Michael Clifford: Damning picture of life in State’s largest women’s prison

Further examination is required to find out what exactly is going on behind the prison walls of the Dóchas centre 
Michael Clifford: Damning picture of life in State’s largest women’s prison

The chaplain of the Dóchas Centre (pictured) in Mountjoy, Clare Hargaden, has described a culture of 'fear, indifference, hostility and ineptitude' in what she called a 'toxic environment'. File image

Last Wednesday the chaplain of the Dóchas Centre in Mountjoy decided she couldn’t take any more. According to documents seen by the Irish Examiner, the chaplain Clare Hargaden, wrote a long email to the director-general of the Irish Prison Service (IPS), Caron McCaffrey, outlining grave concerns about the welfare of prisoners and staff at the Dóchas Centre.

Ms Hargaden described a culture of “fear, indifference, hostility, and ineptitude” in what she called a “toxic environment”.

The women in custody, she wrote, tell her that they live in fear. “Upon making a complaint some have found themselves under a spotlight and victims of harassment and further unfair treatment.” 

Recently, in one case, she was speaking in confidence to a prisoner in the prison oratory and she found a staff member with his ear to the door in an attempt to hear what was being said.

Some of the staff, however, are encountering their own problems with the prevailing culture. “Uniformed staff have come to me in tears at how they have been spoken to and treated,” the chaplain writes. “Multiple staff members have requested to meet me off-campus due to fears of being overheard or watched.” Neither was she suggesting that all prison management she encountered were contributing to the atmosphere and culture she described.

She writes of a culture of “indifference, hostility, and most unfortunately ineptitude” but goes on to mention the campus governor over Mountjoy complex, Martin O’Neill.

“Gov O’Neill’s presence has been a foil to this, providing support that has alleviated both my stress and the significant stress of the prisoners here, and modelling a compassionate, intelligent leadership that is so desperately needed. 

However, it is impossible for him to be here at all times and as the prisoners have described it to me themselves, their lives are “hell” when he is not here.

The incident that brought her to write the communication was a multi-disciplinary meeting conducted last week. This involves senior staff, the chaplain and medical and support workers.

During the teleconferenced meeting, the chaplain says she mentioned she had become aware ouija boards were being used in one of the houses in the prison.

“I outlined my concerns that it was a potentially harmful pastime, particularly for those who are psychiatrically ill, bereaved, suggestible, etc.

“I said I would like to discuss how we could address this. I said I had heard it had been an issue before my time also and that the solution had been regular room searches. I suggested that this was not an effective response as a new one can be made in seconds using a pen and paper.” 

Ms Hargaden told the IPS that it was stated that she had not reported the matter to management. She also said she was asked for the names of the prisoners who had been using the ouija board.

"I replied that I would not be providing names as this would undermine the confidentiality and destroy trust in the chaplaincy among the prisoners.

“I did not feel that any individual was at particular risk to herself or others… this in my view is a pastoral rather than a disciplinary issue.” She said she felt undermined and was concerned that somebody might now act in a way that would breach the confidentiality of her office.

The chaplain writes that she is going on sick leave because a condition from which she suffers has been greatly exacerbated.

“I have now decided that I have no choice but to go to my doctor this afternoon and take some time off for (her condition). I do not wish to find myself hospitalised from the consistent, grinding upset of working here.

“Plenty of people with (her condition) continue to work during flare-ups of the condition if they have an understanding team around them. I do not have this. Being at work is simply exacerbating my health problems... Chaplains work all day, every day immersed in vicarious trauma."

Earlier this month the Irish Examiner published Ms Hargaden’s annual report for 2019. This was acquired through the Freedom of Information Act because the prison service discontinued publication of chaplain reports in 2010. 

The process of acquiring the report through the FOI was protracted due to delays from the IPS in producing it. (Since then, the IPS has indicated that it will once more publish the chaplain reports.) 

The 2019 annual report spelt out a litany of failures and criticisms in the Dóchas Centre, including:

  • Overcrowding in the prison resulted in between 130-150 inmates being regularly detained in a facility designed for 105. In one instance, five women were forced to share a “small makeshift bedroom”;
  • Out-of-cell time reduced from 11 hours and 10 minutes to seven hours and 35 minutes, a decrease of 32%. According to the report: “This reduction in freedoms coincided with the worst ever period of overcrowding. 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;

  • Complaints made to the chaplain from women about verbal abuse, xenophobic remarks, threatening language, and pointed “exclusion/favouritism of others”. The report noted that these incidents are attributed to “a small number of staff” and not the vast majority;
  • It was next to impossible for the women inmates to book family visits, including with their children;
  • Inadequate provision of clothing for women who don’t own their own clothes;
  • Staff shortages that resulted in the inability to escort a prisoner to a care facility to visit a dying relative; the inability to escort a bereaved prisoner to a funeral home to view the remains of a loved one; and  the cancellation of “neutral venue” visits at the last minute.

The communication from the chaplain to IPS management this week would suggest that things have not got better in any way since that report was written.

Together, if the reports are accurate and balanced – and there is no reason to believe they are not – they paint a damning picture of life in the State’s largest women’s prison.

The prison population, in general, includes a large cohort who have issues with mental health, chronic deficits in education and other frailties, notwithstanding their involvement in crime.

Among the female prison population these problems are amplified. A large number of women who are incarcerated would be classified as vulnerable out in general society.

Surely further examination is required to find out what exactly is going on behind the prison walls of the Dóchas centre.

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