HIV positive virus. Many of the women in Mountjoy Jail at present are there for petty offences — modern enlightened thought is fairly clear that most of these women do not need a custodial environment. The Whitaker report made clear that prison should be a place of last resort and the best estimates available would indicate that a secure unit is needed for prisoners who would number less than ten, perhaps as low as five. It seems to me to be ridiculous and appalling that of the order of 43 women are at present housed in Mountjoy. What we are seeing in the women's prison are the end products of appalling human tradgedies; young people — many of them drug addicts, many from very difficult backgrounds, many of them with grave personal problems and some of them suffering from AIDS — find themselves in this environment which is totally unsuitable and quite inadequate to cater for their needs. In 1985 Whitaker made that perfectly clear and called for the closure of the women's section in Mountjoy at that stage.

What we are seeing in the case of Sharon Gregg is part of a pattern. It is part of a recurring series of tragedies. That is, as it were, the ultimate stage in the development of a whole tragic process. That tragic process begins in petty crime and walks its way through the courts, courts which are and have been totally inadequate and have been shown up to be so particularly by Justice Wine over the last few weeks. I want to thank the Minister for taking the initiative in this case, even if I have to say that I find it less than satisfactory. However, it is a step and I welcome that.

In conclusion — I wish to allow Senator Cosgrave the opportunity to contribute — I support my colleague Senator Costello's call for the immediate closure of Mountjoy Jail. There have been very few advances or changes during the past 16 years. The whole problem, and indeed the tragedy, has gone on long enough. The time for action is long overdue; the time for action is now.

I thank Senators Costello and Upton for sharing their time with me. Like them, I wish to extend my deepest sympathy to the family of Sharon Gregg on their great tragedy and loss. Obviously, I hope the Minister will look at the circumstances of this case and see what lessons can be learned.

There are many women in that prison, and in prison generally, who probably should not be there. They are not what we call habitual prisoners and different circumstances should be applied to them. Obviously for subversives or other terrorists, different rules can apply.

I ask the Minister to call on the Governor to answer the allegations made here today to allay public fears. Even if only some and not all of them are true, certain action has to be taken. In the long term we have to see the women's prison in Mountjoy closed. We would like to see some of the recommendations in the Whitaker report implemented as soon as possible. I ask the Minister to look at this matter very clearly and carefully. Unfortunately a life has been lost and what we do not want to see is further loss of life.

I, of course, share the concern to which deaths in prison give rise. As for the death which has led to the debate this evening, I am sure the House will agree that the death of someone so young and in such tragic circumstances, whether it occurs in prison or in the community, must be a matter of great regret. As an inquest into the death will take place in due course and as all matters relevant to the death will be inquired into on that occasion, I do not consider that it would be appropriate for me to comment on them in detail here. I want to emphasise that it is a public inquest.

Sensitivity to the feelings of the family and friends of the deceased, particularly so soon after the death, requires a considerable degree of reticence. I am sure no one would wish anything to be said here that would add in any way to the distress of the bereaved.

A number of points were made in the contributions by Senators Costello, Upton and Cosgrave and I would like to respond to them. The first was the simple proposal to close the prison. In reality you are dealing here with a number of prisoners — at least two murderers, a number involved in drug trafficking, etc. It is not a question of just closing the prison. What does society do with these prisoners is the question?

As far as meeting the Governor is concerned, I visited that prison over two months ago and have had discussions with the Governor on a number of occasions, and in a general sense with the governors of all the prisons. I learned this afternoon at approximately 3.15 p.m. of an allegation which has been repeated in the House now by Senator Costello that male prison officers were involved in stripping a female prisoner. I immediately checked with the Governor of Mountjoy who denies that male officers could be present during the strip searching of female prisoners. I find the mere suggestion that such a thing could happen personally unacceptable. The Governor denies that it could possibly happen. However, I have immediately ordered an inquiry under the principal officer on the operations side of my Department to investigate the complaint and I can assure the House that while the Governor has denied it — and I accept his denial — I still find it so personally offensive that such a thing could even be contemplated, I have ordered this investigation and I can assure the House that if the investigation proves such a thing did happen, or anything bordering on it, I will take whatever necessary action to prevent a recurrence. I find that personally unacceptable and offensive.

