John Lonergan : Poverty with the prison
Revue Quart Monde N°224 (november 2012)

Mis à jour le jeudi 4 juillet 2013.

John Lonergan (1)

John Lonergan has a long experience of the prison system in Ireland. He left his function of head warden of Mountjoy, Dublin into 2010. I worked in the Irish Prison Service for over 42 years serving for over 26 years as a senior prison governor. On joining the prison service way back in 1968 I was assigned to work in Limerick prison, at that time a small local prison in southern Ireland, almost immediately I observed that the vast number of prisoners there were people who came from very poor backgrounds, many were social rejects, others were broken human beings, some had serious physical, mental and psychological problems, all were very poorly educated and most were unemployed immediately before their imprisonment and had very limited or no employment prospects. And what was equally evident was that most of the prisoners had very poor social and inter-personal skills. One of the most amazing things for me was that going to prison was regarded by most of them as normal and also many were carrying on a long family tradition where generation after generation spent time in prison - grandfathers, fathers, uncles, brothers and cousins. I soon concluded that while many factors played a part in the development of most of the prisoners, however, the common denominator was poverty. Poverty was ever present and was definitely a major cause of their downfall. I retired from the Irish Prison Service in June in 2010 and the most shocking reality was that over 42 years nothing had really changed and poverty continued to be the most common factor and by far the biggest and most destructive influence in the lives of the vast number of prisoners and their families.

The following are some observations based on my experience of working in the Irish Prison Service :

Children born into poverty enter the world at a massive disadvantage and most never get the opportunity to grow and develop to their potential. I soon realised that talent and ability was very often totally irrelevant unless children could got the opportunity to become aware of their own talents and abilities and then, and most importantly of all, were provided with the opportunity to grow and develop them to their full potential. Sadly many prisoners were totally unaware of their natural abilities and talents – indeed in many cases their talent remained dormant throughout their whole childhood and all too often was only discovered by chance or by accident, for instance by going to an educational unit, participating in an activity especially something associated or involving the creative arts, by meeting someone who identified the talent in them. But once they became aware of their talents and they were nurtured and developed their whole lives changed for the better and many never returned to prison again. Incidentally, the whole process of discovering talents in people often begins with the support and encouragement of another person, this too is a special gift- to discover and nurture the talents of another human being.

Housing policy is another key factor. In Ireland our housing policy has been in many instances a disaster. It has created a situation where the various social classes are segregated and housed separately. This has resulted in the serious alienation for people who were totally dependent on local authorities to provide housing. Huge public housing estates where build where only the poorest social classes were accommodated, no professionals lived in these areas, basic social and educational amenities were and still are either inadequate or non-existent, early school leaving is rampant and drugs and physical violence is an everyday reality for many people, while unemployment levels are phenomenally high. As a direct consequence of this environment a most negative and very destructive culture developed and this caused both short and long term damage especially for young people living there. In the absence of normal social structures a control culture developed where control was and is enforced by the use of violence and this violence has got more extreme and vicious over the past decade. It’s no coincidence that the gangland feuds in Ireland have their roots in the most socially disadvantaged areas. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like for a child or indeed an adult to live in such circumstances and just imagine what it must be like for parents to rear their children in such conditions. The main point is that the State created and continues to sustain facilities and conditions that inevitably lead to the serious damage of people and where violence in all its many facets is ever present.

I cannot over emphasise the long-term damaged caused to young people when they experience social alienation. One of the many negative consequences is that they suffer from low self esteem, low self worth and very poor self confidence. This is a huge handicap for them throughout their whole lives and greatly restricts their work and social options. Worst still it’s passed on from generation to generation where young people are conditioned to believe that this way of life is normal and acceptable. Another major consequence is early school leaving, many children drop out of formal education at a very young age or their attendance at school is very poor. This places them at a serious disadvantage throughout their lives and they are not equipped to perform many of what would be considered normal activities. Again, in prison many of the prisoners had poor communication skills, their inter personal and social skills were very limited and about half of the entire prison population were either illiterate or semi-illiterate and most had very poor and inadequate parenting skills. Another consequence is that young people growing up this culture feel and experience alienation and as a result and not very surprisingly they have little or no respect for the authority of the State including its laws and structures and they feel apart from main stream society. Equally significant is the attitude of main stream society towards them, they are regarded as inferior, social outcasts, low life, with labels like scumbags, dirt birds, junkies used to describe them. There’s little or no interaction between the people living in either communities and there is little or no understanding of the reality of life for people subjected to such brutal living conditions, Indeed, the general attitude is that’s good enough for them. One other important issue needing attention is the prevalence in many socially disadvantaged areas of a culture where it’s totally unacceptable to report to the civil authorities acts of wrongdoing including incidents of serious physical violence. This is very much an integral part of local culture and is often enforced by the use of threats of violence, by exploiting fear and quite often by the use of violence including murdering individuals who refuse to be intimidated or who proceed to make official complaints and to give evidence in the courts. Many people, but especially the most vulnerable, feel totally isolated and very much afraid in this type of environment. The result is that many of them, young and old, suffer grave injustices including physical violence and there’s little or no protection for them. The only alternative for them is to get out of the area but unfortunately for many this is not a viable option.

I guess my point is that poverty is still a reality for many thousands of people in Ireland, currently and regretfully it’s getting worse for many of them and living, or in many cases just surviving is a most brutal and humiliating experience. Little wonder then that prisons the world over are full of poor people. And the only real answer is to tackle poverty head on by eradicate the main causes. This will require a greater and a far more generous sharing of resources. In the end it’s all about respect and equality, respecting every human being and regarding everyone as equals.