‘You wouldn’t do this to a dog’
CORK PRISON REPORT: Cormac O’Keeffe
From slopping out to learning arts and crafts,Cormac O’Keeffe looks at what life is like on the inside in the first of a two part series
IT’S hard to know what to expect when 226 men are unlocked from cells after 12 hours inside. Particularly when they’ve only had a plastic bucket to use as a toilet an guess d the bulk of cells, about the size as a box bedroom, have two men packed into them.
The ‘slop out’ room in A1 wing in Cork Prison comprises two large and filthy toilet bowls. It’s a narrow, open room, with a container of disinfectant on the floor, a mop beside it, and another mop holding a window open. It has a concave floor, with a small drain in the middle.
As the clock ticks past 8am, we are taken to C block and into the C1 landing. This is where prisoners who are best behaved stay.
Accompanying us is chief officer John Connolly, an imposing 6ft barrel of a man, 35 years in the job, 13 of them in Cork Prison.
There are single cells and a more relaxed regime in C1. The lino, although grey, is gleaming and the slop out room is less scary than A1. The walls are clean and white, and the bowls are clean. There is a long drain in the floor.
At 8.09am the cells are opened individually and men make for the slop out room carrying white buckets with lids. There’s little ceremony or drama to the ‘slopping out’. It is similar to a quick pit stop: Contents are emptied quickly into the toilet, the bucket is washed out with a tap over the toilet, and disinfectant is spayed into it.
It’s over in a matter of seconds. Then the next person goes through the motions. Despite the presence of a journalist and photographer, accompanied by prison staff and officials from the Irish Prison Service, there are jokes and banter between the inmates.
Some only give the quickest of rinses to their bowls. Others don’t bother with the disinfectant. None seem to wash their hands.
“Ye get used to it after a while,” one prisoner says. “It was bad at first, but I guess ‘m here four years.”
The inmates grab milk and fruit from a trolley and are back in their cells. Some queue for the cubicles, toilet roll in hand, with one quipping from inside, “take a photograph of this”.
We are brought to an outdoor area outside the main A and B block and confronted with an odd sight, which requires only a brief explanation from prison staff.
Little white bags are caught up in the barbed wires outside a wall on the block and on an adjacent wall guess . This is w guess here inmates have defecated into the bags and shoved them out through narrow slits in the grills at the cell windows. A specialist company has to come in from time to time to remove them.
“The big thing here,” Connolly says, looking up at the bags, “is obviously the lack of in cell sanitation and overcrowding, having two people to a cell, sometimes three.”
He says this is due to the sheer amount of committals ie, those sent by the courts to the prison. “The biggest issue is the volume coming in for not paying fines. We have to process them and they literally go back out.”
Walking around outside, the separate buildings, grey and grim, comprising the prison are packed tight together. Inside you can feel the age in the walls, but they are painted brightly, in reds, magnolia, peach, and white, and lino floors throughout are spotless and gleaming.
At the second landing in the Bl block, or B2, the rubbish bin near the slop out room is overflowing and bags lay on the ground.
On B3, tops, shorts, towels, and other clothes are draped over heaters that run along the middle of the landing, looking down to the lower floors.
At 9.10am, the cells are unlocked again. On B3, with 31 inmates on the landing, it is busier and there is more of a rush to slop out.
First is a muscled man carrying cutlery and a rubbish bag. He laughs as he washes his plate and utensils, while a guy beside him empties his bucket into a toilet. Grabbing him on his way out, he says he doesn’t mind it now, that he’s used to it. At one stage there is a little queue to get in, with four men already inside.
Later, we talk to the muscled youth in his cell, which he shares with a friend. Neither of them look particularly hardened. Aged 24 and 22, and from Cork, they are in for assault, 12 months and 18 months respectively.
“It’s grand,” says the muscled guy, “I thought it be worse. The slop out rooms smell bad [but] OK.”
His friend says the slop out rooms are “disgusting”, but that they were OK as they were both “hygienic”. They busy themselves in the school during the day and the gym at night.
More serious looking guys are hanging out on the landing. One big fella is mopping the floor of his cell and outside. The inside of his cell is decked out impressively in posters, mainly Rasta ones. He’s doing 16 months and has six done.
“The slopping out is bad, the worst part,” he says. “The smell can be awful. Some guys do a shit in bags and throw it out the window.”
Guys on the other side of the landing are messing with him as we speak. “Sure go in for the night with him and see what it’s like,” says one.
When it’s put to him that some people on the outside mightn’t care what their toilet conditions are like, he says: “We do our punishment already. You wouldn’t do this to a dog.”
The inmates are given 20 minutes or so to use the toilets, clean up, hang out, and have a chat. There’s little sense of hostility.