Thursday 19 October 2017

Inside a women's prison: 'My daughter thinks I'm away doing a hairdressing course'

Women are a tiny minority in Irish prisons, largely serving short terms for non-violent crimes. Does it make sense to keep them in jails built by men, for men?

Cathal McMahon

Cathal McMahon

For over 100 years, criminals being admitted to Limerick prison were handed bedclothes, a toothbrush and a comb. It was a standard package and nobody saw any reason to change. Until recently, when one woman went to assistant governor Dr Richard Roche and complained.

The inmate, who had a particularly thick head of hair, argued that a flimsy plastic comb was useless when tackling her curls.

Roche was struck by the simplicity of the request and embarrassed he hadn't spotted it sooner.

Today, every female prisoner gets a brush when they are committed to the prison.

Waiting game: prisoners in Limerick wait in the corridor. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Waiting game: prisoners in Limerick wait in the corridor. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Roche tells this story by way of explaining the subtle, and not so subtle, differences between male and female inmates behind prison walls.

Our prisons, he says, "are built by men, for men". In his view, our whole thinking surrounding the imprisonment of women needs to change.

"We hear it all the time: 'Why don't you treat women the same as you treat men in custody?'

"We would argue that equality is not about treating everybody the same. Equality is about treating everybody in accordance with their specific needs."

No real security risk

On the day Independent.ie visits Limerick prison, 34 inmates are serving a variety of sentences.

Family pictures: a cell in Limerick Prison. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Family pictures: a cell in Limerick Prison. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

In total there are 10 women serving life sentences for murder in the Irish prison system, one of whom is in Limerick. But the vast majority of women in custody are jailed for non-violent crimes and women make up less than 4pc of the prison population.

According to the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), almost nine out of every 10 women are committed to prison for failure to pay court-ordered fines. Most women are released within a few hours of admission.

Outside of this group, just under a third of female prisoners are serving sentences of less than 12 months, compared with 15pc of male prisoners. And 16pc of women are serving sentences of more than five years, compared with 40pc of male prisoners.

Roche argues that the vast majority of women who come into Limerick Prison "are no real security risk".

Many are serving sentences for shoplifting and crimes associated with prostitution.

"They are not really a threat to anybody other than themselves," he says.

Richard Roche, assistant governor at Limerick Prison. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Richard Roche, assistant governor at Limerick Prison. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

"We don't need the same level of security for a lot of the women that we need with the men. Sometimes, because women are a minority in a prison system, we tend to lump them all in together… Generally men get all the resources."

There are workshops for carpentry and other skills in the male prison while women are "often left with just knitting and school", he notes.

The distance factor

There are only two female prisons in the state, Limerick and the Dóchas Centre in the Mountjoy campus on Dublin's North Circular Road. So if a woman from Donegal or West Cork is jailed, they must serve their time in either Dublin or Limerick. Some inmates are a significant distance away from parents, partners and, crucially, children.

Roche says this distance has a disproportionate effect on female prisoners.

"It has an unusually extra punitive impact on women when they are put in prison. It is so much greater than it is for an awful lot of men."

Asked what the alternative would be, Roche says that each community needs to share the burden.

"In an ideal world, if it was my call, I would prefer to have a large number of smaller community care centres in local communities. It would be far more effective. We know that maintaining relationships keeps people from returning to prison. Women don't get as many visits as the lads do," he says.

A number of Scandinavian countries follow this model.

The community option

The IPRT subscribes to this view and says alternatives need to be found to jailing women.

Fíona Ní Chinnéide, acting executive director of the IPRT, adds: "Offending by women is better dealt with in the community. Gender-specific alternatives to prison, which take into account the complex needs of female offenders - for example, supported community service schemes - should be developed and made available on a nationwide basis."

Roche, who deals with both sides of the prison in the course of his work, says the difference between the genders is quite stark when it comes to visits and gifts. "When a male inmate wants a new pair of runners, for example, a family member, usually a woman, will drop these into him and there won't be much further thought put into it.

"However, when a woman requires something similar, there often isn't the same support network there."

The role that children play in this rehabilitation is huge and this is evident inside Limerick Prison. On the day we visit, almost all of the women we meet in the women's wing - known as the E landing - are mothers.

The cells in the female wing are filled with family pictures, children's drawings and school certificates.

Managing family life

Some of the inmates are coy when asked details about their backgrounds or the crimes that brought them to prison, but their faces light up when asked about their children.

Louise (34) is serving her second sentence in the jail and says that this time she has turned her life around for the sake of her daughter.

"My own experience in here is that jail is after saving my life. I am in the gym every day, I am fitter now than I was when I was 18. So it has been a positive outcome for me."

Louise is serving a sentence for shoplifting and is due for release in two months.

She has a 10-year-old daughter who thinks her mother has "gone away to school".

"She's very intelligent but she thinks I'm away doing a hairdressing course with the gym. It's like school, she thinks I'm away learning to be a better mam for her."

To help address the stigma for visitors, Limerick Prison has introduced a number of family- friendly visiting rooms. These are available to inmates on enhanced programmes. The prison is also attempting to put in place a structured system whereby mothers can meet their children at a venue outside the jail.

Another initiative, introduced last January, saw social workers Bernie O'Grady and Anna Maria Murphy meet the women to discuss delivering a bespoke parenting programme.

Almost a third of the female population in the prison signed up.

A shock to the system

For some, the effects of being away from family are enormous. Gráinne says she is serving a three-year sentence for shoplifting.

When we meet her, she is only in the first week of her prison term. "It's a shock to the system.

"Just being locked up, your general freedom being taken away. I have one daughter, it's horrible being away from her."

On the other end of the spectrum Carmel, a prisoner from Munster in her 50s, is six years into a lengthy sentence. "They all call me momma," she jokes.

Roche is convinced that deprivation of freedom is punishment enough for these women; anything else would be unnecessary and cruel.

"I don't think that most people in the public realise how precious your freedom is," he says.

"If prisoners want toilet roll, they have to come and look for a toilet roll or a toothbrush. They can't walk more than 20 to 30 yards without being stopped at a gate where an officer has to open that gate for them. They can only have visits twice a week. They can only make phone calls when we allow them to make phone calls.

"Deprivation of liberty is a very weighty sanction. The pains of imprisonment are very well documented. If you are taken away from society, it is a very hard position to recover from. Our job is not to punish them any further. Our job is to return them back to society better than the way they came into us."

When asked if prison is easy, Carmel responds: "No, it's not. A lot of people say you are hidden. You have to keep so much of yourself back, you can't trust, that's the difficult thing. This is very much a transient jail where everyone is in and out." Returning women to society also poses its own unique set of problems.

There are currently two open prisons for men but there is no similar step-down facility for women. Roche and the IPRT argue that this makes it more difficult for women integrating back into the community post-release.

"Women leaving prison in Ireland are 4.6 times more likely to experience difficulties accessing accommodation post-release than males," Ms Ní Chinnéide explains.

According to the IPRT, 60pc of women on the Community Return Programme (early release) return to prison; this compares with 85-90pc compliance among males on the programme.

"This significant difference may relate to poor post-release supports and lack of stable accommodation," Ms Ní Chinnéide adds.

For Limerick Prison, there is some hope. The female landing is due to be ripped down in the next few years and replaced by a new purpose-built facility on the site which will cater for 50 female inmates. The tendering stage is due to begin shortly with the facility scheduled to be completed next year.

"We want the best complex in Europe for 2018," says Governor Mark Kennedy. "We want to provide a safe and structured environment with the wider community in mind."

* All names of prisoners have been changed at the request of the Irish Prison Service to protect their identities and the identities of their victims

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