Many of the estimated 900 Irish prisoners in UK jails suffer discrimination and endure lives of quiet desperation, it was claimed today.
The Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO) said scores of inmates are verbally and physically abused and some are nicknamed ’Mick’ or ’Paddy’.
Travellers are generally regarded as untrustworthy and unhygienic and regularly refused bail in courts, the The Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Human Rights heard today.
Fr Gerry McFlynn from the ICPO voluntary agency also said it can take up to five years for Irish prisoners to be repatriated from foreign jails in Central and South America compared to 18 months for UK citizens.
London-based Fr McFlynn said: “I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of Irish prisoners in custody in England and Wales live lives of quiet desperation.
“They find themselves in something of an alien environment and they are cut off from families and loved ones.
“There’s also a considerable amount of discrimination against Irish inmates, particularly Travellers.”
Irish inmates are verbally abused by being called ’Paddy and Mick’ and have been subjected to physical abuse in some cases, he said.
He added that Traveller prisoners are refused jobs in prison wings because they are regarded as untrustworthy and are not employed in canteens for perceived hygienic reasons.
They are also continually refused bail in courts.
He said Irish inmates do not generally benefit from the cultural awareness training given to prison officers because they aren’t recognised as a separate ethnic group.
“The problem is they are white and they speak English.”
He called on the Foreign Affairs Department to ensure that Irish nationals qualify as a separate ethnic group to alleviate discrimination.
Fr McFlynn also asked the department to speed up the process of repatriation which can take up to five years for Irish prisoners compared to 12-18 months for UK citizens anywhere in the world.
“It’s got so bad now that anybody serving a sentence of under five years, I tell them that it’s not even worth their while applying for repatriation.”
“Many of the so-called political prisoners were repatriated pretty well overnight under the Good Friday Agreement.
“The process can be speeded up if the will is there,” he said.
There are a total of 1,200 Irish prisoners in prisons around the world.
The UK Home Office estimates that there are 650 in English and Welsh jails, but the Commission said the figure could be as high as 900.
Founded in 1985, the Commission is a voluntary agency that seeks justice and human rights for Irish migrants, refugees and prisoners around the world.
Director Fr Alan Hilliard said: “We see ourselves as supporting prisoners without giving judgement on their cases and supporting their families who are often isolated.”
Fr Hilliard said the Commission’s work also helped families attend trials so that judges knew a prisoner had a good family to go to if released.
Irish prisoners in France can spend up to two years on remand and may be banned from making a phone call during the time, the committee heard.
Commission co-ordinator Grainne Prior said that obtaining translation services “can be hit and miss” in some non-EU countries and good lawyers can charge extortionate fees.
“European prisoners are often looked upon as a gold mine, to be literally mined,” she said.
The committee’s chairman Paul Bradford said the Commission’s concerns were noted and strong representations would be made to the Justice and Foreign Affairs departments.