Prison. There is likely no other word that can bring to mind such frightening images: solitary confinement, overcrowded cells, bars, handcuffs.
A prisoner told me she felt she was just a number, no longer a human being, that being behind bars was about loneliness, misery, fear. In interviews with prisoners, I've been told to survive inside you have to learn to beat the system, to become a "successful convict."
In Dublin, Ireland, I visited Mountjoy Prison where in 150 years, murderers, political prisoners, and drug addicts have been confined. In 1984, John Lonergan became Mountjoy's governor. He introduced a humanitarian attitude towards both prisoners and staff.
For one day, I visited with Governor Lonergan and then spent hours locked behind the metal door of the Dóchas Center of Mountjoy's Women's Prison. I admit when I heard the bang of that door locking behind me I had a moment of bone-chilling anxiety: "What am I doing here? This wasn't a good idea." Inside I was allowed to wander freely and talk with the women. I wasn't certain who was a staff or a "prisoner" as almost everyone wore civilian clothes. There was a sense of community.
During my time inside the Dóchas Center, I heard many stories, and I learned some special lessons about healing.
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A Woman in Mountjoy for Transporting Drugs:
I've been here for three months because of drug importation. I never took drugs, believe it or not. The father of my children made me do the job. We had a bad relationship so probably if I hadn't done it, he would have murdered me. Or I might have been in here myself for murdering him.
Everything happened so fast. I knew when I was caught I was facing a long sentence. But I hoped I would get out quickly so I could be with my children. They are small and I miss them so much. My mom looks after them, but she finds it difficult.
Being in here has helped me. I'm starting to change my life. I've been going to school fulltime and have done computer, speedwriting, and business organization courses. I passed all the classes and will go to college soon. I'm delighted because I will go out on day release.
The staff encourages me to do things and have been very helpful. They understand I want to have a better life. Now I'm starting to overcome some of my fears and learning about myself. I've never been in any other prison, but I hear stories about them. If I had ended up in a prison that was anything like those, I probably wouldn't have survived. So I'm grateful for this Center.
I think this place is helping me grow up quicker than I expected and everything is going to work better from now on. I'm a lot more mature now. I'm still young, so I'll have an opportunity to get on with my life. When I get out, I will continue my education so I can get a good job and support my children. Hopefully I will get there. No, I will get there.
John Lonergan, Governor of Mountjoy Prison:
When I was appointed Governor of Mountjoy Prison in 1984, the women's prison was a dark, depressing place with an austere regime.
After I left Mountjoy in 1988 to serve in another prison, the B Wing at Mountjoy was refurbished for women prisoners. When I returned in 1992, I was shocked to find it was totally unsuitable for women, worse than Alcatraz - cages, steel bars. Luckily Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, the first woman Minister for Justice, took an interest in the issue and approved a new facility specifically designed for women and with women helping in its design. We were determined it would not be known as Mountjoy Women's Prison. Eventually the name "Dóchas Center" was agreed upon - "Dóchas" is "hope" in Irish.
Before opening in 1999, staff in consultation with women prisoners, drew up a vision statement. It underpins the ethos of the Center:
We are a community that embraces people's respect and dignity. We encourage personal growth and development in a caring and safe environment. We are committed to addressing the needs of each person in a healing and holistic way. We actively promote close interaction with the wider community.
Many improvements took place in the Center. The women were allowed to have makeup and wear their own clothes. This allowed the women to hold onto their identity and feel better about themselves. A multidisciplinary group was established to identify the principles for the Center. The concept of community was emerging with emphasis placed on caring rather than containing women.
It's difficult for people to develop in an atmosphere of mistrust. Unfortunately the philosophy of prison is usually based on mistrust, thus the bars on windows, the handcuffing. One morning a woman was escorted to the hospital in handcuffs. I wondered if we were handcuffing people because of a risk that they might run away or they were a security danger or to reinforce the belief they were bad. When discussed with staff, there were questions about authority and the repercussions if women escaped. Eventually using handcuffs was based on security and safety factors. Now women go to hospitals or courts without handcuffs. This has resulted in an improvement in relationships between staff and the women.
The Center was designed for community style living without the normal institutional atmosphere of cellblocks. We opted for house units to reflect normal living facilities. There are six houses each accommodating seventy-five women in single rooms with complete sanitation and showering facilities. Each house faces a courtyard and has a communal kitchen and dining room. The gates are open except for the main external one. The women move around freely within the Center and they're not shackled. They experience a sense of trust and freedom even within institutional constraints. They feel happier, and they are more open to education, counseling, and other opportunities.
