I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I regret that a situation has arisen which compels me to come to the House and ask it to pass this Bill, the main provision of which is to authorise prisoners to be transferred to military custody in certain exceptional circumstances. This emergency situation has resulted from the destruction carried out in Mountjoy on the night of 18th-19th May. The destruction was on such a scale that approximately 180 prisoners had to be transferred. Not all of them could be accommodated in the other prisons at Portlaoise, Cork, Limerick or in St. Patrick's Institution and I had to arrange, in consultation with the Minister for Defence, to take over the military detention barracks in the Curragh for use as a prison to accommodate some 40 prisoners. These have since been under the control of two senior prison officers, with the help and assistance of the military.
It was my hope, at the time of the transfer, to utilise the detention barracks as a civil prison but owing to the severe demands on the existing prison staff at the present time and the inevitable delay in recruiting and training additional staff, it will not, in fact, be possible to staff the detention barracks as a civil prison. Moreover, there are serious objections to having a civil prison within a military establishment. Accordingly, it is necessary to make provision for the transfer of prisoners to military custody.
These are not the only reasons. The cell accommodation available in Mountjoy will remain at a substantially reduced level until the extensive repairs which are necessary, including structural alterations necessary to improve security, have been completed. These repairs and alterations will take at least 12 months to complete and, in the meantime, having regard to the continued increase in the number of commitals, there simply will not be enough places available in our existing prisons, St. Patrick's Institution or Shanganagh Castle, and the position will not be materially different when Loughan House, Blacklion, is brought fully into operation.
Moreover, and I regret having to say this, there are people in our prisons today who are prepared to go very far indeed to disrupt prison administration even at the cost of risking or causing serious injury or even death to prison officers and to other prisoners. Deputies may think that I am exaggerating. However, they will be in a better position to judge when I give them an idea of the scale of the destruction and of the behaviour of many of the prisoners in Mountjoy on the night of the riot.
The account I shall give of the events of that night cannot be complete in every detail. For one thing, criminal charges will be taken against those of the participants who can be identified and I cannot prejudice these proceedings. Secondly, the prisoners had portions of the prison to themselves for a long period. But the main facts are reasonably clear. At lock-up time on Thursday 18th May, when most of the prisoners in three wings of the prison had been locked up, the so called "political" prisoners in the remand wing overpowered an officer and took possession of his keys. They wrenched a cell door from its hinges and engaged in other destruction and, in what appears to have been an attempt to escape, rammed a cell door through a large window at the end of their landing. They could not proceed further owing to the vigilance of the officers outside. Subsequently they engaged in further systematic destruction and also urged the other prisoners to do the same. The disturbance spread to the entire prison. The damage caused was on a huge scale. Every pane of glass was broken, every toilet bowl and every wash-hand basin. Hundreds of cell doors were destroyed or rendered useless, cell furniture and bedding were broken up. A newly fitted dental surgery and much of the new kitchen were wrecked, as were all the records of the people in the corrective training unit. The roof was extensively damaged also. Water flowed freely from burst pipes until it was cut off. Some well known dangerous criminals were released and many of the prisoners were in a state of terror. Throughout the disorder and up to the time when it became clear that the situation had got completely out of hand some of the instigators of the riot behaved like power-drunk generals.
They made three so-called demands, namely, that a particular prisoner who was awaiting trial should be temporarily released to get married, that prison food should be improved and that arrangements for their trial be speeded up.
The House will note that no reference whatever was made to a demand that the particular prisoners concerned be given any special status, as has been implied in some quarters. Indeed the rioters released what they on other occasions refer to as "ordinary criminals" and, to say the least, accepted their support in the destruction that followed.
As regards the first point, the spokesmen were informed that nobody other than a court had authority to release, even temporarily, a prisoner who was on remand and that, as they had already been told earlier in the week, every facility was being given to any prisoner who wished to apply to a judge or to a court for release and that full facilities had at all times been available and would continue to be available to the prisoner in question. This prisoner was, in fact, one of those who had been offered bail and had not availed himself of it. Subsequently, the man concerned accepted bail, having already recognised the court by voluntarily going before it.
