Drug use in Irish Prisons and the challenges it brings

Findings from a recent FOI request, along with news of Ireland’s biggest ever prison drug haul, show Mountjoy Prison is continuing to battle the ongoing issue during the pandemic. Gavin Dalton spoke with Michelle Martyn, a representative from the Irish Penal Reform Trust, about their work within the penal system

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Findings of a Freedom of Informaion request show the figure and makeups of contraband seized from cells in Mountjoy Prison from January 2020 to the 24th of October 2020. These figures show the number of phones confiscated amassed to 174,  the number of weapons seized read 41, followed by 225 drug seizures, the highest of the three.

Speaking to TheCity, a spokesperson from The Irish Prison Services said: “Preventing the access of contraband into prisons remains a high priority for the Irish Prison Service. Concerted efforts are made continuously to prevent the flow of drugs into our prisons, by, for example, the installation of IT anti-drone technology, nets over exercise yards, vigilant observation of prisoners by staff, enhanced CCTV monitoring, stricter control of visits and the use of targeted and random cell searches daily.”

“We have enhanced the fight against contraband entering our prisons by introducing drug swabbing similar to airport-style swabbing for drug residues. The Prison Service is committed to investing in new technology, which will further prevent the access of contraband into prisons.”

Despite the best efforts of prisons to prevent the flow of drugs into their buildings, the cat and mouse game is an omnipresent feature of prisons, and drugs can pass under the strict security measures and gain their way to prisoners for sale and supply. Drug abuse in prisons will likely continue despite the efforts.

Drug addiction is a major issue in Irish prisons and its knock-on effects such as mental health problems and violence mean the life of a prisoner is as complex as ever. With such hostility involved with modern-day prisons, the rights of prisoners often come to attention. 

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IRPT) is a non-government organisation that advocates for the rights of prisoners. Michelle Martyn, the IRPT’s policy and research manager, spoke with TheCity.ie about the current issues surrounding drug use in Irish Prisons and the work they do.

“We advocate for the rights of everyone in the penal systems. I suppose our mission is that, wherein possible, prison is used as a last resort. We’re a small organisation, so we try to effect change through our research and advocacy. We do a lot of work in different areas around prison conditions.”

Speaking of the recent seizure in Mountjoy where it was reported a discovery of cocaine with an estimated value of €140,000, tablets believed to be worth up to €20,000 and €5,000 in suspected cannabis along with a small number of steroids, alcohol, and 30 mobile phones was made, Martyn feels the drug situation in prisons reflects modern-day society. 

“I know the prison services have a campaign to try to stop drugs and prevent overdoses from happening but it’s still a huge problem for both prisoners and their families.”

“The latest figure I’ve seen shows that within the prison population, 70% of male prisoners and 85% of the women have addiction issues,” she said

“There needs to be support in the community to prevent the problem in the first place. Trauma is often the root cause of addiction so until services are there and ready to intervene at a very early age in the community, there’s always going to be that issue,” she said. “The harm that it causes for families is immense. Like everywhere in society, once there are drugs available, there’s demand and if there’s demand then there will be a way of supplying.” 

In regards to services available to prisoners suffering from addiction, Martyn added how she feels access to services is an issue only worsened by the pandemic. She said: “ During Covid-19 we don’t really know how things have been operating generally, but I would imagine that there have been more issues for people with drugs.”

Before the pandemic, there would’ve been community based organisations that support people with drug use. However, they haven’t been getting in to support people. There are now telephone calls, but we don’t know how well that’s working. It’s a different approach than talking to somebody face to face about issues of addiction.”

Martyn also said there’s a need for more support staff within prisons. “For example, in Clover Hill prison, there was one addiction counselor to 400 prisoners with people who have many addiction issues. These ratios are really poor so there is definitely an issue in access to services for people who want to avail of supports.”

“The services should be there and available for people who are motivated to get support for addictions,” she said. 

Albeit a challenging situation with answers hard to produce, it’s apparent, work is yet to be done to aid those in our nation’s penal system battling addiction. Perhaps, as Martyn concluded a more “holistic” approach could be looked at.

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