Chaplain takes leave from role citing 'toxic environment' in women's prison

Chaplain takes leave from role citing 'toxic environment' in women's prison

Chaplain Clare Hargaden left her post in The Dóchas Centre after complaining of a culture of “fear, indifference, hostility, and ineptitude”. Picture: Collins, Dublin

The chaplain of the Dóchas women’s prison has left her post, complaining of a culture of “fear, indifference, hostility, and ineptitude” that was having a major impact on her health.

Chaplain Clare Hargaden has notified the director general of the Irish Prison Service that she was going on sick leave with a condition that had been greatly exacerbated due to the “toxic environment” in the prison.

“I write to you today filled with a mixture of sadness, anger, regret, and probably most palpably right now, exhaustion,” she wrote to the director general of the IPS, Caron McCaffrey.

“I do not feel, as things stand, that I can continue in my post as chaplain to the Dóchas. My health has been deteriorating as a result of the toxic environment here for some time.” 

She informed the director general that inmates had described their lives to her as “hell”.

“The women in custody here report to me that they live in fear," she stated. "Upon making a complaint, some have found themselves under a spotlight and victims of harassment and further unfair treatment.

“To allow this to continue is simply morally wrong. Prisoners must be able to make a complaint and have the complaint examined fairly without fear of reprisal.” 

Ms Hargaden cited examples from recent days to illustrate that to which she was referring:

  • she feels watched and monitored in her work;
  • claims her office was undermined when she was asked to provide management with the names of prisoners who may have been using a Ouija board;
  • phone calls and emails to management about prisoner welfare have gone unanswered;
  • claims she has been “actively sidelined, ignored, and undermined both personally and in my official role as a chaplain”;
  • a recent request to allow a prisoner a phonecall to her partner, also a prisoner, following the death of the latter’s father went unaddressed.

Ms Hargaden also said she recently found an officer with his ear to the door of the prison oratory where she was speaking confidentially to a prisoner.

“This person had recently made a complaint against a staff member, so I am sure you can surmise why the officer was there," she said. "Later, the officer asked me what the prisoner had said to me!” 

Ms Hargaden was appointed to the full-time post of chaplain in 2019 after it had been vacant for some years. Earlier this month, the Irish Examiner published details of the chaplain’s 2019 report which stated that women in the Dóchas were subjected to chronic overcrowding, xenophobic and threatening abuse, and that they find it next to impossible to book visits.

Concluding her email, the chaplain wrote the following: “I implore you to act — if not for my sake then for the sake, of the vulnerable women in custody.” 

When contacted, Ms Hargaden said she did not want to say anything further.

“Due to the confidential nature of my work, I have absolutely no comment to make," she said.

The Irish Prison Service did not respond to a series of questions by the time of going to press.

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