On the second point, relating to an improvement in the prison food, the spokesmen were told that it was scarcely realistic to talk of this in the wake of the destruction of the new kitchen equipment. On the question of speedy trials, the spokesmen were informed that the principle involved was not in dispute and that there was and had always been a full acceptance of the need to speed up trials.
The spokesmen then asked for an assurance that no proceedings would be taken arising out of the disturbances. They were told that there could be no question of this being accepted and that, if the situation continued beyond a further half an hour, whatever steps were necessary would be taken to regain full control of the prison. Some 15 minutes later the barricades were removed and the prison wings were re-occupied without resistance. Neither the Garda Síochána nor the Army were called on to intervene, though both were at the prison in case they were needed. I can only say that it is very fortunate that no very serious injury or death occurred during the riot. Three prison officers were injured, but not seriously. A prisoner had a heart attack during the disturbance and was removed to hospital immediately afterwards, and another prisoner had been slightly injured as he jumped through a window to escape other prisoners. A few others had received minor injuries while the riot had been in progress.
What is particularly regrettable is that the continuing substantial progress that was being made in the provision of better rehabilitative facilities and amenities in Mountjoy has been comán pletely stopped, if not indeed reversed. I saw Mountjoy only a few weeks previously and had indicated to the House in some detail on my Estimate the various steps that were being taken to improve conditions for the prisoners and to improve their possibilities of rehabilitation. The blow to these plans is perhaps one of the worst effects of the destruction, because—and I want to emphasise this—one cannot have both maximum security and maximum facilities for promoting the rehabilitation of prisoners. They simply are not compatible. Up to now what was thought to be a fair balance between the two requirements of safe custody and reasonably relaxed atmosphere had been achieved in the prison with, I am satisfied, beneficial results on the whole. This policy has now to be seriously reviewed, not just in Mountjoy but in all the prisons, though I would hope that we can in the not too distant future resume the progress that has now been so severely interrupted. Meanwhile, I am continuing the policy I have already announced to the House of increasing recruitment of prison officers for all the prisons and within recent days I have obtained the authority of the Minister for Finance to proceed with plans for the recruitment of an additional 100 officers over and above the 50 new posts recently advertised by the Civil Service Commissioners.
Nevertheless I could not give a reasonable assurance of protection to prison officers and other prisoners against the background of the risk of a repetition of last week's disorders unless I have the authority, which I am asking the House to give me now, to transfer to military custody certain prisoners who are liable to cause trouble.
To turn to the particular provisions of the Bill, Deputies will notice that section 2, which deals with transfers to military custody, has been expressed in such a way as to emphasise the exceptional character of this provision. Subsection (1) provides that the Dáil may at any time declare that the section shall cease to be in operation and may, subsequently, if satisfied that exceptional circumstances make it necessary to do so, bring it into operation again. Moreover there is provision for setting up a visiting committee for the place in which persons are kept in military custody and subsection (8) provides that the Minister for Defence, in making regulations about such places, shall have regard to the desirability of ensuring that the conditions of custody are not less favourable than those applicable in prisons.
I am availing myself of the opportunity presented by the promotion of this Bill to insert a "removal of doubts" provision, that is, section 3. This section makes it clear that the Minister for Justice can acquire accommodation and use it as a prison.
In asking the House to facilitate the rapid passage of this Bill, I should like to make it clear that in my opinion and in the opinion of the prison authorities this is essential in the interests of the safety of prison staff and of well-conducted prisoners.
I have already publicly expressed my appreciation of the magnificent response by the officers of the prisons service both during the disturbance and afterwards. It was due to them that the rioters were contained within the prison and a mass break-out foiled. A severe burden was placed on the Mountjoy staff both in restoring essential prison services the following morning and in reallocating a large number of prisoners to other centres. They could not have succeeded in carrying out the work of reallocation without the help of the staff of the other prisons and places of detention and indeed without the full support and co-operation of the Garda and the Defence Forces. I am sure I am voicing the feelings of all sides of this House and of the whole community when I pay this tribute to them.