The report of the chaplaincy service into what goes on behind prison walls provides a unique insight. Chaplains have the ear of prisoners. For the greater part chaplains are on-site in the prisons most of the time but are neither jailer nor the jailed.
They understand the difficult and often dangerous work undertaken by prison officers. But their calling ensures they retain room for compassion, even for those who have transgressed in a presumably serious manner against society.
Where others see criminals, the chaplain can see a human being who has done wrong but is deserving of a shot at redemption.
As the chaplain service for the women’s Dochas Centre in Dublin outlines in its 2019 report: “Chaplains provide a non-judgemental, supportive outreach to those in custody and their families. We are also a pastoral presence and support for staff on duty in the Dochas Centre.
“Our support to women, families and staff is held with respect and confidentiality.”
So any report from prison chaplains about what goes on behind the high walls should be read carefully. Once upon a time, the prison service agreed that this unique voice should be heard in public. Then in 2010, the practice of publishing the reports of chaplains in the State’s prisons was discontinued. Such reports are now only available through the Freedom of Information Act.
The details of the 2019 report from the Dochas Centre make for some sobering reading. The picture painted is one in which standards, compassion and duty of real care to the prisoners, are far from what might be expected.
For instance, the report notes that chronic overcrowding – with up to 150 inmates in a facility designed for 105 – is an ongoing feature. This is allied to a change of regime in 2019 in which the women inmates were locked up for, on average, an extra third of their time.
Prior to the change they had a total of 11 hours and 10 minutes “out of cell time” in a day. This was reduced to 7 hours and 35 minutes.
“This reduction in freedoms coincided with the worst ever period of overcrowding,” the report says. “It would seem to the Chaplaincy service that an appropriate response to overcrowding would be an increase, not a decrease, in out of cell time.”
The change, the report notes, brought conditions for female inmates into line with those for male prisoners in the adjoining Mountjoy prison. However, the chaplain service points out that treating women the same as men does not bring about gender equality. It quotes the UN commissioner for human rights which states: “The concept of equality means much more than treating all persons in the same way. Equal treatment of persons in unequal situations will operate to perpetuate rather than eradicate injustice."
The report mentions that unlike male prisoners, Irish female prisoners serving long and life sentences cannot avail of the open prison setting.
“This in itself is a blatant discrimination in lack of national service provision. Therefore, women serving life find themselves with a restrictive regime indefinitely.”
There is no reference in the report as to when the regime change for “out of cell” time came about.
Another worrying feature of the report was complaints from prisoners about “verbal abuse, xenophobic remarks, threatening language and pointed exclusion/favouritism of others”.
These complaints related to a small number of staff but it was noted that the women were afraid to officially complain for fear of “further penalisation from the staff involved”.
Another problem was with booking visits. Some women were finding it “nearly impossible” to book visits, even with children.
“The level of distress that this creates amongst both the women and their loved ones, particularly children, cannot be underestimated. The Chaplaincy service is inundated with phone calls from families at their wits’ end who have been ringing for days to try to book a visit without success on a regular basis.”
Much of the problem, the report notes, is staffing levels that result in few if any personnel available to answer requests for visits on the phone.
The report also goes into the wider context of imprisonment pointing out that “a very significant number of Dochas women are in receipt of psychiatric medications”, and that as with penal systems the world over huge numbers of those incarcerated are from impoverished backgrounds.
“Prison community reflects the wider community and as such it is made up of haves and have-nots. Many women come to us without family support and find themselves deeply embarrassed with the sheer visibility of their poverty…Women who do not have their own clothing may struggle to attend school and other pro-social activities as they try to remain unseen.
“This in turn impacts their ability to engage in the incentivised regime and progress within their sentence. As such, while the provision of prison clothing as it stands is important and appreciated, I believe that the current provision is insufficient to meet the needs of our prison community and is damaging to their dignity.”
In the round the chaplain’s report presents a picture of life in the prison as one in which basic human rights are flouted and any duty of care severely compromised.
There are sections of society which subscribe to the silly and lazy notion that prison is something of an easy life. This view is propagated nearly exclusively by people who have never had their liberty threatened. As noted in the chaplain’s report incarceration itself is the punishment.
Victims of violent crime can also, in some instances, get angry when hearing about poor or even appalling conditions in prisons. Their feelings are understandable, but a criminal justice or penal system in a democracy can’t be organised on that basis.
Everybody, including those who have committed crime, are entitled to basic human rights. To that extent, the reports of chaplains in the prison system deserve serious consideration both within the system and in wider society.