Monday 20 May 2019

'A lot of the women coming in here feel enormous shame'

In Mountjoy prison, more than 100 ­women are at any one time resident in the ­overcrowded ­Dóchas Centre. Our reporter spoke to prisoners and staff

New skills: the salon at Mountjoy runs 10-week courses in hairdressing for up to seven women. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
New skills: the salon at Mountjoy runs 10-week courses in hairdressing for up to seven women. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Mary O'Connor, governor at The Dochas Centre, Women's Prison, Mountjoy. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Patrick O'Connell

'I only did it to get back in here. I'm in for robbery.

"It's either here or the streets and I just can't cope on the streets."

Elizabeth is in the fourth month of her sentence in the Dóchas Centre (Its name means "hope"), the country's largest women's prison based in the Mountjoy campus.

"I self-harm as a coping mechanism," Elizabeth says.

Mary O'Connor, governor at The Dochas Centre, Women's Prison, Mountjoy. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Mary O'Connor, governor at The Dochas Centre, Women's Prison, Mountjoy. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

"At the beginning, when I came back in, it was almost every day, now that I feel safer, I don't do it as often.

"I just can't cope on the outside. And I have everything I want in here. I have safety, I have my own room, I can go to classes, we have a gym, they even take care of my teeth."

The officers who watch over Elizabeth regard her case as one of their most difficult.

But they have more concerns; on the day Review visits Dóchas, its facilities are stretched almost to breaking point by overcrowding.

The prison's official capacity stands at 105 but it is catering for 130 women.

Prison officer, Amanda, has spent the past six years working in the prison's reception where inmates are processed when they first arrive. Two of the first questions she puts to the women are: "Do you have children and does anyone know you're here?"

"A lot of the women coming in feel enormous shame," she says.

"They don't want people to know they are here or haven't had the chance to tell someone. They might have been picked up after dropping the children to school so that's something you have to deal with straight away."

Other women, Amanda notes, "couldn't care less".

"They're used to the system and they'd almost be happy when they see you because they know you.

"Some of the women are homeless and present with hygiene issues, while others are in the grips of a drug psychosis.

"We adapt to deal with the character in front of us."

The presence of high-profile women who have served there like Catherine Nevin, Sharon Collins, Carol Hawkins and Heather Perrin has fostered a tabloid fascination with Mountjoy's women's unit.

But in its 18-year existence, the Dóchas Centre has housed thousands of women in a medium security setting.

Having opened its doors in 1999, it replaced the former women's prison in St Pat's and ushered in a new era of detention for female prisoners.

Cells, barred windows and metal doors were replaced by more spacious en-suite rooms and wooden doors.

Detainees are referred to as "women", not "inmates". They are provided with key-fobs to their rooms and are allowed to move about within the prison relatively freely.

Women are encouraged to organise their own meals in the kitchens, while courtyards provide areas for relaxation. There is a small unit where mothers can stay with babies under one-year-old.

Classes are available in everything from woodwork, computers, English and maths to cookery and hairdressing.

Governor Mary O'Connor won't brook any suggestions that this is an easy option.

"People might see it as a holiday camp but it certainly isn't.

"And the impact it has on a family can't be measured. The mother is no longer there to make her children their breakfast. And she can't be there on all those momentous occasions, Christmas morning, communions, confirmations.

"The impact on the mother... well, society can say she deserves what she gets but the child is also impacted by this."

Addressing the issue of drugs in the prison, the governor outlines a zero-tolerance approach.

"I know there was a perception at one stage that people are happy with drugs in a prison but we are never happy with drugs in a prison.

"There is never peace when there are drugs."

Over in the school, the effects of the overcrowding at Mountjoy are being felt by staff who have to inform disappointed women that classes are full.

The salon runs 10-week courses for up to seven women at a time in everything from hair colouring to blow-drying to treatments and French plaits.

Trainers Denise Donnelly and Orla McGrage make the salon one of the most popular spots in the prison.

"We've been running the salon for the past 14 years," Denise explains.

"A lot of what we are teaching in here is self-confidence, the ability to learn how to do these things can have a huge impact on a person's self-esteem.

"It's amazing how much a woman can come along in 10 weeks, and many of the women in here will go on to use the skills they have acquired on the outside."

Making our way to the hair salon we are approached by an inmate who tells us she has been assaulted and is the subject of ongoing bullying.

"I've been attacked.

"You can't show emotion in here or talk to anyone about what you're going through or they'll (the other inmates) see it as weakness."

Our escort confirms the woman's claim of assault is accurate and says the issue is being investigated but it is clear bullying remains an issue in the prison.

"We don't have gangs but there are cliques," Governor O'Connor agrees.

"But if we become aware of an issue, we'll speak to the woman engaged in the offending behaviour, and if that doesn't work, she may have to be removed.

"People say the Dóchas is too soft but I would argue life, for many of these women on the outside, is very, very hard.

"And that's what we are working to prepare them for, in co-operation with the Probation Service and other welfare agencies - a return to their lives on the outside."

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