We have also tried to eliminate the excessive noise, rattling of keys, banging of gates, shouting. Initially the women shouted at each other and at the staff. But they have learned that things can get done by speaking normally, without aggression or abusive language.
We hold events to promote "community". Women who have taken examinations are presented with certificates. We stage drama productions with the entire cast drawn from the prisoner population. Every Christmas a communal dinner is held involving staff, befrienders, and the women. We arrange for their children to come. There is much sadness when the children leave. On such occasions, the punishment element of prison strikes home. People don't realize that sadness is a reality of prison. The women are often very sad about the hurt they have caused others, their own loss of freedom, their separation from their children, and their lives of misery.
Most of the women come from the lowest socioeconomic groups. They are financially and materialistically disadvantaged, and they are poverty stricken in ways such as education, emotional and psychological development, mental state. Many have been abused emotionally, psychologically, physically and sexually. Society doesn't understand how damaging such environments are for those who are forced to live in them. A high percentage is addicted to drugs and alcohol. They are often insecure and have low self-esteems. Most are unaware of their talents and potential.
To build up the women's self-esteem and development, the Center has a variety of programs. The education unit provides a wide variety of subjects and work-training programs enabling women to re-enter the formal educational system. The welfare service helps them address personal and family problems; chaplains provide spiritual, supportive services; outside befrienders visit on a regular basis; a comprehensive healthcare service is provided; a catering service prepares balanced diets; family visits are facilitated in a comfortable visiting area. Those who work here accept the women as they are, encourage them to use their time as well as possible, and assist them in achieving their potential.
Often society labels prisoners as being dangerous, useless, and "all the same". But, they are all unique individuals. I can truly say I've never met anyone in prison who was totally bad. I've always found a redeeming feature, some element of humanity, of goodness. They may have been overwhelmed with their dark side, but there was always some light. We are all human beings with the potential to do good and bad. Perhaps some of us are better able to control our dark side.
We believe in promoting the good in people, giving them an opportunity to do something positive, and supporting them in that. In the process, we help them develop their humanity. If we only emphasize the bad in people we will get more badness out of them. Prisoners need to experience respect simply because they are human beings. Unfortunately, the poor, homeless, addicted, and imprisoned rarely experience respect. They are the people who need it most. But they are rejected and ostracized. Being locked in prison, prisoners have already been judged by the courts and been punished for their crimes. By leaving the judging outside the gate, we can respond to them in a more helpful way. Most people in prison actually feel badly about what they've done. They may appear to be hard-hearted and uncaring, but that's not often true.
The changes we are making at the Dóchas Center are empowering for the women, but they are not always popular with the general public. The popular notion is that prisoners should be treated like "scum", but if we want prison to help prisoners change and move away from their lives of crime, we must treat them as human beings.
Has the Dóchas Center made a difference? Of course it has. A chaplain described the changes that had taken place during his time here as a miracle. In the old system, the prisoner was nothing but a number. In the Center we try to understand the person, we involve them in decisions that affect their lives, and we treat them as fellow human beings. They respond positively and many have already done themselves proud. Every human being, young or old, rich or poor, needs to be loved and accepted as they are, warts and all. We are determined that the women in the Dóchas Center are not regarded as the Least, the Last and the Lost.
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I will always remember my day in the Dóchas Center - a place of hope. I felt like I had been given a priceless gift. I learned a great deal about believing in people's innate goodness, about not making judgments regarding people considered to be "unworthy criminals", about valuing and treating all people with kindness and respect.
Like the women in the Dóchas Center, we don't want to be stereotyped or labeled or abused. We desperately want to be trusted and embraced in a place of hope. And we too yearn to be treated as though we are valuable people with great worth.
As I left the Dóchas Center, I heard the heavy metal door slide open that allowed me to leave the prison. It occurred to me that just by accident of birth I was not staying behind as one of the prisoners. Because I was born into a privileged class and culture, I will probably always have the freedom to step from one world into another - something the women in the Center and in prisons and correctional facilities around the world may never have. As the door banged shut behind me, I vowed to treat people with dignity and respect - especially those who have been disadvantaged by the misfortunes of poverty, cruelty and abuse.
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Adapted from Joy Carol's newest book, Journeys of Courage: Remarkable Stories of the Healing Power of Community
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