Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

The pros and cons of life behind bars

A second damning report has been produced on Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre in south Belfast. The Independent Monitoring Board described conditions in the Centre as ‘appalling’ and said the young inmates were ‘helpless pawns’ in the poor working relationship between the Prison Service and its workers.

After the initial scathing report on the centre earlier this year, I commented that I had little sympathy for the inmates. My sympathy was for their victims, the people they had assaulted, mugged, robbed, beaten or whatever.

At that time, a former professional associated with the prison service wrote to me rebuking me for my lack of concern for the inmates.

The writer admitted they had done wrong and deserved to be punished, but jail should also be a place where at least an effort was made to rehabilitate the wrong-doers.

That is a point which the Independent Monitoring Board picked up in its latest report.

It highlighted the fact staff were more concerned with ensuring the security of the centre than on focussing on the need to rehabilitate and resettle the inmates.

The Board, like the person who wrote to me, noted that a significant number of the inmates appeared to be mentally ill, or have personality disorders.

If that is the case, then the prison system should have in place services to aid the inmates. While no one is suggesting that their condition means they aren’t really responsible for their actions, it is surely the case that if nothing is done to help them while they are inside, they will come out as prepared to commit crime as when they went in.

The Prison Service should not be concerned simply with locking up prisoners, of whatever age, and basically throwing away the key. But it came pretty close to adopting that attitude at Hydebank, according to the Independent Monitoring Board.

On many occasions prisoners were forced to stay in their cells for 23 hours a day, for four or five days in a row.

The Prison Service says that this latest snapshot of life in Hydebank came in 2007 when high levels of sickness among staff meant that some restrictions were introduced into the normal regime.

It also says that issues raised are being addressed.

It cannot be an easy job being a prison officer, even in a jail where conditions are far removed from the adult prisons where paramilitary inmates are housed.

Playwright Martin Lynch (below), who has written a new play about life in the Maze, recalls how one prison officer reacted after his first day in the job.

The officer had actually tossed a coin on whether to join the Prison Service or the RUC and the coin fell the way of prison job.

He was shown around the Maze Prison, which at that time housed some of the most dangerous and violent men in Europe, and then an old hand pushed him into one of the wings and locked the door behind him. He felt that effectively he was as much a prisoner as any of the paramilitaries on that wing and he wondered what the hell he had let himself in for.

Lynch also tells how some of the prison officers in those days were not amiss in doling out their own brand of punishment to the paramilitary inmates. It was not an entirely unnatural reaction given that both the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries routinely targeted prison officers and killed several.

While the officers at Hydebank don’t face those conditions today, the high sickness levels are one symptom of the stress they undergo in their work and their dissatisfaction with their work.

It will take something of a culture change to ensure that a more responsive regime is introduced in Hydebank and that it just doesn’t become another finishing school for criminals.

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