NewsCrime Desk

Revealed: How criminal gangs are vying for control of Irish jails

A 'shiv' made from a toothbrush in Mountjoy Prison
A 'shiv' made from a toothbrush in Mountjoy Prison

THERE are at least 18 major organised criminal gangs operating within the Irish prison system, vying to control an illegal world of drugs, mobile phones and contraband.

It’s a shadow culture that mirrors the brutal world they know from life on the outside, ruled by fear, violence and the hierarchy of the streets.

It has its own systems and currencies – and its own brutal methods of enforcing the rules.

Although Irish gangs are firmly in control, there is also a significant presence of foreign mobs, including Chinese triads and East European Mafia groups.


Official sources put the number of organised crime gangs within the system at around nine, but the Prison Officers Association say that various groupings brings the number up to 40.

However, the Sunday World can reveal that there are at least 18 criminal groupings operating in the prison system, according to several sources.

Out of a prison population of just over 4,000, one estimate suggests there are 100 individuals who can be classified as fully-fledged gangsters.

On top of that, there are another 150 people who are associated with gang members and between them they exert a major influence on many of Ireland’s prisons.

Some of the groupings come under the umbrella of larger gangs on the outside such as the Kinahan Cartel, the network connected to the Dublin-based Mr Big and Limerick’s McCarthy clan.

Criminals from within the traveller community have also proven to be adept at turning life behind bars to their advantage by peddling either drugs or influence.

There is now a well-established prison culture when it comes to smuggling drugs, phones and making payments.


Such is the level of drug use behind bars that the Prison Officers Association expressed concern their members could fail drug-driving tests from innocent contact with illegal substances.

While in some prisons drugs are still thrown over the walls, in many cases it’s a simple matter for visitors to slip over small packages during a brief physical contact.

Children are used as mules or their unruly behaviour acts as a distraction for handovers.

Similarly, inmates returning from temporary release can be paid off or coerced into carrying contraband.


There have also been a number of cases of prison officers, and in one case a nurse, who smuggled contraband into jails.

One man at Castlerea prison claimed he was forced at gunpoint to stuff a package containing hundreds of pills into his back passage. Drugs and mobile phones are the currency behind bars.

Dealers can demand three times the price for drugs inside prison.

With a captive market and customers with little to do, selling drugs in prison is a lucrative gangland activity.

To control the flow of drugs and phones the gangsters need mules who will carry out their orders, through fear or favour.

Mobile phones can be rented out for as much as €1,000, making it a lucrative trade that is tightly controlled by the gangsters.

Prisoners who smuggle in a phone independent of a gang will be forced to hand it hand over and pay for the privilege of using it.

And smartphones make it easier to transfer money and to verify that payments have been made.

The Irish Prison Service statement on prison gangs: “The increase in recent years of organised gang activity in the community has had significant implications for the management of Irish prisons.

“Rivalries and feuds which develop on the outside continue inside of prison.

“Prison management and staff have to ensure that the various factions are kept apart and, as far as possible, that members do not have influence over other inmates or criminal activities outside the prisons

“Current Irish Prison Service Policy in this regard is to manage these groups and their associates on a daily basis through segregation and separation throughout the prison system.

“The persons leading or associated to these groups within our prisons have been identified, targeted and profiled.

“The Operational Security Group (OSG) is charged with supporting prisons in targeted and intelligence-led searching of the prisons and prisoners held therein, and the collating of intelligence. “

This unit profiles prisoners from a disruptive, criminal and gang-related perspective. Reports are generated weekly and are shared site-specific with senior managers at each prison.

“The movement, correspondence, associating and visitor access of these individuals is constantly monitored and reviewed on an almost daily basis.

“In addition, There is a high level of contact maintained between the Prison Service and national, regional and local units within An Garda Síochána on a regular basis to discuss security issues including the operation of criminal gangs.

“The management of this cohort is constantly under review and the accommodation of group leaders in a single high security unit is an action that will be kept under review by the Service and considered if deemed appropriate.

“There are about nine significant groupings operating within the system (excluding subversives).”