Charlie Flanagan holds one of the most difficult posts in our cabinet. Every day, some new issue confronts him and nearly always there is little or nothing he could have done to avoid that confrontation. His department has a very wide range of responsibilities from immigration to crime to the courts system to law reform and gambling law and many other points in between.
Unlike other Departments, such as Finance and Public Expenditure, there are very few invitations to black tie gala dinners where your achievements will be recognized by the great and the good. Nor is there the high profile equivalent of Budget Day. It’s a hard relentless grind.
Take the issue of our prison system. The prison officers’ conference this week reminds us of the grim realities of the utter failure of our society to square up to the needs of our prison system.
There is a perpetual clamor for the condign punishment of serious criminals. There is an insatiable public demand for the incarceration of malefactors. “Lock up this or that beast” and “Throw the key away” are unspoken values in much public commentary and debate.
Rarely is a judge criticised for the severity of his or her sentencing; often are words of condemnation uttered, broadcast and printed accusing this or that judge of undue leniency.
Nobody should be under any illusion but that imprisonment is a disaster for the person convicted and non-custodial sentencing must always be the first resort.
That said, we have a growing population and we will need more prison space to deal effectively with the likely volume of cases where imprisonment is the only just outcome of certain serious crimes.
Recently I had a chance encounter in the Green Room at Montrose with the very impressive, newly appointed governor of Mountjoy prison, Eddie Mullins.
From what he told me, conditions in Mountjoy had improved hugely from the regime that was there when I became Minister in 2002. That was good to hear.
Because back in 2002, Mountjoy was massively over-crowded, poorly maintained and managed, violent and drug infested, and in no way conducive to rehabilitation. The shocking state of affairs revealed in the inquiry report into the death of Gary Douche is still sickening to read or remember.
At that time, the Government authorized the sale of the institution at Shanganagh Castle in the far south of County Dublin and the application of the €30 million sale price to the acquisition of a much larger new campus to build a replacement complex of prison accommodation.
While the Department of Justice had no compulsory purchase powers and had to seek suitable offers of land by advertisement tender conducted by the OPW, the aim was to find a green-field site on which a series of decent, modern prison units could be built, with differing degrees of security and supervision regimes and with scope to segregate prisoners and to keep vulnerable prisoners safe. The idea was that the new campus could accommodate decent educational, training and recreational facilities as well.
There was to be a decent hospital facility and a new forensic mental health institution at one end of the 164 acre campus. The sale of the centre-city Mountjoy campus of 13 acres and the sale of the Central Mental Hospital site at Dundrum all for housing was intended to cover the costs of the construction of the new campus.
In effect, the State was going to make lands at Shanganagh, Dundrum and Mountjoy available for home building and to apply the Celtic Tiger era proceeds to providing a larger, modern, manageable and genuinely humane and rehabilitative prison facility at Thornton Hall. Thornton Hall was closer to the GPO as the crow flies that Shanganagh.
There was major criticism that the State paid €200,000 per acre for unzoned agricultural land in north County Dublin. But most communities did not want a major prison in their vicinity and there were very few offers of land to the OPW in response to their advertisements. And none of the land offered was both cheaper and suitable.
OPW acquired additional frontage sites at Mountjoy to make it hugely attractive and valuable as a development site.
It was, and still is, my opinion that Mountjoy cannot be kept in the long term as Dublin’s principal prison. Although Governor Mullins and his immediate predecessors have done huge and commendable work to improve conditions at Mountjoy, it still remains the same grim Victorian physical structure that I saw in my visits as minister. It now at least has in-cell sanitation and most prisoners are not obliged to double up in cells.
It will never be possible to make Mountjoy drug-free and rehabilitative in its present location and with its occupational density. It will always be grim, malodorous and overcrowded. Containing the gang-culture in prisons is an impossibility in places like Mountjoy.
Thornton Hall was the subject of major preparatory expenditure in the form of a dedicated access road with a flyover so as to segregate completely the prison traffic and access from the neighborhood. It has lain idle since the economic collapse in 2008. Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Council has left the lands it bought for social and affordable housing at Shanganagh unused for 14 years now.
But the idea of building a major, high quality inner-city residential development at Mountjoy and applying the proceeds to building a decent prison at Thornton Hall remains valid, especially now that property prices have recovered in Dublin.
This week’s prison officers conference has let us know that massive over-crowding is returning to our prisons with many sleeping on floors of shared cells. Even with the revolving door of temporary release, we are sleep walking to another crisis.
While I ended the horrific padded cells system that I found in prisons when appointed, the vast majority of seriously mentally ill prisoners are still not receiving any appropriate treatment regime in these circumstances. Only a tiny minority are treated in the Central Mental Hospital.
That must change. Releasing seriously drug-addicted and/or psychiatrically ill prisoners un-rehabilitated onto our streets is a disaster not only for them but for the community as well.
Calls for Thornton Hall to be used for public housing are shocking to hear. Building a social ghetto in that place is the last thing we need.
We have spent €60 million on acquiring Thornton Hall, building access roads, and carrying out groundworks. The nettle should be grasped to proceed with the plan. Otherwise it will be wasted. Otherwise we will lurch into a major prison crisis within three years.
Maybe there are few enough votes in prison building. But the damage of leaving things as they are will be counted politically in future.
Instead of seriously damaging the judiciary with the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, the government would be far better advised to tackle the growing crisis in our prison system.
Lives are literally at stake, both inside and outside the walls of our prisons.