The Children's Referendum: St. Patrick's Institution Report – Some Thoughts

The Inspector of Prisons’ Report into St. Patrick’s Institution makes for harrowing reading. His use, throughout, of the word “child” is poignant and dramatic. He does not speak in technical or legal terms about “juveniles” or “young offenders”; he does not list complicated Articles of the Constitution or European Convention on Human Rights; he does not pontificate. He simply tells the story of St. Patrick’s Institution, of the children imprisoned there, of the adults imprisoned there, and the dismaying culture that has festered there. It is a sad, sad story, and one which we, as a nation, should be horrified to hear in Ireland in 2012.

The Inspector, Judge Michael Reilly, must be admired for his dogged pursuit of the truth in relation to the regime in St. Patrick’s Institution. He writes (at para 3.3) that if one were to compile a report on St Patrick’s based on one or two visits one might accept that it was run in accordance with best practice and that the rights of prisoners were vindicated. However, his approach was much more thorough. His Report is based on numerous visits to St Patrick’s, many of which were unannounced, on conversations with prisoners, prison officers, representatives of the Prison Officers Association, service providers to the prison and prison management, and on the views of many former inmates of St. Patrick’s, people who worked there over the years, people and organisations who provided services to St. Patrick’s and a cross section of people with an interest in and a knowledge of St. Patrick’s (para 3.4). This allowed for concerns to be cross-checked and verified, and means that the veracity of the findings in the Report is beyond question.

Most media outlets are covering the story today and it is not particularly useful to replicate their work here. Instead I will note just two aspects of the Report which hit home with me and some thoughts which occurred to me on reading it.

One of the findings was that the Safety Observations Cell, supposed to be used for medical purposes where the child or young adult poses a danger to themselves, was used in St. Patrick’s for “management purposes”, basically to place a child or young adult in isolation. Persons placed in the Safety Observation Cell, and in the Close Supervision Cell, for management purposes (rather than medical purposes) at St. Patrick’s, were in all cases (without evidence of specific determination of the need for same by the Governor), stripped of their clothing and required to wear “an under garment and a poncho style over garment”. The Inspector saw no reason for the child or young adult to be stripped of their clothes in all such cases. In a particularly sad statement, and an indication of a lack of understanding or regard for the children and young adults within the prison, the Inspector states that

Many of the prisoners in St. Patrick’s were at some period in their lives physically and/or sexually abused. It is in this context, that I consider the requirement to undress when placed in a Safety Observation or Close Supervision Cell for Management purposes to be degrading and a form of punishment, intimidation and abuse.

A personal history of neglect and abuse is said to be true of many of the prisoners in St. Patrick’s and many of them are suffering with mental health illnesses and/or are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. Those who comment on social networking sites, online news outlets or discussion forums suggesting that life is too easy in prison for these sorts of people should consider what they want out of a Prison Service. Would you prefer it that prisoners learn something while in prison? That they learn how to respect people, by having respect shown to them? Would you prefer that they are mistreated and accordingly see no need to show respect to the society that sent them to that institution? Or would you prefer that they are treated with dignity so that they might learn the value of positive social interactions? Should those who have been neglected and turned to crime be further neglected, or should we, as a society, try to address their difficulties so that they might rejoin society, bettered through the experience of prison rather than hardened further? I am not saying that all prisoners are angels, not by any means, but we cannot fashion the entirety of our prison system on the premise that they are all evil either.

Despite the good work of many at St. Patricks, it seems, from reading this Report, that an overall negative culture has festered there over the years. This will do no good for anyone, prisoners or public.

While many very serious concerns are raised in the Report, I found one other seemingly less serious finding both disappointing and distressing. The Inspector noted that there are no organised activities for the prisoners when they are allowed out to the yard for “exercise”. They do not play soccer or basketball, for example. He describes what he observed instead and writes that

It is wrong to observe children aged 16 and 17 years old standing in corners of yards either talking in groups or silently on their own when they should be engaging in active sports.

I agree. It is wrong. And, in my view, it is dangerous from a number of perspectives, including the increasing gang-oriented segregation which we are seeing in Irish prisons and the lack of an outlet for energy and frustrations. While there might be concerns in terms of discipline and physical aggression in sporting activities, surely engaging the prisoners (again, teenagers and young adults) in some sort of organised sporting activity is more likely to have beneficial rather than detrimental results overall.

Think for a moment of any young man you know aged between 16 and 21. Read the Report and imagine that that young man is imprisoned in St. Patrick’s Institution. Do you think that he is likely to emerge with anything other than a large, immovable chip on his shoulder, and a solid disrespect for authority and society? What then do we expect of the young men who enter that prison already neglected, abused and worn down?

At a time when posters of small children with teddy bears and pencils stare down at us, asking us to allow their voice to be heard, one wonders if anyone is really listening to our young people whose stories are not poster-worthy. This is certainly not the first report to draw attention to St. Patrick’s Institution. Is there any hope that it might be the last to tell a simply awful story about the state treatment of young people in Ireland?

The Children's Referendum: St. Patrick's Institution Report – Some Thoughts

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