I was slightly disturbed by a feature of Senator Costello's contribution because it appeared to rely almost entirely on statements by prisoners this morning during his visit, which in many ways contradicted other parts of his contribution where he spoke of the secretive nature of the Department of Justice. As Minister for Justice I arranged the first visit ever by Members of the Oireachtas, from all sides. I am open to correction, there may have been others but to the best of my knowledge there have not been other visits — to Mountjoy and to the women's prison. The Senator will be willing to confirm that total access to see what they liked and to speak to whom they liked was provided for them. There was no attempt to hide any feature or any element of the prison system and that is what I instructed my officials to arrange, and the Governor accordingly. I want to come back to this allegation in relation to a strip search. I find it offensive and I would not in any way countenance it. I have ordered an investigation into it which will commence immediately under the principal officer in my Department dealing with the operation side. I will release and make public the outcome of that inquiry and will take whatever steps are necessary. I want to emphasise that having got the message at 3.15 p.m., I checked with the Governor of Mountjoy who denied that male officers could be present during strip searching of female prisoners.

Another element of the Senators comment was in relation to treatment for drug addicts. I want to say that the treatment appropriate to women drug addicts is entirely a matter for the doctors. There is no question of any interference from the administration side. We could not interfere, we would not want to.

In relation to the upgrading of the women's prison I want to say that Arbour Hill was in a worse condition than the present women's prison and is now one of the best in the system following refurbishment.

There is no doubt that the physical conditions at the prison need to be improved. I want to emphasise that. This has been recognised for many years. The first positive step which was taken to address this long standing problem was taken when I decided at an early stage after becoming Minister for Justice last July that priority should be given to completely refurbishing the accommodation. The Government provided the necessary funds in this year's Estimate to enable refurbishment to take place. This work is being undertaken as part of the refurbishment of St. Patrick's Institution complex, of which the women's prison forms part. I think the House will accept that the refurbishment of St. Patrick's Institution itself and the transfer of juvenile offenders to the new place of detention at Wheatfield are also welcome developments.

There have been misleading suggestions recently that at some stage it is intended that female offenders would be accommodated in the new place of detention at Wheatfield. That was never the case and those suggestions have simply no basis in reality. When the Wheatfield site was acquired in 1979 it was announced that both the place of detention for male juveniles and a women's prison would be provided separately there. While funds were provided to enable construction of the place of detention to go ahead, construction of the women's prison did not proceed. It will be clear therefore that anyone who thought that the problem of accommodation for female offenders would be addressed by the provision of the new place of detention at Wheatfield was under a false impression. While I am satisfied that the refurbishment of the women's prison at Mountjoy represents the most effective way of improving the quality of the accommodation for women prisoners at least in the relatively short term, I have not ruled out the possibility of providing an open centre for female offenders. I have to say, however, that there are substantial difficulties in this regard, in particular there are strong reservations that there is a sufficient number of women prisoners to make the operation of such a centre a realistic proposition. Those familiar with the operation of the existing open centres for male offenders will know the length of sentence and nature of the offence are only two of the criterion when assessing the suitability of an offender for an open setting. The fact that someone sent to an open centre is likely to stay there and behave well are also key considerations.

