Documentary lifts the lid on smuggling, beatings and despair in Mountjoy

NewsBy Eugene Masterson
Violence: An inmate "probably high on drugs" launched an attack in class
Violence: An inmate "probably high on drugs" launched an attack in class

TV cameras are set to lift the lid on Ireland’s “hellhole” prison system.

Images of riots and prisoners being singled out for bloody beatings are set to shock viewers when they are aired  tonight. They will highlight the dangers of life behind bars just days after a high-level report found gangs are out of control in the country’s jails.
One convicted robber who has been in and out of jail since the age of 16 warns other likely offenders on the new TV show that “prison is a dangerous place... a hellhole”.
And tonight at 10pm viewers of TV3’s The Joy will see a bloodied prisoner being battered around a classroom by an inmate, who Governor John Kavanagh maintains was “probably off his head on drugs”.
Mountjoy prison bosses will also be seen questioning an inmate and reviewing CCTV footage of him apparently being handed drugs by a caller in the visitors’ room.
It is because of this incident and numerous others – leading to an “explosion” of drugs being used inside – that large screens have been erected to stop physical contact between prisoners and visitors.
Michael Ellis (38), from Lorcan O’Toole Park, Crumlin, Dublin, is currently serving a four-year sentence for robbery.
“Prison is a danger place, it’s a hellhole,” he moans.
He was ordered by a judge to stay away from the village of Rathcoole after he committed a spate of offences over a three-month period. He stole €450 from a female assistant at Preview Entertainment, Main Street, Rathcoole, on January 29, 2010, and a month later raided Paddy Power Bookmakers, also in Rathcoole, taking €1,150.
During his Circuit Court trial for those offenses he was also convicted of robbing items worth €370 from an apartment in Rathcoole and criminal damage to a cell at Clondalkin Garda Station.
Ellis (pictured below) talks freely about his life of crime and his attempts at rehabilitation in this unprecedented four-part documentary series, the first TV programme to go behind the walls of Ireland’s most notorious jail.
“If you’re weak you won’t last, you have to be tough” he stresses. “You have to be tough. It’s a dangerous spot. There’s a different breed of prisoner, there’s different gangs.
“I’m 38 now. I first came to prisons when I was 16. I grew up in a disadvantaged area, where there was not much for us. I just ended up in crime.
“There is no respect anymore. At one time you did have young fellows running around and there was an older prisoner they’d respect. Today there’s no honour among thieves.”
Ellis describes being inside as being a “waste of life”.
“I’d love to be out and get a job, just work like normal people. I want to get out and be a father and bring up my daughter the best I can. I did wrong. I’m here and I’m doing time. I just want to get out.”
Cameras went behind the scenes of the famous 160-year-old Mountjoy complex for two years to see it undergo a major refit, changing from prisoners sometimes sleeping on floors in crowded cells and being forced to ‘slop out’, to being housed in one bedroom units complete with their own toilets.
Other prisoners who talk openly to camera on tomorrow night’s episode include James McArdle and Ronnie Emmett.
Emmett, who acts as the prison barber, maintains: “People aren’t addicted to crime, they’re addicted to drugs.”
There is a capacity for 475 prisoners in Mountjoy, a further 170 in Mountjoy West (which used to be St Patrick’s Institution for young offenders but now houses more violent prisoners), 96 in the transitional Training Unit and a further 120 in the Dochas women section. There are also 700 staff and eight governors.
McArdle, who has completed a drug free programme, says he held up a shop because he was on cocaine and he was a “little bo****ks”.
Officer O’Reilly explains how new prisoners have to sit in X-ray machines in the reception area to make sure they are not internally bringing in contraband.
A notorious prisoner, who has mental health issues, gets special treatment whenever he’s fed or goes for physical exercise. It takes seven officers – including four in full riot gear – to look after him.
A new modified hatch has been installed in the door to his cell, which allows easier transfer of his food. His cell has also been specially customised, to stop him ripping up items from it to use as improvised weapons to attack officers.
Officers explain how there are three sets of warring prisoner groups who have to be kept apart – especially if there’s an outbreak of gangland feuding among their mobs outside – and reveal how ‘shivs’ are made out of toothbrushes with an attached razor blade.
A clip from next week’s episode shows a mass violent brawl in the prison yard, epitomising how dangerous life can be in one of Ireland’s toughest jails.