Limerick Prison has been part of life in the city since 1821 and has always perked the curiosity of Limerick Post reporter Alan Jacques. In the first of a two-part series, he takes a fly-on-the-wall peep around the jail to catch a glimpse of what life is like on the inside.
by Alan Jacques
This philosophy is one that undoubtedly rings true with the staff and management of Limerick Prison. Its mission policy is ‘to provide safe and secure custody, dignity of care and rehabilitation to prisoners for safer communities’. While its vision is simply for ‘a safer community through excellence in a prison service built on respect for human dignity’.
It’s a great mantra and looks impressive on the wall of the Governor’s office but is it just empty words or do the people that run the Mulgrave Street-based prison really believe and live by these words?
Absolutely and unequivocally, I would argue after getting a glimpse of what daily life is really like behind its imposing walls.
Ever since I was a small child I was curious about the fortress-like jail with its army turrets and soldiers carrying machine guns. Limerick Prison would capture my imagination without fail every time I passed it on family visits to relatives living up on that side of town.
The soldiers with machine guns are long gone but that childhood curiosity has remained. It always fascinated me how this large, grey, imposing building could stand in the centre of the city and yet most of us know very little about what actually goes on behind its gates.
So, without a criminal record, and only TV and movies to fill in the gaps, I’ve usually been guilty of letting my imagination run a muck and picturing the very worst. I’ve always imagined the skewed and violent ‘Midnight Express’ vision of life behind bars, to the fluffier and more uplifting ‘Shawshank Redemption’ version. But, I’m actually told that the hit seventies sitcom ‘Porridge’ starring Ronnie Barker is in fact, the closest to the reality of prison life. Barker’s character Norman Fletcher, you might remember, used to chuckle that his wife told neighbours that he was away “doing missionary work in Scotland”.
During my recent three-hour tour of Limerick Prison, accompanied by hearty assistant governor Mark Kennedy, he confessed, “‘Porridge’ is probably the exact same thing as we do here, we’d just be a bit more modern. That show was probably the closest to the reality of prison. The environment is the same. It’s the same ranking system and there’s a bit of banter.”
Despite a lifetime’s curiosity I have to admit being a little apprehensive before my visit to the prison. And my work colleagues, all experts thanks to ‘Love/Hate’, did not help matters as they playfully offered portentous safety tips like warning me to stay clear of the infamous showers.
So, I was relieved to now have the image of the quick-witted and ultimately kindhearted Norman Fletcher to replace the more deranged Hannibal Lecter type fiends that filled my dreams the night before, as I entered Limerick Prison.
After producing my passport as identification at the main entrance I was then ushered towards the security screening process for a full security check. “It’s just like going away on holidays,” one of the prison officer’s remarked.
I was frisked, I put my keys and coins in a little tray and went through the exact same process we do at airports, only sadly, there wasn’t two weeks in the Algarve after a flight on the other end of it.
After clearing security, I was met in the prison courtyard by assistant governor, Mark Kennedy, who tells me that he used to pass Limerick Prison every day on his way to school in CBS Sexton Street when he was younger. Now with 23 years experience in the prison service, I find I am in very safe hands for my trip through Ireland’s second oldest prison (Cork being the oldest).
Opened in 1821, Limerick Prison is a high security sentence and remand prison capable of housing around 260 prisoners. It is one of the oldest working prisons in Europe and an exact replica of St Joseph’s Hospital across the street. Probably something they won’t thank me for publicising, but the prison, St Joseph’s Hospital, the former army barracks in Costello’s Yard, and the hospital across the road, now the site of Limerick College of Further Education, were once all linked by tunnels.
“We found one last year,” I am told.
But, before any jail-breakers get the notion to go looking for these underground passages, they have since been concreted off.
Prisoners come in through the main gates on Mulgrave Street and their warrant is validated. Once inside their photo is taken in front of the kind of stark mug-shot backdrop that we’ve come to know so well from reports of Justin Bieber’s miscreant escapades. A photographic record is then held of each inmate and valuables are handed into a safe for the duration of their stay.
One of many myth’s that went up in a puff of smoke for me during my visit was the old TV chestnut of new prisoners being stripped down to their birthday suit and power hosed to within a scalded inch of their dignity. It doesn’t happen!
But, here’s one prison statistic that will undoubtedly knock you off your feet. Out of every 15 committals to Limerick Prison under sentence in 2013, 12 were for non-payment of court ordered fines.
A spokesperson for the Irish Prison Service said that people who are convicted for non-payment of fines such as their television license usually serve between a couple of hours and a couple of days in jail.
Limerick Prison’s assistant governor said he is hopeful that new fines legislation will soon put an end to jailing people for non-payment of fines.
“The vast majority of these would be ordinary people. At any one time we probably have 160 prisoners on temporary release for fines. They come in and they’re processed administratively and then they are discharged,” Mr Kennedy explained.
