I found John Lonergan’s autobiography (The Governor, Penguin Books, 2010) interesting because he had a very significant story to tell, and inspiring because of his humanity, strength of character, forbearance and patience. The man who completed over forty-two years in the Irish Prison Service seems to have had a remarkable ability to compartmentalize his work and not let the stress of it damage his self-worth, inner tranquillity or enjoyment of life, including his work life. He recognises and accepts that life is not ideal, that there are things one can achieve, things one can strive for and things one might go along with because not to do so could be to opt out of a possibility to do the most good that could be done in the circumstances. Reading the book made me feel glad, as an Irish citizen, that such a man was there doing his best for people, for so long, at Mountjoy jail and elsewhere in the prison service.
In his book John Lonergan clearly describes the inhuman conditions in Mountjoy for inmates and staff. I was therefore pleased to see on the RTE1 TV News, on Tuesday 6th March 2012, that toilet facilities are being installed in the cells, to be completed by the end of 2014—the clip did not include anything to suggest that overcrowding in Mountjoy was being addressed. The book contains a lot of food for thought and consideration. Education and appropriate activities in prisons are necessary. Drama can be a very positive thing in prison, it seems; surely it should be encouraged. Offenders can be helped to reorganize their lives in a positive way: many are greatly in need of the gift of hope. In a time of recession and when criminality is increasing there is not likely to be much public sympathy for reform of the custodial system. Logically, however, it has never been more important to re-evaluate how offenders of all types are dealt with, so that there will be the best outcome for society as a whole.
Clearly, something is not working if the numbers in prison are increasing, at great national cost, and crime is nonetheless increasing. If there are some echelons of criminals who can manage to evade prison, or avoid being held accountable for their crimes, that would be of concern too.
My subject area is engineering and, in particular, the practicalities of making the best use of energy. Recently I was discussing with students the concept of the maximum efficiency for heating a building. In a rather provocative way I suggested that, rather than having to pay money for energy to heat our houses, we should be thinking along the lines that a really well designed house would not need any extra energy for heating and, in fact, should be able to export useful energy. Of course there are lots of practicalities, but that would be the ideal. With regard to a penalty system for crime, I believe the same type of theoretical principle applies: those convicted offenders who are being punished for their offences should ideally make a positive contribution to society, while being denied some or many of the privileges that citizens ordinarily enjoy. The objective should also be that the human dignity of the offender is protected, even though they, in their crimes or offences, may have completely disregarded the human dignity of others. I believe there can be better ways of dealing with the issues than mainly relying on the outdated solutions of former ages.
As a citizen reading John Lonergan’s book, and as a tax payer, I felt unhappy at the way in which the Department of Justice seemed to deal with the prisons in an overly bureaucratic way: treating offenders as numbers without any consideration of their specific circumstances, for instance, and failures to liaise appropriately with the Governor of Mountjoy Prison.
I am not in favour of going easy on crime or on criminals, but it is important to me as a citizen that my country treats offenders in a humane way: humanity rather than punishment is the moral issue. The practical issue is to have effective and fair disincentives to commit offences or crime that are not too costly to implement and that still hold out hope for persons who are being appropriately punished. All offenders should be offered a path and support to become contributing and content members of society. Inevitably too, in cases where individual offenders are adjudged to be a danger to society their exclusion from free society is part of the practicality.
I am grateful to John Lonergan for his career’s work and his thought-provoking book.