Irish emigrants are more at risk of going to prison in Britain due to the advent of tough sentencing policies, it was claimed today.
There are more than 900 Irish nationals in prisons across Britain, which now has the highest prison population per capita in Europe.
The Irish Commission For Prisoners Overseas (ICPO) said prison was increasingly being used as a first resort to deal with minor offenders rather than a last resort.
“I think it’s important that the wider public are aware of what’s happening in the prison system, the fact that so many people are being imprisoned, quite often for offences that don’t really require a custodial sentence,” said London office director Fr Gerry McFlynn.
He regularly visits Irish prisoners in custody in London, Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.
“In practically every prison in the country you find an Irish prisoner. The logistics of that are simply mind boggling,” he said. “Irish inmates in prison live lives of quiet desperation and the whole point of the ICPO is to lessen that sense of desperation.”
The ICPO, which is funded by the Catholic bishops and the Department of Foreign Affairs Dion Fund, is in contact annually with more than 500 Irish prisoners in 22 countries and celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. However, its work is limited by a shoestring budget of less than €100,000.
It has dealt with prisoners who were victims of miscarriages of justice such as the Birmingham Six and Annie Maguire (who celebrated her 70th birthday today) but it has also dealt with convicted murderers and rapists.
The ICPO has also made contact with the families of loyalists who fled Belfast with the former UFF leader Johnny Adair to Bolton at their request.
Fr McFlynn said that Irish prisoners in Britain still faced problems with racism.
“There has been instances in the past of ill treatment, but certainly its peaked and things are a good deal better. But having said that, we still encounter cases of racism and verbal abuse, people being called ’Paddy’ and ’Mick’ by prison officers and maybe other inmates as well,” he said.
He said there was also discrimination against Irish travellers who are imprisoned in Britain.
“They are denied jobs on the wings because they are regarded as untrustworthy and they are also routinely refused jobs dealing with food because they are regarded as unhygienic,” he said.
Research by the ICPO has found that families found it difficult to finance visits to support their relatives in prison and are not always provided with up to date information by the prison authorities.
One woman, who was among several relatives at the ICPO’s conference in Smithfield, Dublin, said she had not been told when her son imprisoned in England was taken to hospital.
“He is my child, he’s not a nobody, he has a family in Ireland that cares,” she said.
The Government has commissioned a new study, led by former Minister of State Chris Flood, into Irish prisoners abroad.
Around 30 of them have requested to be repatriated from Britain to serve their sentences in Irish prisons but the process can take up to three and a half years.
Fr McFlynn said this compared very badly to the experience of British prisoners who were usually repatriated within 12 to 18 months of making their request.
“We’re saying on purely humanitarian grounds that if prisoners want to serve their sentences closer to their families, the whole process should be expedited,” he said.
The chairman of the Irish Episcopal Commission For Emigrants, Bishop of Derry Seamus Hegarty, said the families of those serving time abroad were left suffering in silence.
“You are asked to walk along a most unusual path filled with fear and complexity. This is not just at bureaucratic level but the way you relate as next of kin is altered substantially by the fact that the person you love and care about is in prison,” he said.
President Mary McAleese, who was one of the founding members of ICOP, sent a message of congratulations to it.
“As torch bearers for human rights for Irish prisoners abroad you have provided vital pastoral services to prisoners and their families and have been a voice for their rights and dignity as human beings,” she said.