Ahern’s get-out-of-jail card will not solve prison crisis

Sunday Tribune 26 April

Gary Douche should not have died in Mountjoy. Those are the words of the man who beat him to death there in 2006. Nobody should die in Mountjoy, but they do, as in other prisons across our state.
Douche was in a holding cell to protect him from other prisoners. His killer, Stephen Egan, was there because the jail was overcrowded. He had been transferred from the Central Mental Hospital without his anti-psychotic drugs. I’ll spare you the details of what happened.
We only ever hear what passes as life in Irish jails when someone like Gary Douche is killed. Attacks happen every day. As of 9 March, we had 3,790 prisoners and only 3,611 beds in our powder-keg prisons. They are operating at 105% of their capacity. While Douche lay dying in Mountjoy, there were 526 other inmates sleeping in the jail which had a capacity for just 470. There are now 633.
Four thousand prisoners doesn’t seem like an overwhelming number to deal with. So why do we have overcrowding? It costs the state an average of €97,700 a year to house a prisoner. Do the maths: we have overcrowding because we’re strapped for cash.
Justice minister Dermot Ahern made two announcements last week. The first was the publication of the Fines Bill 2009. At any given time, there are about 15 people in prison for non-payment of fines. The Bill allows defaulters pay by instalment as an alternative to jail.
The second heralded a plan to rehabilitate sex offenders. Prisoners who volunteer for therapy will be released early and electronically tagged. This will incentivise serious offenders to undergo treatment.
Both plans have merits and while I agree with the first, I don’t with the second. Sex offenders are notorious recidivists and should do their time. Out of 578 released since 2003, only 42 had completed the Sex Offender Programme.
The optics are fine: TV licence fee defaulters stay out of jail and offenders get treatment. Look closer and you’ll notice something both plans have in common: they free up prison space. Does the government believe releasing paedophiles is the answer to overcrowding? Or releasing short-term prisoners? Last year, anyone serving less than 20 months in Mountjoy’s women’s unit was released to make room for more serious offenders.
Or how about letting potential killers out on bail?
On 8 April, Ahern said that our bail laws can’t be tightened because of prison overcrowding. There’s no room for suspects who might not be granted bail. That’s an admission of defeat.
Ahern knows that 25% of all serious crime is committed by people on bail (CSO, 2008). This includes rape and murder. Between 2004 and mid-2008, 90,000 serious crimes were committed by bailed suspects.
In 2007, despite garda objections, Tipperary man Jerry McGrath was granted bail after being arrested for assaulting a five-year-old girl. A month later, McGrath murdered mother-of-two Sylvia Roche Kelly. Her husband has accused the state of giving McGrath freedom which he used to carry out the killing.
Ahern has linked reform of the bail laws to overcrowding. His solution is early release. This will, inevitably, breed more crime. Our penal system is a revolving door which will soon be spinning faster than a government press secretary.
Every time the overcrowding issue comes up, the standard answer is ‘Thornton Hall’. This 2,200-bed super-prison will solve everything. The problem is, Thornton Hall isn’t being built. It’s been “in the pipeline” for the past three years due to negotiation problems with the builders. There’s a first: disharmony between the government and the construction industry.
The Prison Service can move quickly when it needs to, though. It’s currently being investigated for awarding €100m of contracts to one building company – Glenbeigh Construction – without putting them out to public tender. The justice department secretary general, Sean Aylward, has defended the service saying it had to move quickly due to… overcrowding. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Last week the government scrapped the unused electronic voting system that has cost us over €51m. Then there’s the pay-offs to junior ministers and bonuses to ‘veteran’ TDs. All the money it has wasted could have been put towards Thornton Hall or some interim solution, like reopening Spike Island or the Curragh detention centre.
The former military camps at Rockhill House, Lifford, Monaghan and Longford could be used as ‘boot camps’ for young offenders, like Thorn Cross centre in Warrington. This is a voluntary scheme where prisoners sign up to learn respect and self-esteem. They are given construction courses leading to placements with local builders. If we had an Irish version, an offender could end up building Thornton Hall rather than residing in it.
The crime rate is rising and the government must protect us, inside and – more importantly – outside prison. Opening the gates is not the solution, minister. Stop wringing your hands about the bail laws and dreaming of Thornton Hall. Use the idle facilities we already have. Continuing to pack prisoners in will result in more Gary Douches. Continuing to let them out will result in more Sylvia Roche Kellys.
We don’t want any more like them on our conscience. Find the space now.


