“Do you have children, and does anyone know you’re here?” are the first two questions put to women entering the Dóchas Centre which currently holds 130 women prisoners.
Many women feel “enormous shame” and are traumatised at being taken away from their children when they are incarcerated.
The Irish Independent got exclusive access to the country’s women’s prisons, to hear the stories of their lives – locked away from loved ones and society – as well as calls for urgent reform.
Prison officer, Amanda, has spent the past six years working in the prison’s reception where inmates are processed when they first arrive.
Speaking of the shame that women feel, 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.”
High-profile women who have served in the Dóchas include Catherine Nevin, Sharon Collins, Carol Hawkins and Heather Perrin.
But in its 18-year existence, the Centre has housed thousands of women in a medium security setting.
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.
But 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.”
Read the inside story of Irish Women Behind Bars only in Saturday’s Irish Independent.