Saturday 23 September 2017

Some crochet, others go to school and some just sit around in the 'rec room' – a day in the life of a female prisoner in Ireland

Cathal McMahon

Cathal McMahon

Once regarded as a punishment wing for inmates from the Dóchas Centre, Limerick's prison has the feel of an old-school jail.

The women's wing - known as E landing - is based in the oldest part of the facility, built in 1821.

There are steel doors and it's hot. "It's roasting," one inmate says. "And the windows only open a tiny bit."

The 34 women here have a very structured day.

They wake at 8am and work in the jail, take part in school or do courses.

They have three periods outside their cells and are locked up for the night at 7.30pm.

Alison, who is in her 20s and from Limerick city, does crochet, hairdressing and "whatever else is going on".

"I'm easy going. I'll do anything to pass the day. Otherwise you would be off your rocker away up in Dundrum [Central Mental Hospital]," she laughs.

Alison is on an enhanced incentivised regime programme due to her good behaviour. As part of this, she gets two calls with her family each day and access to to the "enhanced box", a private visiting room.

She is studying for her Leaving Cert maths and English.

Many of the women take part in charity projects in a bid to give back to their communities.

They are full of praise for the prison officers. Siobhan describes how she had a challenging experience with a family member recently and two prison officers "picked her up" and helped her get back on her feet.

Carmel, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence, invited Review into her cell where she proudly displayed a book cabinet that staff arranged for her.

The inmate, who is in her 50s, is currently in the fourth year of her Open University degree in criminology. She is planning to complete her Masters next and then a PhD. "I love it. I always get this praise but I have to say it is a team effort. I have one-to-one tuition but it is there for everyone.

"It is such a team effort. It is even down to the maintenance workers as well.

"I said to them one day, 'why are you so caring?' and they said, 'because we believe in you'."

She also has a laptop but insists "it is only for word processing to do my studies".

Not all women are inspired by the courses and classes on offer and some simply opt to spend their spare time in a recently renovated recreation room.

One of those is Mary, who is, at 40, one of the oldest women on the landing.

"I've been up in the Dóchas and down here the last 24 months," she says.

When Review visits, the Dublin woman is joined in the "rec room" by two fellow inmates.

"We sit up here or, if it's nice, we go outside to the yard. You don't really do much. The school is on, but crochet and pottery - I'm not into that."

Mary was locked up in England in the last decade but was jailed again last year for 18 months for a serious stabbing.

"It was either me get stabbed or him get stabbed so that's what happened. It is serious enough."

She insists that she is not a repeat offender. "This is my last time in, definitely. I'm getting too old for this sh*t, man. I'm out in September."

She said she prefers Dóchas to Limerick.

"Up in the Dóchas you have a shower in your room and it's a lot cleaner.

"It's very warm down here. The heating is on 24/7 and you can't breathe in the rooms."

* 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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