“It’s a university for crime,” explains one of the guards as we stride through Mountjoy Prison. “It’s like doing an apprenticeship really. You come in, do your time, and learn your trade,” adds another. Welcome to Mountjoy prison.
The large blue gates tower over you as you arrive. Passing through them, the old stone structure looms ever large, and the architecture is surprisingly impressive. The huge razor-sharp wire fences atop of the tall oppressive stone walls are a timely reminder of where you are. Guards pace around, most of them dressed in blue uniforms.
While the exterior of the prison seems impressive, the inside is an entirely different matter. Mountjoy looks its age. And more so, it smells it. Once you pass the warden offices, you enter a different world.
The four blocks spread out around the centre, each with three landings. A large steel spiral staircase dominates the centre, each block covered with bars and steel mesh. The blocks themselves are shorter than you might expect. The cells can be identified by a small red light that shines above the steel doors that line the corridors.
There is more steel mesh overhead that separates the landings, “You’ll notice most of the guards don’t stand out in the open, you never know what’s going to come down on top of you,” remarks the guard.
The stale stench that lingers in the area is explained by the fact that there are open toilets with only small doors at either end of the landing. “There are no toilets in the cells, only piss-pots. The prisoners get one shower a week, that’s one wash, one change of clothes, underwear and socks,” he continues.
It’s quiet in the prison at first. Most men are locked down, that’s other than the trustees who clean the floors and the guards that pace them. Later on though, it’s a very different story.
The guard presence has become much larger, as the inmates walk around the landings in plain clothes. The calm, quiet atmosphere that existed earlier has completely changed.
The cells are tiny, and most house two men. “There are around 550 prisoners here, it should hold about 450. Having said that I’ve seen this place hold near 850”.
Inside one of the cells, there are bunk beds against the back wall, with the top bunk littered with Liverpool posters and photographs. The right wall contains a few pictures from men’s magazines and a few more photos. The only luxury that’s visible is a small television on the left. The walls and floors are falling apart and very much showing their age. It’s dimly lit and very cramped.
Outside, the yards are fenced with high green nets to try and stop objects being thrown in from outside. “All they do is give people something to aim for,” says the guard. We continue around to the old hang-house, which is used only for guided tours nowadays.
It was last used in the 1950s and there is a plaque outside that marks the spot where Kevin Barry and other Irish rebels were originally buried before being moved to Glasnevin cemetery.
“There are plenty of other bodies under the ground beneath us,” remarks the guard. On the way out, the guard points to a bell, “That was rung to let the families outside know that the execution was over,” he explains.
The spectre of drugs is one that haunts Mountjoy. “They’re everywhere,” according to the guard, “90 percent of people in here are here because of drugs; plenty of young lads come in clean and leave addicts.”
It’s very difficult to see how Mountjoy can escape from the vicious cycle it’s caught in. 85 percent of people who have a prolonged stay in Mountjoy will be back. “Most of these guys come in here and leave here with an education; they build up contacts and knowledge.
“A guy comes in here as an inept criminal and leaves with the knowledge of the others around him. Back in the eighties, the only place with a drug problem in this country was Dublin. Lots of prisoners came up from the country and, after talking with the Dublin lads, saw an opportunity to make money. They had the opportunity to build up contacts and deals were made.
“Drugs are very expensive, and there’s a lot of money to be made in them. A lad looks at his twenty-something unemployed neighbour driving a new Lexus and says to himself, ‘I’ll have a bit of that’.
“Would you or I act differently coming from the same background? Who knows. Last New Year’s Eve, I was walking in front of the wall around the yard and I picked up two grand worth of drugs that didn’t reach the yard.”
He goes on in search of solutions to the drugs problem in Mountjoy, “A unilateral legalising of drugs would get rid of 60 or 70 percent of the prisoners in here. It would take a brave government to suggest it, but maybe one or two generations down the line we might see a difference. Did prohibition work in America?”
Violence has also become a much bigger part of prison life. “There was the lad murdered earlier this year, but we all saw that coming. Often there’s not much you can do except try and protect them as best you can. When I started here, there had never been a man murdered in Irish prisons, now it’s becoming all too frequent.”
A lot of what’s happening seems to be gang-related; “There are so many rival gangs in here, continuing on from the outside.” Weapons have also become a bigger issue. “It’s a relatively new departure, last week I was walking in the yard and I found drugs in a football thrown in from outside, but with it was a knife with a six-inch blade.”
And guns? “There’s been a rumour that there’s one in here for a while, but we haven seen a victim yet so it’s unlikely.” Mobile phones have also been a fixture, but guards are clamping down. New x-ray machines have been installed and most phones seem to have been located. There are also proposals to introduce a jamming device to the prison.
The women’s prison across the road evokes a lot more hope. “Women suffer more in prison then men, they are more abandoned and often have children to worry about; all the men care about is drugs.”
It looks the farthest thing from a prison, more like an apartment block, and prisoners spend much less time locked in cells, and “The problem is that it looks too nice.” Behind the pleasant façade though, a different world exists.
“Half the people in here are already dead, they’re just not on the ground yet,” remarks one younger female prisoner. Drugs are as big a part here as in the men’s prison. There is an awful lot more emphasis placed on rehabilitation and counselling. All the guards and officers in the women’s prison have been trained in counselling and uniforms aren’t compulsory. They even have a dog.
It’s a world apart from the harshness of the men’s regime. Up early, meals at eight, twelve and four, a shower a week and eighteen hours a day locked up. And contrary to popular believe, there have been boys as young as fifteen locked up inside Mountjoy.
It seems clear walking through the prison that the absence of any real effort to rehabilitate these people will result only in the return of the vast majority to the jail.