Prison Life

          Prison life  

For the vast majority prison life is foreign to them and what goes on in those institutions. But for some 3,700 citizens of this country, everyday prison life is a reality. Many people think that prison life is a holiday camp, but I can assure you that when you hear those heavy doors clang behind you, even on visitation, it is a sound that remains in your memory.  Visiting prisoners is one of the Corporal Works of Mercy, values not spoken about too often in these days, but still as essential as when they were first mooted. It is essential that prisoners have visitors and people keep in touch with them. This assists them in returning to their communities or society down the road. A letter or a card is always welcome to let them know that no matter what the crime they are still part of a family.

When a prisoner arrives in prison for the first time they state that it is a shock to the system. Prisoners also state that Prison officers wouldn’t be the friendliest of individuals, and don’t have much respect for prisoners. When you arrive at the reception your clothes and belongings are taken from you and you are issued with prison clothes – cheap jeans, a white t-shirt, a cheap shirt and underwear. You get clean bedclothes, a towel, soap and a toothbrush and you are brought to your cell. A prison block is a bit like a block of flats – noisy. You can hear televisions and music playing and prisoners calling out to each other. Prisoners are nervous, not knowing what lies ahead and wondering what other prisoners would be like. They feel unsafe and at risk.

The day starts at about 8.15am when cells are unlocked to allow inmates to collect breakfast to eat in their cells. They are locked back in until 9.15am, after which they attend workshops or classes, see visitors or exercise and do the chores allotted to them. Prisoners return at noon, for lunch, which they are locked into their cells also to eat. At 2.15pm they are allowed out for more structured activities: school, workshops, and visits. Tea is served at 4 pm when prisoners are locked into their cells until 5.20pm.  Unlocked for 2 hours recreation in the ‘rec’ room until 7.30pm. The ‘rec’ is usually a couple of grim smoke-filled rooms with 2 pool tables and some telephones. You get one 6 minute call a day. The prison officers stand guard outside. After the two hours of recreation, their cells are shut again at 7.30pm. In total, they can spend eight hours a day out of their cells.

After breakfast, they unlock prisoners who appear on the landings, brushes, and mops are grabbed, bins emptied, chat and talk. You look around, you know no-one, you’re out of place, you just want to go back into your cell and bang out the door. But you can’t, you must go out, you’re sent out, out to the yard. Just take the Midlands prison, as elsewhere,  the yard is grim. 30m x 30m of black tarmac surrounded by high concrete walls and steel fences topped with razor wire. The ground is filthy, stained with dirt and spit. Many prisoners spit a lot, even inside the prison. There’s a toilet in the corner of the yard. It’s filthy. There’s a water tap there too but it’s broken. The morning session in the yard is long. 2½ hours till lock-up for lunch at 12 noon. Some prisoners walk, in circles, some play cards or just sit and stand around chatting and smoking. Everyone looks tough and hard, as most prisoners are a dangerous looking lot. You pick someone out to talk to, to walk with, so as you’re not on your own. You’re nervous, struggling for things to say, wanting to just be like the other prisoners. You’re careful when you look at people and make sure not to bump into anyone. You’re vulnerable and careful not to make any wrong moves. Violence erupts at the least thing. Frustration and anger is part of the vast majority of prisoners.

Some prisoners are called from the yard for school, the gym, a visit, or a visit to the Governor. These are options for all, and you make a mental note of every bit of information coming your way. Back out to the yard again from 2.30 till 4 pm and locked in for tea until 5.30pm. Unlock at 5.30pm for 2 hours recreation in the ‘rec’ room until 7.30pm. The ‘rec’ is a couple of grim smoke-filled rooms with 2 pool tables and some telephones. You get to make one 6 minute phone call a day. The prison officers stand guard outside.