“It’s no secret that people who come in on fines are here about two hours, they rarely spend an overnight in prison. Sometimes they might spend an overnight but they rarely see a proper accommodation cell. It’s a difficult experience for them at the same time. It’s not natural to be going through metal detectors,” he adds.
“It’s probably safer in the prison than it is outside. You see all walks of life. We’ve had solicitors in, rugby internationals, ordinary Joe Soaps. Normally it’s for a small fine, probably less than €1,000, and they are here for under 15 days.
You have people here doing a month to life. We have 15 lifers at the moment. You would have the highest crimes down to the lowest crimes and whatever society deems in between. Ninety nine per cent of them are sound.
It’s a medium security prison, but it is high security. It’s a safe environment and prisoners see it as safe. We’re lucky in the Limerick staff are very mature. The vast majority work here over ten years.”
I was quickly struck by the holistic approach to care and rehabilitation within the prison. There’s a huge focus on community and families, and not long after passing through its ominous façade do I start to see a very different type of prison emerge to the one I’ve grown accustomed to from TV and films. In the last 12 months Limerick Prison has taken striking steps to “softening” the prison experience for the inmates and, in particular, their families.
“Once you come in past the drug dogs and screening and security on the outside we then come back into humanity inside these doors,” Mr Kennedy tells me with great pride.
The bright and colourful murals, painted by inmates, in the visiting area, strike me instantly. I expected it to look drab and oppressive, but instead I am wowed by how warm, welcoming and conducive to human interaction it feels. In a female visiting room children’s toy are placed in one corner while family members wait anxiously to visit with a prisoner and loved one.
As I discovered myself on entering Limerick Prison, it really is a nerve-wracking experience, and the bright colours and furnishings, certainly go some way to softening this heavy blow.
“The easy thing for us to do would be to have concrete walls and not paint them, that would be the cheapest way. But you have to soften the blow for people because you have children, wives, daughters and sons coming in here. It’s not as soft as we want it to be and it is going to get softer,” the assistant governor vowed.
One prison initiative that brought a tear to my eye was one where a parent serving time for a crime can record a CD telling a bedtime story which is then passed on to their children. Limerick Prison is also hoping in the future to install a more free-modelled style of visiting facility to include more open style visits, in outdoor areas to make it feel more “normal” for the prisoner and their family members.
“The prisoner is here and their liberty is taken aside but the visitor coming in needs to feel comfortable. It’s important to keep that family link too,” Mr Kennedy insists.
A committee was set up last year looking at the effects of prisons on families and one interesting point that came out of their findings was the idea of not treating visits as just coming to see someone, but as an intervention, an actual definite part of the whole rehabilitation process.
“The big thing with prisoners is communication with the outside. When phone calls came in back in 1996 or 97, they got one phone call a week. Now they get one phone call a day for six minutes. If you work within the prison and you engage with everything you get two phone calls and it can go up and down that scale then. So that’s a big incentive and it’s good to see that a prisoner values their phone calls because they value the communication with their family if there’s a communion or a birthday at home. There’s that link with the community all the time.
“This way you have a more positive impact on the prisoner and the prisoner and their family get a better quality of visit and they know the benefits. When we talk about things like incentivise regimes, giving prisoners incentives like improving their quality of visits, it make people behave and makes life better for everyone.”
Limerick Prison is very much a community within a community. It mirrors life on the outside with prisoners spending their days working, training or in education, the same as we do outside its gates. I expected to be greeted with shouting and violence at every turn and prisoners banging pots and bedpans off their cell bars. Instead, I passed prisoners on the landings and different parts of the prison coming and going as they went about their daily business. Most wore their own ordinary clothes but even the prison uniform of a red shirt and faded blue jeans proved a softer garb than the harsh striped-jumpsuits I had expected to see.
The place was silent other than a droning hum of activity for a soundtrack as normal everyday business was carried out within Limerick Prison’s walls.
One prisoner officer even asked inquisitively as I passed his landing, “what do you think of our little city?”
Assistant governor Mark Kennedy, who has worked in every Irish prison over the past two decades, sees his role as managing relationships. A friendly and approachable man, he moves confidently through the prison and interacts with every prisoner he meets on a first name basis. He is cognisant that Limerick Prison is a “community within a community” and there’s no doubt to me after a short time in his company that the prison’s mission statement and vision is something that Mark believes very passionately in.
“Limerick Prison is part of the community since 1821. It’s an exact replica of Limerick City. You have doctors, solicitors, nursing, you have dentistry and psychiatry. You have everything inside here, but it’s behind a wall. It’s a community within a community. We are conscious of building relationships because we have learned from the past that you have to work with the community in Limerick because it’s so small and everyone knows each other,” he insists.
