The Prisoners’ Rights Organisation: a case study in grassroots organising, ‘history from below’ & police accountability


The Prisoners’ Rights Organisation (PRO) was founded in the early 1970s. Before its dissolution in the late eighties it was in many ways a unique phenomenon - a small but highly energetic grassroots organisation that consistently called public attention to cases of police brutality and misconduct through varied forms of street protest and media work. This article tells the story of the formation and development of the organisation and the ‘hidden history’ of  the PRO’s attempt to make police accountable.

The origins of the PRO
As the name suggests the PRO was not initially concerned with the gardaí but with prison conditions. In the early 1970s the prison system reached crisis point as more and more people were incarcerated in filthy, badly planned Victorian prisons. As a result Irish jails were convulsed by waves of protest and repression and the PRO emerged from this cycle of resistance. Specifically the organisation’s roots lie in a ‘Prisoners’ Union’ set up in Portlaoise in 1971 following a serious assault on an inmate by a warder. When members of the Portlaoise union were moved on to the Curragh and Mountjoy, prisoners’ unions were established there. Through the unions the prisoners began to document the reality of incarceration and to formulate clear demands for a more humane prison system (34). The demands were publicised outside the prisons by a hastily formed Committee for Prison Reform.  In 1972 a number of the prisoners who had been involved in the unions were released and began to work with some of the members of the Committee for Prison Reform which led in 1973 to the formation of the PRO.

The organisation was launched publicly in July 1973 at a packed meeting of ex-prisoners and human rights activists. The group soon proved to be extremely active and innovative. In the following months they organised a number of high profile meetings in Dublin at which radical clergymen, Irish and international  political activist and trade unionists (35) called on the government to reform the prison system.  At the same time they were routinely organising  pickets and protests outside prisons and the Department of Justice.

Within a couple of years of their inception, the PRO was involved in an enormous number of intiatives and projects. This activity took three forms - practical support and solidarity for prisoners, political agitation and protest, and media and research work. The practical support for prisoners involved a wide range of services  and even included running a bus for families visiting inmates, but most frequently involved making legal representations and complaints on behalf of prisoners. The political and media work drew directly on the information gathered while offering practical solidarity to prisoners  and was then disseminated  both  in their own publications and through the mainstream media.

However, despite the impressive level of energy shown by the PRO throughout its history, the core group of activists was very small - between 10 and 15 people. Initially it was mainly made up of ex-prisoners and was based solely in the north inner city of Dublin. Over the years the composition of the organising committee of the PRO changed somewhat and despite positioning itself as an explicitly ‘non –political’ organisation it did attract a number of political activists from both inside and outside the community into its ranks, most notably the feminist and socialist Máirín de Burca whose interest in prison reform stemmed from her own experience as  an inmate and Joe Costello who was a spokesman for the organisation for several years and later became a Labour TD for the north inner city. However, political activists were never a majority within the organising committee or the group as a whole.

Although the core activist group remained small, the PRO did over time spread beyond the north inner city in Dublin and eventually set up another branch in Cork and developed a fairly large active support base of people who would turn up at protests. By the late seventies the PRO had also developed a network of influential contacts in the media and in the legal profession. In 1979 they had the contacts and wherewithal to organise a high profile three-day public commission on the penal system chaired by Seán McBride with extensive submissions from prisoners, academics and legal experts. Remarkably, it was the first review of penal conditions in the history of the state. The event was reported by RTE and the Irish Times and later resulted in the publication of a book (36).

According to a campaigner active in the PRO throughout the eighties “letting the public know” by documenting and publicising the reality of everyday life in the prison system was seen internally as one of the central functions of the organisation. Particular attention was given to the personal experience of prisoners and in this respect the PRO can be regarded as part of a serious and sustained attempt to write the history of the criminal justice system in from ‘below’.  A key part of this was the regular publication and distribution of the Jail Journal which came out every couple of months. The journal was mainly written by prisoners or ex-prisoners, and the bulk of the publication was concerned with the experience of imprisonment through personal testimonies, poems, reports and analyses.  Although in the latter half of the life of the organisation the tone of the journal became a little more formal, it always retained a sense of immediacy and a connection with everyday life.   The publication built up a regular circulation in the low thousands by members selling it in pubs and at demonstrations.  The PRO tirelessly tried to bring the issues raised in the Jail Journal to the attention of journalists and a number of the stories first carried in the journal later featured in the national media (37).

