Went jingle jangle
All along the banks
Of the Royal Canal
Memories of the recent (September 5th to 7th) conference on Prisons in Trinity College Dublin
1. The Conference was excellently conceived, organised and financed by the Jesuits through their local Faith and Justice centre in Dublin and through their international arm, The Escribani Movement (named after a seventeenth century Flemish Jesuit who was first head of the University of Antwerp). The Escribani Conferences are held every two years in different parts of Europe on issues of Faith and Justice. Trinity was a perfect location for the conference which ran smoothly. The National Gallery of Ireland hosted a reception on the first night with a private showing of the painting ‘The Betrayal of Jesus’ by Caravaggio, which had been donated by the Jesuits (having hung anonymously on their refectory wall for over fifty years).
2. There were approx. 250 people attending the conference drawn mainly from academic and social services backgrounds, as well as prison staff and Governors. Quaker Friends were well represented. I met H H who seemed to know everyone and who proceeded to introduce me to everyone. It was she who suggested I make a report to Monkstown Meeting even though I attended the Conference in purely a personal capacity albeit encouraged by the interest Friends have traditionally shown for prisoners down the ages. I was impressed by the opening address given by Juliet Lyon CBE, Director Prison Reform Trust UK and who is of Quaker background.
3. Fr. Peter McVerry SJ (well known in Dublin for his excellent work spanning forty years with homeless youths) spoke on the opening night with characteristic compassion, passion and wisdom. He spoke of the sad side of prison. Nearly all of the young male prison population have been victims of crime long before they became criminals. He painted a dismal picture of young men entering often clean and coming out drug addicts. Entering alone yet exiting members of gangs and condemned t o a life of continuing crime. It did not make for easy listening to but set one of the tones of the conference.
4. Over the course of the following two days I attended as much as I could, subject to some family and Quaker commitments, and took notes when not suffering from too little or in most cases too much caffeine from the numerous coffee breaks. Here are some of my recollections:
5. Some statistics: The Irish prison population has increased from 65 prisoners per 100,000 population in 1997 to currently 100 per 100,000, roughly the EU average, compared with UK 150 (bronze medal), Russia 400 (Silver Medal) and US 550 (Gold Medal). Even in three years 2009-2012, the Irish prison population has increased from 3,500 to 4,500. Finland over the same period has seen its number drop from over 100 to currently 63 per 100,000.
6. Lies, damned lies... Crime has been rising in all developed countries irrespective of increased prison population. The conclusion is that for most criminals prison is not a realistic deterrent nor is it rehabilitative. Prison has become a way of dealing with the underclass particularly in USA and UK rather than the underlying issues.
7. Prison involves an underlying paradox. How to avoid crime? Stable employment, stable family ties and relationship, sense of worth. Prison uniquely deprives prisoners of all three.
8. Prison was imagined by well-wishing Christian 150 years ago as an improvement over what was there or not there. Christians now have to reimagine new solutions.
9. Once a criminal. Always a criminal. Need it be so? The criminal is taught in no uncertain manner he is a criminal (mostly ‘he’ as 85% of prisoners are males and mostly 18 – 30) – from the trial to sentencing, to prison, to return to society. There should be an effort to rehabilitate people. In France the prisoner is given a certificate. It could be imagined as a rebaptism – a washing clean, a ceremony in public acknowledging the person has served their time and repaid their debt to society. Do Friends have a role here?
10. Big is bad. We know that generally holds for almost every everything. It certainly applies to prisons. Big prisons are more impersonal and give rise to bigger security risks.
11. Local is good. Nearly all the experts agree that having prisoners near home and family is a good thing for prisoners and improves their chances of not reoffending.
12. Private or public? There are arguments for both. However the real problem is that prisons have become an industry and ‘market speak’ has become commonplace. It suits the market that there are more people in prison serving longer sentences. Think of the prisons as hotels and you get the idea – higher occupancy and longer stay give rise to higher profits. The good of society or the prisoners does not fit into the equation.
13. In a refreshing improvement in the UK they encouraged police to be judged not on the many young people they managed to get into prison but on the many they kept out. Clearly politics has a lot to do with it.
14. Society is to blame. In a sense, as readers we get the papers we buy and as voters the politicians we elect – and so in a sense we get the prisons we deserve. Society needs to change if prisons are to change.
15. Do people want protection or punishment? Glib media coverage might suggest punishment while more in depth studies show that the public want protection. Be careful of what surveys tell you. Who is funding and directing studies and what financial interest do they have in the outcomes?
16. The Judiciary. On one hand they have a hard job. They can only implement the laws that exist. That said they do have a fair amount of discretion. They are not helped by a sensationalist press that is right wing and plays on public fears. On the other hand the judiciary are often seen as living in their own little world.
17. Nearly all of the experts world-wide agree that prisons in general are not working and the problem is getting worse. Solution? We need to reimagine prisons. It is not a matter of tinkering at the edges but reforming from the centre. Have we the social and political courage?
18. Restorative justice. This theme close to Quaker hearts got mention on the third day. We met some excellent volunteers from U Casadh ( as in U-turn) and Treo based down the country. They help with prisoners especially on release which is a time of huge challenges for the prisoner. Many prisoners leave prison with the clothes uncleaned since they entered, with only the price of a bus fare into the centre of a city which may not be theirs, often homeless, often suffering from mental health issues and often exposed to the only life available – a life of continued crime.
19. A memorable quote ‘ the only social service in Ireland for which there is no waiting list is the Irish prison system’….
Where next? I met a charismatic retired couple – I and D who run activities in prisons including a book club and I gave them my details. Let’s see what develops. I will keep an eye on the excellent charities of U Casadh and Treo also.