Young Offenders: Inside Ireland's teenage borstal
For years, Oberstown had a notorious reputation, but the head of the country's top juvenile detention centre wants to change that. Our reporter meets staff and inmates
There are times when it is easy to forget that Oberstown Youth Detention Centre is a prison. The new buildings are so architecturally pleasing and the elevated view across the rolling farmland of north Co Dublin so captivating on a summer's day that you might feel as though you've stumbled across the Scandinavian ideal of an Irish school.
That this is a prison is clear in the old Trinity House, where small solitary confinement cells are used to "calm down" unruly inmates. And even in the gleaming new school, the students are only admitted to walk down the corridor when accompanied, and when every other room is in lock-down mode.
Venture outside to the AstroTurf football pitch or the pathway that runs between blocks and the high fencing is visible everywhere.
This sprawling facility, on 25 acres close to Lusk, has housed some of the country's most dangerous under-18s for decades and the very word 'Oberstown' has long since entered the lexicon - and often for all the wrong reasons.
Type it into a search engine and you will find article after article itemising the myriad problems that have infected the place in the past. There have been assaults, escapes, a roof-top fire, rioting, problems with staff absenteeism, planned strikes, question marks over the manner in which staff physically detained inmates and queries over the high cost of running the prison.
You will have to look long and hard to find anyone with anything good to say about the place, and that is something that its director Pat Bergin has had to contend with since getting the job four years ago.
Bergin, a native of Cashel, Co Tipperary, and a former executive at the Health Information and Quality Authority, has overseen significant change since he first came on-site. "There used to be three separate entities at the campus, each with different management, but they were all referred to under the Oberstown banner," he says. "And nobody outside of here realised there was a difference."
A problem in one facility would inevitably lead to the word 'Oberstown' being used in the resulting media reports, much to Bergin's irritation. "It was frustrating, and while you can't deny that there have been problems, none of the good work was being acknowledged."
But Bergin is hopeful that Oberstown's "progressive" detention programme will eventually be known by the wider populace. It helps that much of the shabby old facility has been replaced by state-of-the art buildings and matching high-tech security. Some €54m was spent to bring Oberstown up to best-in-standard in Europe - quite an investment for a comparatively small prison population.
On the day I visit, there are 28 inmates present. Some will be here a couple of months. Others are serving multiple-year sentences and will be transferred to adult prisons at 18. Oberstown has the capacity for 48 boys and six girls, although females haven't been sent here in years. The new school can handle up to 90 pupils - a provision, Bergin says, for the future.
"We are licensed to take children at 12 years old, but the youngest we've had in my time here has been 14." Most, though, are 16 and 17 years of age and hail from all over Ireland.
Some are at Oberstown for serious crimes. One has caused millions of euro worth of damage in an arson attack, previous prisoners have perpetrated sexual assault. Others are repeat offenders whose charge sheet keeps adding up.
"Almost all come from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds," he says. "They could have been exposed to criminal activity at a very early age, they could have been victims of abuse themselves."
Bergin says it is Oberstown's duty not merely to detain these children, but to help give them the tools they need to have a chance of making it in the outside world. "Many have never been to school - and I mean never - and yet, here, they turn up to school every day," he says. "They are under no obligation to do so and they know that - they can stay in their cells if they choose, but they go to class and they enjoy it.
"The hope is that you can help interest them in a skill that they can take with them and hopefully build a life free of crime.
In the woodworking room, one young inmate has made an intricate 'vanity' table and chair for his newly born daughter. He is clearly proud of his work, and to be able to show it off to visitors - and so, too, is his teacher. Such an opportunity, it's pointed out, would surely have been denied to him in the outside world.
And yet, it's hard for an outsider not to think about these young men - some of whom have committed very violent crimes - being let loose in an environment where electric drills, saws and other potential weapons are all around them.
Pat Bergin says it's a matter of trust. "We assess them and get to know them and do all we can not to put staff at risk," he says. "They welcome that trust and they return it."
That trust is something of a balancing act. There have been cases of violent assault at the centre and some staff were so fearful that the trade union, Mandate, sought strike action in January. But it was deferred after talks.
Last year, a number of inmates managed to get access to the roof and the lengthy standoff resulted in a fire which severely damaged part of one of the old buildings. On another occasion, some prisoners managed to 'free' others after removing keys from a warden. It was reported that there had been plans to kidnap a staff member.