The main publication was the Jail Journal, but the PRO also published a range of other material including a book on how to use prison rules to make legal cases about prison conditions. The organisation also took upon itself to do more ‘academic’ research. It completed socio-economic surveys of young and adult offenders and drew up reports on individual institutions (38). This grassroots research on crime and punishment  was completely unprecedented in an Irish context and demonstrated in a systematic way, for those who may have doubted it, that there was a clear link between poverty and imprisonment.

Given the emphasis the PRO gave to creating space for prisoners ‘to tell it like it is’ the organisation inevitably found itself getting to grips with and articulating with a whole swathe of problems which had a bearing on prisoners’ lives but which were not directly connected with gaols. So along with prison conditions the Jail Journal often carried articles about social inequality, mental health and the anomalies and idiocies of the court system.  In this way the remit of the organisation widened somewhat. As a consequence in the 1980s the PRO even found itself involved in the struggle against the criminalisation of street traders in Dublin’s inner city and it even became one of the first groups to do advocacy work and popular education on the issue of HIV/Aids.

The PRO and Garda brutality
It is unsurprising then that from very early on in its history the organisation found itself documenting cases of Garda brutality. This would come to the attention of the PRO either through personal contacts or from people who would arrive at the regular committee meetings and give an account of their experience at the hands the police. Advice would then be offered on how to proceed against the police.  The PRO would then double check the story and great care was taken to be scrupulously accurate and avoid any exaggeration. If they thought the story was credible they would contact the media and hold a picket at the station where the incident occurred.   The stories were written up in the Jail Journal and followed up in various ways either through further protests or through legal means. Significantly the PRO would offer support to the victim right through any legal or complaints process.  Eventually policing became one of the major concerns of the PRO and every edition of the Jail Journal prominently included a list of rights when arrested and occasionally carried advice on how to best to deal with the police.

In fact one of the highpoints of the PRO’s activity and certainly some of the most visible and angry protests that the PRO was involved in concerned a high profile case of police violence. Eamonn Byrne a 22 year old from the north inner city was shot during a foiled armed robbery in November 1982 on the North Wall. On the morning in question Byrne and two other went to steal the cash from the purser’s office on a B & I ferry docked in Dublin port but when it became clear that the gardaí had foreknowledge of the robbery Byrne and the others decided to abandon their plans. They attempted to flee but failed and Eamonn Byrne was shot while unarmed and on the ground. The gardaí said the shot was discharged accidentally, but it widely believed that his death was suspicious and that the gardaí had set out that morning to settle a score with Byrne .

Some of the suspicion and anger created by the death of Eamonn Byrne stemmed from the fact that he was very well known and popular young man in the north inner city who was viewed by many as a Robin Hood sort of character. More importantly though, it was common knowledge that in the months  preceding the botched robbery Byrne had approached several  organisations including the PRO and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and made statements that he worried about his safety and that the gardaí had it in for him.  In the wake of these events the PRO regularly mobilised hundreds for numerous well attended pickets and demonstrations. Sympathetic articles about Byrne appeared in the mainstream media  and although the gardaí were exonerated the PRO had a key role in articulating a community’s concerns and creating media and legal pressure for greater police accountability.

