Understanding Crime in Prison


Beth Duane

Prison life in Ireland is not exempt from crime. While the common belief holds that a person receiving a custodial sentence will be stripped of opportunities to commit crime, research has shown that this is not always the case. Although little is known about the prevalence of crime in Irish prisons, violence against inmates and staff, criminal damage and drug abuse are not infrequent occurrences, with implications for prison security and overall safety, in addition to rehabilitation efforts. Such crimes present a considerable challenge for fulfilment of the mission of the Irish Prison Service – to provide “safe and secure custody, dignity of care and rehabilitation to prisoners for safer communities.” Understanding why crime in prison takes place requires an understanding of the vulnerabilities that exist within the prison environment, and within the prison population. Problems prior to entering prison – such as mental illness, substance misuse, homelessness, poverty and unemployment, chaotic family backgrounds and social marginalisation – can amplify these vulnerabilities, presenting challenges for the time spent in prison.

Crime in prison can involve illicit drug use, criminal damage, and violence – each of which will be explored in more detail in the following section.

Illicit Drug Offences
Stipulated in Rule Number 26 of the Prison Rules 2007, “a prisoner shall not have in his or her possession any drug or any medicinal product that may be lawfully purchased without a duly issued prescription.” Yet, drugs regularly enter prisons in an unlawful manner – for example, on persons visiting, or thrown over exterior walls and netting into prison property – and the availability of drugs in Irish prisons continues to create serious security risks that affect day-to-day management, and poses a threat to the safety of prison staff and prisoners alike. Furthering this point, the Limerick Visiting Committee stated that they ‘are still extremely concerned as to the availability of drugs within the prison.’ In response to a breach in prison discipline, prisoners found in possession of drugs will have a P19 report written and have certain privileges withdrawn for 56 days.

The magnitude of drug use in prisons is illustrated by evidence showing that 70% of the population, and a higher figure of 85% of the female prison population, have addiction issues. This presents a clear problem as addiction has been identified as being a “major contributory factor in criminality.” The Probation Service and the Irish Prison Service have recognised the role that drugs and alcohol play in criminality and recidivism and have invested in developing a system in response to the high prevalence of drug and alcohol addictions. However, the drugs culture dominating the Irish prison system is often embodied by the attitudes, values and behaviours of prisoners.

Drug use can be particularly attractive to people in custody. This is evident from the numbers who commence drug use during their custodial sentence – a risk magnified by exposure to prisoners who already have a drug addiction on entering prison. There is also something to be said about the nature and experience of prison life itself. Drug use can provide relief from the conditions of imprisonment. As the academic and psychologist Paul O’Mahony puts it, “the stress, idleness, boredom and ubiquitous petty coercion of prison life make the pleasure, release and oblivion provided by the opiate fix or other powerful drugs especially attractive.” In addition to being the underlying cause of unnatural deaths among the prison population, drug possession and distribution coupled with tensions created by related gang activity and debt can increase the risk of violent behaviour among prisoners.

Access to addiction and counselling services should be consistent, reflecting the needs of prisoners suffering from drug and alcohol addictions and mental illnesses. Recognising the magnitude of addiction in Irish prisons, the potential for increased criminality and recidivism, and the risks to safety within the prison environment, the Probation Service and the Irish Prison Service have put in place treatment and support services. However, the provision of these services across the prison system has been problematic due to a recent reduction in expenditure and in access to addiction counsellors. This has led to longer waiting periods and limited access to supports. Efforts are being made to reduce the supply of drugs into prisons, although the effectiveness of these measures remains questionable, as new and inventive ways are continuously fabricated to maintain the drug supply.

Criminal Damage
Criminal damage to prison property accumulates large expenses and intensifies the challenge for prison management in maintaining safe prison conditions for both inmates and staff. There are also far-reaching consequences which exceed psychological and physical harm to prison staff and inmates. In addition to individuals causing damage to the prison property, instances of collective violence such as prison riots can result in large amounts of damage to the prison estate and to the individuals involved. Despite this, there appears to be little acknowledgement of this issue in prison literature, with the focus on more topical issues, such as drug use and violence. This is because these issues are viewed to have more profound concerns across prison systems globally, in view of the detrimental effects that they have on prison staff and inmates.

The World Health Organisation describes violence in prison as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.” Now attracting considerable attention on an international scale, prison violence manifests itself in a multitude of ways including but not limited to threats, extortion, verbal aggression, physical and sexual assault.

Experiencing forms of physical and psychological violence has detrimental effects on individuals in addition to contributing to a climate of fear. Feeling fearful of violence can cause negative long-term psychological effects on inmates, resulting in stress, low levels of energy, depression and increased problems of physical health. Additionally, victims of bullying can experience poor psychological wellbeing. The impact of violence does not stop once a sentence has ended. Violence continues to affect individuals after release – they cannot simply shed the prison experience from their minds – causing adverse effects on individuals reintegrating back into their communities, including employment and social relations.

Prison violence in Ireland has been described by non-governmental organisations such as the Irish Penal Reform Trust as endemic, and evidence shows that prison gangs and drugs, higher security prisons, addiction and mental illness, overcrowding and cell-sharing, prison conditions and inmate and staff culture all contribute to a culture of violence. The Committee Against the Prevention of Torture or Degrading Treatment has expressed concern with the high levels of prisoner-on-prisoner violence across the Irish prison system, whilst drawing attention to, in particular, the presence of feuding gangs coupled with a high prevalence of illicit drug use contributing to violent behaviour and bullying.