And yet, on the day I visit, there is no sign of staff disgruntlement. Could it really be the case, as Bergin suggests, that most of Oberstown's difficulties are in the past?
"Morale has really improved," Bergin says. "The new building work and heightened security measures have been greatly welcomed. And the fact that what were three different institutions on the same campus are now under the same management gives a much greater unity of purpose."
There are 265 full-time staff, ranging from wardens to teachers to chefs, and a host of auxiliary personnel - including medics - who work part-time here.
The kitchen is especially busy and a number of inmates volunteer to work in the kitchen at any given time. Head chef Eamon Hughes says they seize the opportunity. "These are people who have grown up in very difficult circumstances and maybe haven't experienced trust from authority figures," he says.
"When they come to work with us, they are part of a team with all the responsibilities that entails. They come to know that they can learn a trade here and take it into the outside world. It's an opportunity they might not have had otherwise."
Some of Hughes' former staff have found catering work 'on the outside' and return on occasion to Oberstown. But he says they are not keen to advertise the fact that they were once interned here.
The local impact
One of the duties of these young chefs is to prepare food for the Meals on Wheels service that serves the local community. "It's a way of giving back," Bergin says, although the cynic would imagine it makes for good PR, too.
Oberstown staff have long had to contend with locals unhappy that such a facility is on their doorstep, and one local resident I speak to later says house values in the area tend to be considerably lower than in other parts of north Dublin. "It gets to me a bit," she says, "but generally, this is a nice place to live, because you're not too far from the sea and the city is half an hour away."
Several staff members, including teacher Kevin (surnames are not permitted to be reported) have been here for two decades. "It's a very different school," he says. "Class numbers are very small - usually no more than three students - so they get that close attention that they need.
"Ultimately, though, the job is the same as any other teaching role: you're trying to educate as well as you can, but it's rewarding when a parent tells you that the child you taught was the first in their family to do the Junior Cert."
Kerryman Martin Treacy is principal at Oberstown. He's worked on campus for 13 years and has been principal of the amalgamated school since August of last year. It's a role he relishes. "It's challenging," he says, "but hugely rewarding too. There's a big variation in the sort of education they've had - some would have problems with literacy and numeracy, others have been in and out of schools, other still are in a position to be able to do their Leaving Cert. We've four lads preparing to do the Leaving next year."
If it's a particular challenge for teachers to care for such young offenders, Treacy insists Oberstown does not find it difficult to recruit. "It's a special school," he says. "Look around you - we have the facilities and equipment that many school principals would give their right arm to have."
Later, in my visit, I meet two inmates who have been specially chosen for the interview. Review is not permitted to name or photograph them. So what's life at Oberstown like? "Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's shite," says one, frankly. His classmate says he misses being able to do things for himself "because here, there's someone with you all the time - if we want to go to the toilet, we have to ask to go to the toilet. If we want food, we have to ask for it."
Both say they enjoy school, particularly woodwork class, and one says he would like to be a scaffolder when he's old enough. The other has dreams of being a personal trainer: he can make a start here, there's a well appointed gym for inmates in the school building.
There's an opportunity to play sport, too, and these Manchester United fans enjoy football. "It's getting out in the fresh air," one says. "You can feel so cooped up here."
Their cells in the new block are simple and small. Each has a toilet and television built into the wall. They're spartan, but far more appealing that the older, gloomier cells in Trinity House. It is here - at the older unit - that children who have yet to be sentenced will be housed. "There has to be a demarcation between those who are serving sentences and those awaiting sentencing," Pat Bergin says.
The most recent figures show that it costs €340,983 per placement per year at Oberstown. It's an eyebrow-raising figure that is 10 times the European average. But acting executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, Fíona Ní Chinnéide, says there are a lot of things to consider when calculating the cost of providing detention facilities for children.
"I think you're looking at an economy of scale. Even for a very small number of people, it needs to be fully staffed. Even if there is one or two people there, there needs to be adequate staffing."
Bergin says it is imperative that proper staffing numbers remain. "There would be criticism if there wasn't enough staff," he says, "and rightly so. The simple fact of the matter is, the prison system is expensive because you're trying to help change lives. These are all young people who haven't had the sort of chances in life that you and I have had and we are trying our best to equip them for a better life.
"One, hopefully, where we don't have to see them again at Oberstown or where they wind up in an adult prison."