There would be substantial reservations about accommodating in an open centre, a drug abuser for example who had not successfully tackled his or her addiction. I should mention also that arrangements exist at present which enable offenders to be released conditional on their attendance at a drug treatment centre such as Coolmine. I have no hesitation in authorising such releases where there are reasonable grounds for assuming a genuine commitment on the part of an offender to overcome his or her drug problem and where such a release would not pose an undue risk to the community. In a nutshell what I am saying is that the availability of an open centre, which as I say has not been ruled out, would not necessarily result in the transfer of any women now in Mountjoy to open accommodation. Physical conditions are, of course, only one of the factors which determine the quality of life for prisoners. It has to be said that women prisoners have a wide array of services made available to them, including psychiatric, psychological, welfare educational and chaplaincy. In recent times a medical officer has been appointed to deal exclusively with the needs of female offenders. While I emphasis again it would not be appropriate for me to comment in detail on the circumstances of the death the night before last, it is only right to say, in case it appears in public comment that no services were available to the deceased, that she had been availing of medical services at the prison on a regular basis and had the benefit of a consultation with the medical adviser at noon on the day she died. It would be a pity if any comments were to be made which would detract from the efforts of these agencies and those of management and staff of the prison service to provide a humane regime for those in their care. Obviously, it is not possible in the course of these few minutes to comment in detail on recommendations made in the report of the committee of inquiry into the penal system. I can assure the House that since becoming Minister for Justice I have taken full account of the findings of the committee. It will be appreciated, however, that the committee's findings were complex and wideranging and priorities have to be set in the light of available resources. It has to be realised, too, that changes have taken place since the report was completed which have had to be taken into account. An obvious instance is the need to deal with AIDs related problems which were not a significant issue when the committee were deliberating.

What people tend to forget is that many of the recommendations made were in line with developments already underway as part of the ongoing prison administration process. For example, in relation to the development of alternatives to custody, an area which was of major concern to the committee, very satisfactory progress is being made in relation to community service orders which were brought into operation shortly before the report was published. There are far more offenders on alternatives of one kind or another than in prison, a point which I feel may not be generally understood.

Another major recommendation of the committee was that a new duty roster for the prison should be introduced and this has been done. A specific recommendation of the Whitaker report was that a medical director for the prison service should be appointed. The House will be aware that despite two competitions for the post of medical director it did not prove possible to make an appointment to it. I had this matter reexamined and as a result the post was readvertised two weeks ago with a substantial increase in remuneration and improvements in conditions of service in an effort to attract a suitable candidate.

Deaths in custody are an unfortunate reality faced by prison administrations the world over. That is no consolation but, for the information of the House, in Scotland last year, there were nine deaths in the prison system which deals with about 5,000 prisoners.

Because of my concern about deaths in prisons I established towards the end of last year an advisory group to specifically examine the issue of deaths in prisons and to make recommendations in relation to any aspect of the matter. The group fully appreciate the urgency which attaches to their task but given the enormously complex and sensitive issues they have to address, it is clearly vital that they have sufficient time to enable them to deal with these matters comprehensively over whatever period proves necessary. A report on each death is carefully examined within my Department with a view to establishing whether there was any action that might have been taken and which might have helped to bring a risk to notice or that might have lessened any risk that was known in the particular case. Riders to inquest verdicts are carefully examined by the prison authorities and implemented when considered appropriate and practical. One rider recommended the installation of a cell call system to enable offenders to contact staff and that is part of a long planned rewiring project in Mountjoy which has been underway for the past few months.

I should mention that in recent years the duties of the medical director have been undertaken by the chief medical officer of the Civil Service. I am happy to acknowledge the contribution he has made. I should also make it clear to the House that in addition to the chief medical officer, there are 15 medical doctors visiting the prisons and places of detention on a regular basis with a similar number of psychiatrists available to provide their services as and when required. When specialist services or hospital treatment is required the necessary arrangements are made. The role of the chief medical officer and the medical officer when appointed, therefore, is directional and administrative rather than clinical.

In the course of my reply I have been able to deal with only some of the issues which have been raised. I am glad to have had the opportunity to speak on these matters this evening. The prison system is not a personal fiefdom of the Minister for Justice, it is very much a community issue. The prison service performs a vital and complex role on behalf of society and I welcome public discussion on how best it can deal with its responsibilities. It is important, however, that such a debate be fully informed. I am happy that all parties have taken up my invitation to nominate members of the Oireachtas to visit our prisons and, as you know, these visits began today.

I will, of course, have regard to any suggestions which individual members of the group may make to me out of their concern to improve the operation of our prison system. I think a fair reflection of that willingness to respond immediately is my response to the accusation made by Senator Costello in relation to strip searching. I have immediately taken action in that regard. I would find such conduct unacceptable.

I want to put on record that none of my remarks were directed at the Minister. In many ways the Minister has been a lot better than most of his predecessors.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 14 March 1990.