A gag that’s not funny… and is a threat to democracy

Sunday Tribune, April 5

Picture this: Bertie Ahern picks up the Sunday Tribune, sees a portrait of himself in the nude on page one and immediately despatches his art dealer with a brown envelope to buy it. Bertie doesn’t want an unflattering picture of himself in the public domain. The only aras he wants the public to connect him with is the one in the Park.
Plausible? Highly. True? Unfortunately not. The preceding scenario formed a newspaper’s April Fool’s gag last week and I’m not ashamed to admit that I fell for it. That’s the thing about Bertie – you wouldn’t put anything past him. For a man who loves the limelight, he’s fiercely protective of his privacy. He doesn’t like the papers showing him up. That is probably why, under his stewardship, the VAT on newspapers rose to 13.5% – the highest in Europe (Britain has zero VAT). It probably also explains why his administration published a Privacy Bill in 2006 to curb the power of the press. Naughty press, Fianna Fáil will learn youse.
That bill was subsequently ‘parked’ to give the now year-old Press Council time to prove itself effective at dealing with media complaints. Last week, another Ahern – Dermot – announced that he is going to introduce the legislation. Why? Because “there seems to be a growing disregard for the privacy of the individual”. Note the word “seems”. According to who? Who has been calling for a privacy law? Was it Dermot Ahern himself?
Ahern knows the value of privacy. For example, the equality minister now knows it’s better to keep his views on homosexuals private. Back in 1993 he agreed with Fine Gael’s Brendan McGahon that gays were deviants. Once the press highlighted this, he was branded homophobic.
His dealings with the family of terror chief Michael McKevitt might have been kept private if the press hadn’t reported that he forwarded an email on his behalf to Michael McDowell. The press hasn’t done Ahern any favours. Could this be personal?
The new law forbids “surveillance”, “stalking/harassment” and “disclosure of documentation” – all legitimate weapons in the journalist’s armoury. Documents that can’t be published will include publicly available material from, among others, county council planning files and the Land Registry Office. Without the disclosure of such documents, the extent of planning corruption in north Dublin may never have come to light.
Without “stalking”, the documentary that led to the beef tribunal might not have been made. In that programme, journalist Susan O’Keeffe approaches beef baron Larry Goodman for a comment as he is leaving mass and pursues him until he drives off. Under the new rules, Goodman could have got an injunction and halted production. Similarily, Brendan O’Brien’s legendary “stalking” of Martin ‘The General’ Cahill might not have been aired. The print labours of Veronica Guerin would have been hampered too.
With the new restrictions, Seanie Fitz might be able to get an injunction against a newspaper revealing that he’s enjoying a nice holiday in Spain.
The new law states that invasions of privacy are justified when they’re in good faith, the public interest and fair. Sounds reasonable? It isn’t. It’s ‘Catch 22’: for an invasion of privacy to be justified, you must invade someone’s privacy to prove it. However, you can’t invade someone’s privacy because that’s not justified without proof. A reporter who is stymied by an injunction can be found to have broken the rules just because he was unable to finish his investigation.
So, again, who has asked for this privacy law? Take a guess. Last year, Dublin City University released a study which revealed that two-thirds of all privacy complaints over the past 25 years had come from public figures, chiefly politicians.
The hypocrisy at the heart of this law is staggering. In February, minister Ahern was forced to introduce new European legislation requiring telephone operators to store details of all calls made for two years. Under Irish law, they had to store them for three years. All your calls, emails and internet usage are logged by the government. How about a privacy law against that?
Ahern’s announcement last week was all the more telling because of its timing. It came just weeks after this newspaper broke the Brian Cowen portraits story. This was a clear threat to the press. It was a slap on the wrist for getting uppity and a direct attack on the fundamental right to freedom of information.
We don’t need this law. The press ombudsman is doing a good job of correcting rogue journalism. It’s independent, fast and binding. As it’s free, the public aren’t put off complaining by legal costs. That’s good for democracy, unlike privacy laws and VAT on newspapers.
This brings us back to Bertie, as it was his administration that dreamed up this nonsense. When I read the April Fool’s portrait gag about him last week, it struck me that the words ‘Ahern’ and ‘gag’ were entirely appropriate given the decision to silence the press.
Forget about Cowen: Bertie deserves to be hung in the National Gallery.
I’ll start building the scaffold…