'Santa Claus does come and everyone gets a present' - Inside Oberstown detention centre on Christmas Day


Geraldine Gittens

“There are three young people on campus who are going home for Christmas, the others will be here and we’ll have a Christmas jumper competition.”

Grainne Smyth is a residential care worker at Oberstown, the State’s main detention centre for young offenders in Lusk Co, Dublin. It’s the only facility in Ireland for young people, usually aged between 13 and 17, who have received custodial sentences as a last resort or who have been denied bail.

In Oberstown, the young people follow a daily routine where they go to school at 10am and finish by 3pm. They can complete their driver theory test, a manual handling course, and specialised programmes like in victim empathy or others to prepare them for when they leave Oberstown and integrate back into society again.

Staff focus on creating a family atmosphere for these young people who, in many cases, have suffered a lot of adversity and trauma in their lives.


Today, Christmas Day, there’s a particular emphasis on family atmosphere at Oberstown. It’s a lonely day for these young people who are away from their families so everyone sits down to a festive meal together and everyone gets a gift.

“Santa Claus does come and everyone gets a present. And we all sit down together and everyone has turkey and ham and Christmas crackers like anyone else around the country.”

“It can be [lonely]. That’s where the interaction of the care staff team comes in. Our biggest roles is managing their day throughout Christmas Day. Different things are different triggers for young people, and we mind them to make sure it’s a good day for them.”

“That’s our role, to support them through that, to plan out their day and put structure in place to make sure they know what’s coming and make sure we can keep their minds busy.”

Phone calls to loved ones are precious on Christmas Day but afterwards the sense of loneliness can be overwhelming, Grainne explained.

“All the units are decorated with the most beautiful Christmas trees. We try not to hype Christmas up too much, but at the same time we plan games and the kids all get new clothes as well.”

“We have new games as well that come in. And we facilitate family phone calls and visits. Phone calls on Christmas Day are really important,” explains Gráinne.

Grainne works on the remand unit with the young people where staff work on a relationship based model of care.

“It’s a very homely environment… The young people go to school and then they do day-to-day activities like they would in the community like home economics and fitness and gyms. We also do purposeful programmes that look at their offence and the risk of reoffending, and helping them not to commit crimes when they leave.”

Many young people really flourish in their time on the campus, including doing state exams, recording music and producing artwork, as well as a range of sporting activities, Grainne said.

“Even though it’s a crisis environment, it’s a good place to work. It’s a very innovative work environment… We laugh all day and the kids laugh all day.”

“In my experience [assaults] are a rarity… We do have some incidents, some are quite serious. But I wouldn’t say it’s an unsafe environment to work in. It’s a challenging work environment.”

“We call them at 9am and they go to school at 9.45am. They have a shower, tidy their bedroom and we all have our breakfast like a family. The care staff then take them to school and leave them with the teaching staff.”

“They come back for lunch, we all sit down together, keeping a normal homely environment. They finish school at 3pm. And after that we play cards, board games, and all the different games we have to settle their minds down. They go off to their activities then and come back for 7.30pm and have showers and phone calls then, whatever they want to do.”

“We try for them to have some input in their day. The boys in particular love the play stations and phone calls or football, wall tennis, basketball. If it can be facilitated it’s done.”

Staff follow models of care called CEHOP (Care, Education, Health, Offending Behaviour, and Planning), and MAPA (Managing actual and potential aggressions).

“There would be a level of apprehension [for when they leave], because they’ve done so well here and they’ve settled down. We put that package of support in place for planning when they’re leaving.”

“We can’t influence their key peer groups, but we can look at more pro-social things to do and focus on their education. How they’re going to find money, for example.”

Oberstown links up with external agencies for job opportunities for when the young people are released.

“We plan from the day he or she comes in to the day that they leave for their departure with a view that they won’t come back in here or to other centres,” Declan said.

“Generally as individuals these young people get on with life; they greet you when they come. You get a hand shake or a high five off them. I’m 64 and I don’t fear anything about that, our care staff are excellent people the way they work with these young people.”

“I’m looking for an extension when I turn 65,” he joked.

Since 2015 more than 60 new staff members have joined Oberstown across all roles.

The new recruitment campaign is open until January 17th.  All details are on the Oberstown website www.Oberstown.com