I have just watched Donal MacIntyre’s Inside Wandsworth Prison investigation on Channel Five.
I found the revelations of corruption at the prison during the governorship of Jim Heavens, particularly disturbing as his name has come up in some of my own past work on deaths in custody.
In the Irish World in May 2001, I broke the story that four Irish prisoners had committed suicide at Brixton prison in the preceding two years, and that other Irish prisoners claimed they were being victimised by prison officers who had served in Northern Ireland.
The matter would probably have rested there, but for the fact that two more Irish inmates hanged themselves in the same jail in 2002, causing an outcry in the Irish community.
As a result, the Prison Service appointed Wandsworth Governor Jim Heavens to carry out a review. He found that there was anti-Irish racism at Brixton but that it did not contribute to the deaths.
He also found that ten per cent of Brixton officers had served in the armed forces, but argued that this was not significant because the figure for Wandsworth was fourteen per cent.
(Incidentally, one person who has done a lot of good in relation to Brixton and Wandsworth is the former Chief Inspector of Prisons Sir David Ramsbotham, who ironically was at one time the top British Army general in Northern Ireland.)
As it happens, a second-generation Irishman, Kevin McSweeney, was found hanged at Wandsworth in November 2003.
Tonight’s revelations must raise further questions about what was the only significant investigation into the pattern of Irish deaths at Brixton.
I went to most of the inquests in these cases, which dealt with each case individually and therefore did not look at the ethnic angle.
What they did disclose however was the chronic crisis in the prison service, especially in relation to healthcare, and particularly treatment for the mental health problems that a high proportion of prisoners suffer from.
There is also a complete absence of the kind of accountability mechanisms that exist for the police. I suppose prisons are not as voter-friendly as schools and hospitals, but what goes on in them does matter, because the vast majority of prisoners will return to society eventually.
Some of my articles on Brixton and Wandsworth are archived at my old website. Eventually, I intend to move them here to The Green Ribbon under the appropriate dates.