In Ireland, murder carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. A life sentence in Ireland may last for the natural life of the convict. It is not necessarily “life imprisonment” in practice, as not all of the life sentence is generally served in prison custody. The granting of a temporary or early release of life-sentenced prisoners is a feature of the Irish prison system handled by the Minister for Justice and Equality. In deciding on the release from prison of a prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment, the Minister will always consider the advice and recommendations of the Parole Board of Ireland. The Board, as of 2007, will normally review prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment after seven years have been served; however, the sentencing judge can extend this to a maximum of 30 years or order that the prisoner is to spend the remainder of their life in prison.  The Parole Board of Prisons tries to find suitability for parole. The board looks at things like psychiatric evaluations, disciplinary records, supervisor reports, vocational training, education certificates, self-help participation, parole plans, and letters of support. They will also ask questions to determine if the prisoner has gained insight into what caused factors that led to the crime, what have been done to address those issues, and plans for making sure it never happens again.  You learn very early on what an uphill climb lay in front from the other lifers who had already received several denials from the Board.  Only a handful of lifers were being found suitable for release, and even some of them had their dates taken back by a reversal of a decision from the Governor. For a lifer who is trying to earn his freedom, and not all are because many are still caught up in their addictions and criminal thinking, the margin for error is razor thin. Any rule violations from a fistfight to a dirty urinalysis test could be grounds for a parole board denial and add several years to your sentence.   All infractions or breaking of rules are documented in a lifer’s C-file and usually result in them receiving a denial. Currently, the Board is looking for a 5 to 10-year span of disciplinary free behaviour before finding a lifer suitable for parole. Prisoners serving very long sentences, including life sentences, are normally reviewed on a number of occasions over a number of years before any substantial concessions are recommended by the Board.  The final decision as to whether a life sentenced prisoner is released rests solely with the Minister, and as such, the length of time spent in custody by offenders serving life sentences can vary substantially.

Of those prisoners serving life sentences who have been released, the average sentence served in prison is approximately 12 years. One year in jail equals 12 months. However, every jail calculates something they call “good-time credits” which usually ends up shaving a certain number of days off per month served. This varies from one jail to the next.

In 2015, there were around 350 people serving life sentences in Irish prisons and another 76 ‘lifers’ walking the streets.  As we are all too familiar with, a life sentence in Ireland does not mean life behind bars, with the average life sentence lasting approximately 18 years or less with remissions. But there is a handful for whom the term has encapsulated most of their lives. The longest-serving prisoners are two of the country’s most notorious killers. John Shaw and Geoffrey Evans told Gardaí that they planned on abducting and killing a woman in Ireland every week. They murdered twice before they were caught. Shaw, now aged 71, is still alive and in prison almost 38 years later. Evans died in jail. It is understood that Shaw is looking for day release. Ireland’s longest-serving prisoner is octogenarian Jimmy Ennis, who has been institutionalised for much of his life. Life sentences have become a lot longer with prisoners now spending more than 20 years behind bars before release. ‘Lifers’ served less than eight years, on average, between 1975 and 1984 — but their time behind bars has tripled to an average of 22 years. The tougher approach to prisoners serving life has been revealed by law lecturer Diarmuid Griffin.  His findings will surprise those who mistakenly believe that life sentences are considerably shorter than they are in practice. Ireland has the third highest rate of life-sentence prisoners in Europe per capita. The mandatory nature of sentencing is questionable but what’s the alternative, asks Diarmuid Griffin. Life imprisonment is on the up. In 2016, one in every nine sentenced prisoners was serving a life sentence.

Curiously, the ever-increasing life sentence prisoner population comes at a time when the overall prison population is decreasing. There has been a fall in the prison population since 2014, due in part to a more strategic approach to prison policy.  Despite this, there are 213 more life sentence prisoners in custody today than in 2001, an overall increase of 153%.

Recent data released by the Council of Europe showed that Ireland had the third highest rate of life sentence prisoners as a percentage of the overall prison population in Europe.  Nine of the 10 female ‘lifers’ are at the Dochas prison, on the Mountjoy campus,  with the remaining female serving her term at Limerick prison. Although Ireland has no sex register, sex offenders must contact the local Garda station when they move to an area and notify the Garda of any change in their living circumstances or plans to travel abroad.

Those who work in the prison do so for around six hours a day for less than 10.00 euro pay per week. The type of work varies, and there are a number of opportunities available. Other than the essential security of the prison, just about everything else is done by inmates. That includes cleaning, painting, cooking, laundry and general jobs. Prison industry could be anything from making clothing, items for charities, crafts, and arts. The work is very mundane. There were benefits to working – it was something to do, and even menial tasks helped to pass the time. Locked up for at least 16 hours a day can be claustrophobic, but when your door banged out, no-one would bother you and you were safe in your own world.