Assaults on prison officers have come to public attention following the publication of the State Claims Agency’s Review of Assaults on Operational Prison Staff by Prisoners which revealed that 77.9% of prison guards have been physically assaulted by prisoners on at least one occasion in their career. Protecting prison officers from unnecessary physical and psychological abuse is of paramount importance to ensure their safety and wellbeing in the commission of their daily duties. Commenting on the high prevalence of prisoner-on-staff violence, the Irish Prison Officers Association has stated that “the current amount and seriousness of assaults on our members is simply not acceptable or sustainable.”

While instances of serious violence have obvious negative effects upon the physical wellbeing of prisoners, more menial forms of violence and effects of same can often be overlooked and accepted as a part of prison life. These include harassment, intimidation, extortion, and verbal abuse – all characteristic of the daily interactions between inmates in a prison environment. On the other hand, sexual assault, assault causing harm and even death have also occurred representing a more dangerous consequence of prisoner-on-prisoner violence. For example, in 2017, there were 417 reported prisoner-on-prisoner assaults across Irish prisons, which is a decrease of 155 assaults from the previous year. While these figures provide a positive perspective of the number of assaults occurring in Irish prisons, it does not give a complete picture of the extent that violence occurs. Figures of assaults are considerably lower than the available research suggests, as studies show that 80% of violence in prisons goes unreported or undetected. Stringent record-keeping of violent incidents needs to be properly executed to understand the causes, effects and consequences of violence of prison staff and inmates. Research conducted by this author hopes to fulfil this lacuna in knowledge, by aiming to ascertain the extent that psychological and physical violence occurs in adult male prisons in Ireland and the factors which lead to a violent incident.

Positive developments by the Irish Prison Service have contributed to a reduction in levels of violent behaviour. For example, the Weapon Amnesty project was successful in reducing assaults using weapons at Wheatfield Prison, which decreased tensions and made inmates feel safer in the prison environment. Other programmes such as the Alternative to Violence Project (AVP) operate by teaching inmates non-violent conflict resolution strategies that were effective in providing prisoners with strategies to deal with anger and educate them on how to control their emotions. Lastly, the newly established Violent Disruptive Prisoners Unit opened in November 2018 in the Midlands Prison for prisoners with a history of violence towards inmates and staff. While these developments have been crucial in addressing the problem of violence against prison staff and inmates, greater recognition is needed to understand the extent that this occurs in Irish prisons to better respond to such incidents.

Prison can be a damaging experience. Many people in prison are victims themselves. They are likely to suffer from a lack of self-esteem, come from a poor socio-economic background, have a drug and alcohol dependency or suffer from mental illness. Crime in prisons affects inmates and staff, leading to high rates of victimisation, and prisoners can experience victimisation arising from assaults, sexual assault, robbery, cell theft, verbal abuse, threats, and even death. Additionally, prisoners experience routine victimisation that epitomises institutional life. The problem here is that fear of reprisal makes reporting crimes inherently difficult for victims who are deprived of their liberty and have no escape from their perpetrators. Therefore, crime in prisons needs to be scrutinised critically in order to analyse the effects that it has on victims and the prison property.

Levels of victimisation in prisons are high, with over a quarter of individuals – a majority of whom had been victimised themselves – reporting they had bullied another inmate. In addition, routine victimisation in prisons shapes how inmates socialise with one another. Ian O’Donnell and Kimmett Edgar found that the ‘capacity to assault, threaten and rob was in this sense acquired, and was a likely consequence of having been assaulted, threatened and robbed by others.’ For example, the Irish Prison Chaplaincy noted that younger prisoners join prison gangs for protection and are often unable to disassociate themselves for fear of repercussions. On this basis, it is discernible that vulnerable individuals in prison find themselves engaging in violent behaviour in response to the social pressures and restrictive determinants associated with the prison environment.

The prevailing attitude is that prisoners are not ‘ideal victims’ as they have been incarcerated for committing criminal offences. However, it is essential to recognise that inmates who have suffered from crime are victims who are entitled to the substantive rights and protections under the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017. The need to provide safe and humane custody standards with the goal to rehabilitate individuals who have experienced multiple forms of victimisation before and during their custodial sentence needs to be a priority in the future.

Custodial sanctions do not restrict individuals from committing crime. Rather, it is a period of continued involvement with criminal behaviours that mitigates rehabilitative efforts and leads to higher levels of recidivism. While research into crime in Irish prisons is limited, it is discernible that offences involving illicit substances, criminal damage and violence occur on a frequent basis.

Prisons must be used as a sanction of last resort and there has to be recognition of the harms that are associated with such custodial sanctions in light of the aforementioned vulnerabilities which have a detrimental effect on the physical and psychological wellbeing of prisoners. What is needed is investment into non-custodial sanctions and community-based alternatives to imprisonment in order to create a “strong and effective penal and prison system in Ireland.”

At the request of the author, this is a truncated version of the published essay.

Beth Duane is a PhD candidate at the School of Law, University of Limerick. Her research is on assessing the causes, effects and responses to violence in adult prisons in Ireland.