An Irish prison guard considers his career

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The most surprising thing about these harrowing and intriguing working memoirs is how measured and factual they are. While not as snappy as Paul Howard’s The Joy or as intense as John Lonergan’s The Governor, it’s a slowburner that ultimately satisfies. McDonald remains calm and even a bit unbiased for much of the narrative. He describes sinister situations in a discreet manner. His insight quickly becomes apparent, and one quickly realizes that this is the story of a very capable prison guard. He comes out calm, logical, pragmatic and intuitive. He is decisive and dynamic.

He and his co-writer Mick Clifford never resort to purple prose. There are no histrionics and I suspect no embellishment. This book is contemplative but still very revealing. Eventually it gets more personal, and then it takes on real anger and intensity.

Unlocked is a meditation on the need to adapt to the realities of your environment. There is a toughness everywhere here, a robust pragmatism. There is stubbornness when necessary, even intransigence. It recounts in detail a seemingly endless war of attrition with prisoners. In some ways, this is an elaborate game with morale-boosting wins, but also embarrassing setbacks. The objective is above all to maintain the status quo. McDonald argues that the issues posed often require a cold, hard response. In his thoughtful way, he takes us through difficult situations. There’s not an ounce of sentimentality shown, but he’s clearly extremely invested.

His skill did not go unnoticed and his career progressed rapidly. First in Mountjoy, he learned to cope with the notoriously feverish atmosphere there. After working with AIDS victims, he comes to the sad realization that “some things can’t be left at the prison door.” This could easily serve as an epigraph to this memoir.

He eventually moved to Portlaoise and then to Midlands Prison, but the highlight of his career was clearly working for the Operational Support Group (OGS). Security has now become even more central, the adage “In God we trust, we seek all others” applies. Cell searches have been increased and have become more thorough. The dismantling of prison gangs taking hold becomes a priority. Punishment and control rather than rehabilitation are clearly the focus here.

McDonald is quick to express his views on the Irish prison service. He also delivers many surprising anecdotes about notorious Irish criminals. Her encounters with John Gilligan, Christy Kinihan, Dutchy Holland and Dessie O’Hare are described with seductive candor. His chapter on the bizarre incident when Portlaoise prisoner John Daly called Joe Duffy’s Liveline radio show is amusing, but also insightful about the repercussions for the Prison Service. The transcript of the phone call included here is a reminder of what a surreal and uniquely Irish encounter it was.

The story of the breakdown in the relationship between McDonald and prison management gives the book a different focus. His writing becomes more powerful, more emphatic. By the time he transferred to Portlaoise in 2016, disillusion set in. The “resistance to change” continues to infuriate him. When he is transferred again – back to the Midlands – he is adamant it is a punitive posting. When describing his inevitable exit, the tone is understandably dark. Despite his disaffection, he gives us much to ponder here.

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