How We, as a Society, Actually Care for Our Vulnerable Children

Now that we have passed the children’s Referendum to give the State even more power over vulnerable and damaged children, it is very interesting to read a recent report by Judge Michael Reilly, the Inspector of Prisons.  Judge Reilly sat on the bench for many years in Thurles, Co. Tipperary  and  always approached his duty with understanding, care and insightfulness.  He always considered backgrounds, circumstances and understood the frailties of life when passing judgement.  I felt that when he became the Inspector of Prisons that his visits and his wisdom would be always fair and compassionate to those who are young and incarcerated and would highlight injustices suffered by them and hopefully get the support from Government Departments  (Education/ Justice) to have them addressed.

His report, made public on the 16/10/2012 is damning of our State’s care of the human rights of children and that a culture of abuse of young adults was being ignored and living conditions were beyond intolerable in St. Patricks Institution, where young boys of sixteen and over are held in prison, which  was used as a Women’ Prison located within Mountjoy  and built in 1850.  In 1956 when inmates were transferred from a Borstal in Clonmel   it became the accepted prison for young boys and young adults under twenty one.  In 2002 a new unit was built for boys between the ages of fourteen and  sixteen  but insightfully was never opened. Judge Reilly in his report has raised concerns about many issues of grave injustices in healthcare, lack of  education,  drug abuse,  and the use of deplorable  practices of control and restraint and many other unacceptable practices.  Young boys are locked in their cells for twenty three hours a day and officers there had no  adequate  training  in the care of these boys. One disciplinary procedure which is used  is  the stopping of families visiting the boys, an unacceptable and uncivilized punishment in any society and contrary to European prison rules.  The locking up in small cells  housing three or four inmates and in overcrowded, dirty conditions , for twenty three hours per day  is an indictment of  how we treat the weakest, most vulnerable and  disadvantaged in our society,  and in the care of the State.

Young boys are stripped of their clothes and given just underwear and an over-garment similar to a poncho when placed in observation cells.  Forcing young boys to undress in such a manner is degrading, intimidating and abusive.  The Report also found that bedclothes were dirty, and not changed after a prisoner moves on, cells were  dirty and in need of painting,  toilets  blocked, and no access to running water.  Other areas of the prison were dirty and unhygienic and had broken equipment. Judge Reilly also found that the prison lacked even basics like footballs and structured activities were limited.     He also said that the drug problem in St. Patricks Institution was the worst amongst all prison systems. There is a culture of bullying, fear and intimidation by some prison staff against young boys and young adults who are helpless and defenceless.  He also found that prisoners were forcibly moved to isolation cells using head and arm-locks as a control and restraint method.  These methods are totally outdated and unacceptable.   Once in the cells they were forcibly stripped, at times the clothes cut off their backs by staff using knives and leaving injuries.  Some of these boys had already been the victims of sexual and physical abuse when younger.  Prison gangs were rife and there was no proper management structure.  What a sorry mess  the State stands over, in  retraining  people and preparing  them for going back to their communities,  which all prisoners do eventually.

On a very recent visit Judge Reilly found one young boy on twenty four hour lockup  for two months. This is unimaginable and intolerable and is extremely damaging to the mental health of the prisoner.   He had an eye injury which he claimed he got when he fell from his bed, Judge Reilly did not believe him, highlighting  again  the fear element that exists about making complaints about prison officers.  So obviously nothing of note has changed to better the lot of these young people who today in our society are still enduring the most awful of cruel punishments.  For over thirty years the regime that is implemented in St. Patricks Institution has been condemned by Amnesty International and by  visiting committees,  to no avail.  It is a well researched fact that this type of treatment not alone is capable of permanent damage, to those so young,  but incurs anger and resentments that last all of their lives, and inhibits any kind of  rehabilitation,   making  them into hardened criminals on release.  That is the culture that we as a Society stand over and ignore,  and  the State and the authorities  turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to these helpless and  troubled  young men.  It is shameful and damning, to say the least,  of those who have the power to change this regime.

Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice kept the report of Judge Reilly under wraps for over three months  before it was published, (along with eight other prison reports) suggesting that he was  attempting to limit the impact of Judge Reilly’s findings.  Fr. Ciaran  Enright  chaplain to St. Patrick’s Institution, has said that all these issues have been raised  many times before and ignored,  and we still have young people locked up for twenty three hours a day, to this very day.

Now that the State has been given more power in the recent referendum to “cherish all our children equally” I hope we see a revolution in how we manage and rehabilitate  those so young who are being utterly  neglected by those in power, including our new Minister for Children.  How our leaders and those in power can stand over such a regime and do nothing, beggars  belief.  Every scrap of research shows that without respect and dignity you will never recover normality for those we imprison.    Prisoners must be treated with respect,  dignity, concern, kindness and understanding, to make prisoners,  who will all eventually be released back into society, accept that misdeeds do not pay in the long run and that when their debt is paid to society that they will leave with the memory that those who were in control, led by example.  The example that our young boys, all two hundred and thirty of them who are imprisoned every day in St. Patricks,  will have memories  that will have shaken them to the core,  forever, and  will continue to be even more angry and violent as they return to their communities, far worse than when they were  sent to prison.

It is a sad reflection on a Christian country that have recently given more power to the State that stands over such abuse, which in some cases are worse than what the inmates have been incarcerated for, and appear to think that it is acceptable.  It  should  make us all stop and think what type of society do we want and is imprisonment of children under eighteen  working,  giving Judge Reilly’s condemnation of such  conditions in the 21st century.  In recent weeks the Minister for children said that no more young adults under eighteen will be sent to St. Patricks Institution, this is a step in the right direction but there’s a long way to go.  What about those a little older with poor education, generally from dysfunctional backgrounds,  and  are stuck in the poverty trap with no way out?  And are we seeing the makings of another Redress Board and millions of euros in compensation being paid to these  young  boys  down the road?  The Government do not appear to have learned any lessons from the recent past. With the abuse suffered by those so young at the hands,  and in the care of the State, it will be no surprise.