Assessing the impact of the PRO on Garda brutality
Byrne’s case is in someways representative of the strengths and limitations of the PRO work in general. Looking back over the organisation’s history it is clear that because the PRO was embedded in the community, had a stable organisational structure, enjoyed a network of legal, media and political contacts and above all was willing to provide a public forum for stories of misconduct and brutality it was a uniquely well placed to make the invisible abuse of police power a visible phenomenon (39). Eventually through an accumulation of individual stories the PRO was able to build up a picture of what was happening in custody in a way that had not been done before for ‘non-political’ everyday policing. Specific gardaí, specific stations and particular patterns in behaviour emerged as particularly important through these stories and the PRO was able to link them across time. In some ways the PRO helped construct a collective memory of what was happening in particular stations and see structural patterns which before could be written as ‘anomalies’ or the actions of ‘rogue’ gardaí. Following this up over an extended period of time demonstrated that violent macho cultures flourished in certain stations (40), most often in or at the edge of working class areas, and must have therefore either been encouraged or at least given tacit approval by senior officers.

The PRO dissolved in the mid-eighties. According to one of the members of the PRO active at this time this was primarily because drug abuse changed the social dynamics within the communities that PRO was rooted in and led to some of their erstwhile supporters falling away. In retrospect it is difficult to judge how effective the PRO’s work was in making the gardaí more accountable. The PRO never reached, and for various reasons probably could never have reached, the sort of size  where their work would have a clearly discernible direct effect on policing (41). However, activity such as regular pickets outside a given police station, the naming of gardaí guilty of brutality in print and the creation of visible networks of solidarity, however hard to measure, is very likely to have had numerous hidden positive effects . What is easier to establish is that that the PRO alongside left wing activists, Republicans and to a lesser extent international NGOs such as Amnesty helped to change, to some extent, the public discourse about policing between the 1970s and 1980s.

More importantly still what the PRO demonstrates is that the work of a small committed group of activists, however poorly resourced and however enormous the task they face, can create a new cultural and political space where silenced stories can be aired, elaborated and thought through. And at the very least, through persistent research, protest and media work, the PRO created a powerful chink in the armour of untouchable moral righteousness that continues to contribute so much to the lack of Garda accountability in Ireland.

WORDS: Garda Research Institute

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34. It is noteworthy that compared to other groups involved in the wave of prison protests that took place Europe in America in the same period, both the PRO and the Prisoner’s Unions’ demands were very modest. Although the PRO was critical of the justice system and class inequality there was no call for the abolition of prisons and the group was certainly not explicitly anti-capitalist. Instead they called for reform and less punitive conditions and demanded meaningful rehabilitation through education. Interestingly some of the Jail Journal articles even expressed concern about warder’s working conditions. This of course reflects the mooring of the PRO in prisoners’ experience and a political pragmatism rather than radical politics. In fact some senior PRO members deeply distrusted ideologically driven activists.
35. In the first few years of the PRO, the organisation tried hard to develop connections with the trade union movement and called for the formation of official prison unions which would be affiliated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.
36. Seán McBride (Ed) (1982) Crime and punishment. Ward River Press: Dublin37. This of course depended on a type  of crime journalism very different from the fare which predominates at the moment (a mish mash of warmed-over Garda press releases, sensationalism and right wing prejudice). In the 70s and 80s the public was well served by the investigative journalism of Hibernia and Magill and the work of writers like Gene Kerrigan, Nell McCafferty and Vincent Browne.

38. See for instance PRO (1978) Loughan House: a survey of fifty 12-16 year old male offenders from the Sean McDermott Street - Summerhill area of Dublin’s inner city. PRO: 1978.
39. Some of the victims of police brutality, especially from communities where aggressive policing was not the norm, who met with the PRO were relieved to find people who believed that unprovoked assault by the Garda was in any way believable.40. For example Store Street, Fitzgibbon Street and Sundrive Road.
41. As already has been suggested, both the strength and the weakness of the PRO was it was deeply rooted in the specific social experience of prisoners and to a lesser extent embedded in one specific geographical area (the north inner city of Dublin). Such a close identification meant that the PRO had limited appeal outside of communities in which imprisonment is a fairly common experience. This also certainly put off some of the more ‘respectable’ members within  the community from which the PRO drew most of its support.