Maman Poulet | Clucking away crookedly through media, politics and life

The Dochas Centre and treatment of prisoners

November 19th, 2011 · 4 Comments · Social Policy

It is with regret that this committee notes a distinct shift from the ethos on which the success of Dochas was built and the committee express concerns over future direction of the prison.

Dochas Prison Visiting Committee Report

I have visited the Dochas Centre (in a personal/unpaid capacity) on a number of occasions over the past two years. I have not spoken about it publicly as I wanted to protect the privacy of the women I have met and spoken with. Indeed privately I have also been reticent to speak about what I saw and heard. I have reported my concerns to authorities on what I observed on one occasion.

Each time I met with groups of women and after I had completed my task, I discussed how they felt in terms of safety, how they were listened to, their role as carers (many had disabled children, siblings, parents) the lack of privacy they had in making complaints about how they were treated. Some spoke of the prison as a previously safe space, in fact one where they might want to return to because of the threats to their lives ‘on the outside’.

The atmosphere in the prison had changed dramatically in the past 18 months. Security had been tightened but also the attitudes of care and attention to the needs of women had changed. Clothing was in short supply. Personal care items were also difficult to access. Education classes were cancelled regularly as a prison officer had to be available while classes were ongoing. They had to be accompanied across a yard (a tiny space) to get from the accommodation block into the education block. No prison officer, no classes.

I was also struck about the care that many women offered to the very vulnerable people in their he population.

During one of my visits this year I observed a woman with intellectual disabilities and mental health difficulties displaying signs of distress and self harm in the public areas of the prison. This was a daily occurrence according to other prisoners. They wondered how someone with her disabilities could be sentenced. They said that they tended to her personal care as much as they could. They also wondered what would happen to this woman when her release date approached. This woman should not have been in prison from my observations. After 20 years working with people with disabilities I was extremely concerned and I reported the matter. I don’t know what happened to this woman.

I do know that prisoners with diminished capacity receive little or no support in the Irish prison system. Many people who do not know or understand what is happening to them or why they committed a crime are incarcerated in the general prison population and the staff are not trained in how to support them. And then there is the issue of what happens to these people when they finish their sentence.

There is no adequate preparation for release in Irish prisons. If you are someone with mental health problems or no support or home to go to upon release there is little surprise that some re offend to get back in.

While general health is catered for, the Visiting Committee question whether prisoners suffering serious mental health concerns can be adequately cared for in Dochas Centre.

The publication yesterday of the report of the Prison Visitor Committee is important for a number of reasons.

  • Prisoners have reported to me that they cannot meet with these Visiting committees on their own without fear of later being targeted by Prison officers
  • The fact that these committees are planned to be scrapped under the public reform plan announced this week. While there is a prison inspectorate they have a very small staff and again prisoners cannot report abuses and concerns without fear of intimidation/victimisation by prison staff.

The things I won’t forget are the screams of a 3 year old child who had just been brought to see her mammy and was leaving the prison with a social worker and the screams and the self harming actions of that prisoner with disabilities

As a nation surely we have a duty to both protect society and those who have been convicted of committing crimes against society.

While the changes to Dochas happened under the watch of another minister surely Alan Shatter must act quickly to ensure that women are not strip searched by male officers, that prisoners with disabilities and mental health concerns are no longer housed in Dochas, and that those who have completed their sentences are supported with a plan of reintegration and thus impacting on re-offending.  In addition the Minister must ensure that abuses of prisoners can be safely reported and investigated and that the system of punishment in this country meets the highest possible standards of care and protection whilst conducting the sentences that have been set.


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