No prison is drug-free, with Castlerea probably the least affected. Heroin is readily available and often prisoners become addicted while in the confines of the prison.  Mountjoy, for example, is meant to be the worst prison for all kinds of drugs. It is a dangerous place, a  challenging jail. Men in Castlerea smoke the odd joint and smoke heroin when available to get them through the long nights, the long months and the long years. The jail goes through phases when there are drugs to be had in the prison and phases where things are quiet. Education and training are available to long-term prisoners at the prison schools and workshops, Open University included.  Lifers talk about the ‘prison warehouse’. I’m convinced that most murders are committed by accident. By that I mean they are not planned. It is anger out of control. Circumstances give rise to a fight and someone ends up dead. Next morning they are full of remorse. A conviction for murder is an automatic life sentence. It’s possible to be released on parole after 16 years or so.

The Parole Board won’t even meet you till you’ve done at least 7 years. A successful achievement on an anger management course is just one of the requirements set by the board. Lifers talk about simply being warehoused in the meantime with little interest shown in their welfare or early rehabilitation. They are just locked up away from society.  The recent ‘Report on an Inspection of Limerick prison’ Judge Michael O’Reilly making scathing reports that are damning. I’m surprised more prisoners don’t sue the Prison Service and the Minister for Justice for breaches of human rights, rights which remain lawfully attached to prisoners, despite the deprivation of their liberty. On the 7th April 2017, St Patrick’s Institution was subsumed into Mountjoy Prison. This was supposed to be done many years before on account of the inhuman conditions there.

People assume prisons to be dangerous places filled with dangerous men. If things boiled over that would be true. There are no shrinking violets in prison. Prisoners have to be selfish to protect themselves and they will fight, gangs do look out for each other. Fights are common enough in every prison and a lot of them take place in the yard while on recreation. It’s normally the younger men that fight when tensions rise and their mates stir it up. You always know when there’s going to be a fight. Things go very quiet in the yard and people start sitting down, watching. There are normally one or two lads winding up some lad to fight some other lad because of what someone said or did. Inevitably two lads stand up to punch or kick to the ground. A ring forms around the fighters and there are some hard punches thrown. The prison officers radio around the jail for support and the fight is broken up in minutes if not seconds. Prison officers encourage men to shake hands. It’s rare enough that a serious fight resulting in serious injury will happen, but it does happen. Men may fight in their cells and things can kick off anywhere.  Bullying goes on. What happens in the prison generally stays in the prison. It’s illegal to assault someone or to have mobile phones or drugs. But punishment is confined to the prison in the form of withdrawal of privileges or sometimes a lengthening of a sentence. Prison officers don’t go telling tales to the police.

The job of Governor is increasingly more difficult. Dealing with self-harm and assaults on prison officers are part of the job, but the biggest stress is a constantly overflowing volume of work.  Governors are leaving the profession and Prison Officer numbers have been cut. At the same time, the number of incidents that have to be dealt with, including attacks, suicide attempts and instances of self-harm, has increased. In the year to September 2014, there were 1,958 serious assaults in prison – an increase of 33% on the previous year. That figure includes 431 attacks on prison staff. It all makes for an increasingly demanding job.

As Governors, they are expected to possess a wide range of skills, from incident control to personnel management. It also helps to have some knowledge of medical law and to have the people skills to deal with everyone from a violent prisoner to a judge. Governors are contracted to work 37 hours a week, but almost all work significantly longer hours, without overtime, just to meet the minimum demands of the job. Some stress is healthy, but the frequency of incidents and the increase in the volume of work means that all prison staff find themselves being stressed beyond what can be acceptable, which results in Governors and prisons officers leaving to become train drivers or some other less demanding life. Some prisons are more stressful than others, but all are subject to the same degree of public scrutiny, particularly if something goes wrong. If you think about the lives of those who man the prisons, they also spend 8 hours locked stressful conditions that can erupt at any time, you must always be on your own guard. They control the most violent and disturbed people in this country for the safety of all citizens. And deserve our sincere thanks.

Peg Hanafin MSc. Rehabilitation/ counsellor/ Psychologist  14/7/18