1985 – 2004
On the 29th of March 1985, Fort Mitchel was handed over to the Dept. of Justice from the Dept. of Defence. ‘Defence’ retained responsibility for the remainder of the island as the civilian dwellings were occupied by the families of the military personnel. The decision to open a civilian prison on Spike Island stemmed from a growing problem within the inner cities of thieves stealing cars and driving them recklessly in the built up areas, a phenomenon that became known as joyriding.
There was no cellular accommodation available on Spike so the inmates were accommodated in the dormitories in ‘A’ Block that had only shortly before been used for Naval Service personnel. The old guard room was also used to house some of the inmates. There was on average one hundred inmates held on Spike during the summer of 1985. This situation was a recipe for disaster as they were not in secure cellular accommodation and on the night of Saturday, 31st August 1985 the inevitable happened. Around mid-night a riot erupted in ‘A’ Block. The night guards were very quickly overpowered and the prisoners took over the fort. The rioting ended around 4 a.m. when the hardcore inmates climbed onto the roof of Mitchel Hall. They remained there until they surrendered around 5 p.m. on Sunday evening. In the course of the riot ‘A’ Block was destroyed by fire as was the eastern end of ‘B’ Block.
Following the riot a decision was taken to convert the North East and North West Casemates into secure cells. Each Casemate became two four-man cells complete with in-cell sanitation. When the cells were completed in 1990 Fort Mitchel was capable of holding 102 male inmates. Two thirds of the prisoners were held in the North East Casemates which were re-named ‘A’ and ‘B’ Classes and the remainder were in the North-West Casemates which was re-named ‘C’ Class. The ‘A’ Block, destroyed during the riot was not rebuilt. ‘B’ Block was used for administration, catering and stores. The eastern end, destroyed during the riot was rebuilt in 1999. The northern side of ‘C’ Block was used as the inmates school, the southern side was used as the officer’s mess.
Three heritage projects were undertaken by staff and inmates. The first one involved the restoration of the 6″ gun on the south-west bastion. All of the movable parts of the gun had been removed by the military in 1985. These parts were in storage in Murphy Barracks, Ballincollig. In 1998 all of these items were relocated back to Spike and this enabled the completion of the gun restoration.
The second project resulted in the restoration of the convict graveyard, located on the south-west cornerof the island. During the summer of 1992 the convict graveyard was fully landscaped by staff and inmates. When the project was completed, the graveyard was re consecrated by Fr. Des Campion, C.F. Naval Service.
In 1999 it was decided to remove the three cannons which had been buried vertically on the edge of the pier and were used as bollards. The three guns were safely removed to the fort and were fully refurbished. The finished cannons now stand as silent sentinels guarding the main gate to the fort. However, the cost of operating an island prison, coupled with the coming on stream of new cell blocks in mainland prisons led to the closure of Fort Mitchel.
All the inmates were transferred in February 2004 and the prison was closed.