A guard unlocks door on Irish Prison Service

Prison officers are non-statutory, take no oath and, according to the late judge and Inspector of Prisons Michael Reilly, are in fact civilians. You are defined by what lies within. In fact it’s called jail, gaol, place of detention, institution, Borstal. I knew the truth, that’s what mattered. How much of you do you let the staff see? After August 2007, to me it was equally important that I shed that life, examine it honestly and put my take on it. The main enterance to Mountjoy Prison. Reilly confirms in his report titled “Road Map… a way forward” that the Department of Justice more or less ran the Prison Service as an adjunct of St Stephens Green with the main task of keeping the Minister free from problems and issues. The prisoner shares time and space with you. I was surprised at the size of some of the staff. It being a very hot May Saturday – everything starts on a Saturday in the prison system – I was almost knocked out by the stink that hung in the air. It was important to remember that for the first 25 years of my life I wasn’t a prison officer. In time I learned that neither uniform nor size made the man or the woman who worked in our jails. Photograph: David Sleator

My book takes us through one year. As a child my mother had brought me to the zoo. I have to say that when I read that three months ago, I was shocked. Better, how much of yourself do you expose to inmates? First impressions are lasting, they say. There I stood outside the monkey houses which also stank. I don’t act as a defender or accuser of the service I was attached to. In time I was to find out that it was as late as 1999 that the Irish Authority (intern) Prison Board was set up. My book charts my journey from the western seaboard village of Blacksod with absolutely no knowledge about prisons. Once inside, after being fitted out in a one-size-fits-all uniform and cap, we were brought into the bowels of the main jail. Cheap serge uniforms on the male staff that I encountered. Police, firemen and ambulance staff would all be seen as frontline service personnel. Inside The Monkey House is my take on the years I put into the job. “What we achieved was despite them, not because of them and nothing I have seen in the intervening years would cause me to change my mind.” Eamon Mongey, All-Ireland dual winning Mayo footballer from the 1951/52 team, was speaking about management as a guest at a Western People function in late 1982, after that year’s Mayo senior team had suffered a humiliating defeat to great rivals Galway in Tuam. Well, I was certainly underwhelmed. My book puts meat on Varadkar’s words. It then became subsumed into the Irish Prison Service. The Monkey House does to prisons what Michael Herr’s Dispatches did for the ordinary US combatant in Vietnam and what Edward Conlon’s Blue Blood does for the ordinary NYPD cop – it tells a story where the sweat smells. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Prison officers are not seen even as basic frontline crime fighters. Early on I was aware that we worked at the margins of the criminal justice system. I used writing the book as a form of ridding myself of the internal wiring that might have defined my life going forward. Coming from the country, I assumed that as with the Garda a height requirement was in place but many I saw looked small in their ill-fitting garb. I initially raged against the media, the press, the public, the world who pigeonholed us without facts. Gardaí, the army and navy are all statute-based organisations whose officers take an oath to serve and protect the State. The pain, the frustrations, bullying and total abandonment of any meaningful care from our employer. To me, going forward was actually leaving behind the prison service. I lived within its chaotic fallout for three decades. In it I show how it took years for me to really become comfortable with the status the outside world tried to shoehorn us into. Twenty years later and possibly a mile down the road from the zoo, that same scent filled the air. Hence the title of my book, Inside The Monkey House. Worse, no one sees anything positive around even the word prison. Like the rat catcher, the guy who removes the grease traps, the coal miner, the trawler man, prison staff are an unseen group of life’s functionaries, glamourless and grey

Entering Mountjoy in May 1978 I, a child of the Swinging Sixties, was transported back to an almost Victorian age. An unusual, almost invisible alliance – unspoken, unacknowledged by either side – exists. Its staff are called jailers, ballers, warders, wardens, correctional officers among less glamorous titles. Like the rat catcher, the guy who removes the grease traps, the coal miner, the trawler man, prison staff are an unseen in the main group of life’s functionaries, glamourless and grey. This lasted until 2011. A grey, forbidding, grim building stood menacingly within that main gate that had kept out the outside world since the jail opened for business in the 19th century. A cell in D Wing of Mountjoy Prison. What grew like a sore, however, was this. How much do you wish to expose of yourself? For a prison to function this has to occur. First impressions can also mislead. On completing almost 30 years in the Irish Prison Service in August 2007 I searched for meaning, for an articulation that might best describe those decades spent behind steel bars and grey walls. Again I leave it to Judge Reilly : “ It did not have a any independent legal standing and this has ALWAYS been the case with the IPS”. Leo Varadkar, a possible future Fine Gael leader, two years ago described the Department of Justice as “not fit for purpose”. In my latter years I became comfortable within my own skin, developing a stoic barrier immune to those views. Being a Mayo man and a regular contributor to the Western People I would be familiar with all things football but Mongey was also a highly respected official within the Irish Court Service, so it was almost with relief that I grasped at his words to describe, for me at least, that relationship between my employer, the Department of Justice, and myself. Inside the Monkey House: My Time as an Irish Prison Officer is published by Collins Press, at €12.99