A judge said the governor of Dóchas women’s prison “was here to obfuscate” and accused her of colluding with the director of the Irish Prison Service in hiding the reasons behind her policy of temporary release that saw a serial thief serve just three days of a six month sentence.
“You and your colleagues should be before a Dáil committee to explain this policy,” said Judge Seamus Hughes to Mary O’Connor, governor of the women’s prison on the Mountjoy campus in the District Court in Athlone on Wednesday (November 20 ).
However, Ms O’Connor explained that it was a simple matter of capacity, and even though her facility had a 40 per cent increase in cell numbers last year - from 72 to 105 - there were 130 inmates in the prison on the day she chose to give a temporary release to Emma Quinn (27 ), Hillside View, Retreat, Athlone.
“Are you at full capacity?” asked the judge.
“All the time,” said Ms O’Connor.
Judge Hughes had sought Ms O’Connor’s appearance on October 23 after discovering Quinn - an addict-feeding thief - was back on the streets of Athlone just three days after being sentenced to six months in jail by a colleague in Roscommon on October 15, to immediately re-offend.
“I have to answer to the hullabaloo by the hoi polloi of Ireland, that’s the wrong word, but the politically correct politicians and journalists who have a field day talking about all the people who get jailed for non-payment of a TV licence, and people like you are signed in and out. But there’s never any discussion about people out from a six month sentence after three days,” said Judge Seamus Hughes on October 24.
On Wednesday, Judge Hughes said that in his 25 years as solicitor and judge: “I had never heard the like of it. I was shocked and bewildered. I want to know what effective deterrents are available to me, and I want to know what’s going on in Dóchas. You wouldn’t take on the Circuit or the High Court so quick. I want to know how much respect the District Court gets, and I want to know why property crimes are being treated as victimless crimes when they’re not.”
“Ms O’Connor, please excuse me if I have over-exercised myself, but please explain to me this practice. The community that’s paying your wages want to know why this woman just serves three days of a six month sentence. That’s just 2.2 per cent!” he pointed out.
Ms O’Connor explained the capacity difficulties and told the court that: “The Irish Prison Service looks primarily at the charges to find the suitability of candidate for release”, and also whether they have somewhere to live.
“Can you be at capacity on violent crimes? Are you telling me we are reaching a situation that females who commit non-violent offences are going to be released because of capacity restraint on you?”
“This carousel, or revolving door policy, this is no protection to the people of Athlone. What amazes me is there’s no public discussion on this to provide the governor with the places she needs,” said the judge.
However, Ms O’Connor said she didn’t think more prison places was the solution, and she felt that “a lot of women in prison shouldn’t be there. We should have more support in the community, more addiction counsellors”.
“How long does it take to get someone off heroin? In the meantime they’re out robbing to feed their habit. There’s no effective deterrent for non-violent, recidivist offenders in this country. Now you have potential criminals saying ‘Ah, if I get caught, I’ll only do a couple of days’,” concluded the judge.
Due to unrelated legal reasons, and a good probation report on Quinn, the judge postponed sentencing until January 22.