The prisoner’s living quarters were compact in size with small creature comforts such as a jug kettle and TV, as well as stereos and PlayStation 2 in many of the cells. Magazine posters of buxom pin-ups and photographs of smiling children looked down from the walls and while space and light were in short supply the cells looked well liveable and appeared to be treated by their inhabitants with the utmost of respect and care.
“This is someone’s cell. It has in-cell sanitation, a small kettle, TV and he has a PlayStation 2. We have a catalogue of games in the library and he can bring them back then and play them here. Now what we could do, is if someone doesn’t have the funds, we do a kind of hire purchase. We bought about 100 PlayStations when they were just going out of date. This is a typical cell and it’s nice and clean, because this is where he is living,” Mr Kennedy points out.
A spokesman from the Irish Prison Service who joins us on our walkabout of the jail is quick to say that prisoners not only pay for their crimes but they pay for their TV and game consoles too. Inmates get a daily gratuity payment ranging from 95 cent to €1.70 up to €2.20 depending on their participation in structured activities such as education or, work and training, and the quality of their behaviour. The objective is to provide real incentives to encourage prisoners to participate in structured activities in Limerick Prison and to reinforce good behaviour. Prisoners out of their gratuity payment pay for comforts such as TVs and radios and game consoles themselves.
The Irish Prison Service spokesman explained, “Ultimately people are sent to prison as punishment, not to be punished. We need to work with them to address the issues that caused them to be sent to prison in the first place. We need to work with offenders to rehabilitate them and make society safer.”
Prisoners on D-wing are also rewarded for good behaviour with use of two Xbox game consoles in their recreation room.
Mr Kennedy also tells me that the introduction of televisions into prisoners’ cells in 2002 has helped drastically reduce the rate of suicides and self-harm in Irish prisons.
“If you have someone who comes in here in bad shape you can’t engage with them in a proper way. That’s all part of the process, getting them healthy, putting on weight. If they come in and they don’t feel safe you can’t do anything for them.
Once they get the safety thing into there head, ‘I am safe in Limerick Prison’, and the vast majority of prisoners here would feel comfortable, you can start working with them. Comfortable is probably a word people on the outside don’t want to hear but prisoners are comfortable in the prison,” said Mr Kennedy.
The prison cells are unlocked every morning at 8.15, when prisoners collect their breakfast and return to their cells. The cells are then locked for breakfast and unlocked again at 9.10am as inmates head off for school, work, outdoor exercise, family visits or cleaning duties. Lunch is served at 12 noon and prisoners are locked back in their cells again until 2.10pm again when they return to work and education. Being Catholic Ireland and a Friday, boiled potatoes and fish were on the menu the day I visited the prison.
Tea is then served at 4pm and prisoners are locked back in their cells until 5.20pm when they are allowed two hours recreation or outdoor exercise before being locked back in their cells for the night at 7.30pm.
The prison yard with its barbed wire and netting to catch any items thrown from outside into the jail was the most prison-like setting in the whole compound. It serves as a stark reminder of the grim reality of incarceration and lacked the “softer” more humane feel now evident elsewhere in Limerick Prison.
The women’s cells situated in the older part of the prison built back in 1821 felt more Dickensian. It was dark and felt less habitable compared to the male side of the prison. Earlier this year peace activist, Margaretta D’Arcy, described the conditions for Limerick women prisoners as “inhuman”, after serving part of a second sentence over her opposition to the US Military use of Shannon Airport. While last month a Review of Penal Policy published by the Department of Justice was critical of the lack of progress in redeveloping the women’s section of Limerick Prison. Governor Patrick Dawson, who believes in a “more humane prison regime”, is well aware of the issues in the women’s wing and is confident that they will be put to rights with the new build. Mr Dawson told the Limerick Post that this work will be done under the ongoing capital project with the Irish Prison Service and for now insists that prison staff and management do “their best to treat all prisoners with respect and dignity”.
Limerick Prison is well versed in receiving its fair share of negative and more sensationalized press coverage down the years and therefore shies away from publicizing the many positive and inspiring projects that take place within its walls. Woodworks students at the prison continually produce woodcraft items for a range of charities including benches for the Alzheimer’s Association and cribs for Bedford Row Family Centre. Limerick Prison also have six teams comprised of four to five prisoners, which is sent out to do various work including painting for local charities.
“We don’t do positive publicity very well. We do it but we don’t publicize it.
We send work parties into the community and we have a workshop that makes garden furniture for charities. It’s far sexier to write about some prisoner getting a thump off another fella,” Mr Kennedy suggested.
“We’d be in the papers, probably every week, for the wrong reasons. There’s a wealth of stuff going on across the board – positive things — in the prison. We’re very much cognizant of the fact that we don’t replicate what a commercial entity is doing outside. So we just go straight in and do purely charitable work. We don’t do someone out of a contract and it’s not five fellas in boiler suits chain-ganged on the road. It’s a softer and healthier approach. It’s about going in and helping local communities and this helps prisoners make reparations too,” he concluded.