Incarcerating troubled people is wrong

By Fr Michael Commane - The Way I See It

John (not his real name) and I have been 'hello' friends now for a number of years. He regularly sits outside a church. He looks an old man but he is younger than I. A tall man with long hair and a fabulous beard. Some people entering the church give him a 'peace offering'. There are certain things that cause him to roar and scream and it can be very off-putting for people and some people, understandably feel nervous passing him on entering the church. He can be most insulting and frightening but he can also be most caring and kind.

On one occasion I smelt something burning to discover that he has a novel way of shaving his beard. He uses the candles in the church to burn it. Funny, but dangerous and profoundly sad too.

It must be at least two years since he went AWOL. I eventually found him. He was a guest of the State at Mountjoy Jail. Early this year he went off-site. At first I thought he was being politically clever and had decided not to annoy people. But after a week or so I called a local Garda station to discover that he was on remand in Cloverhill prison. I have not yet been to see him but have arranged a visit through the prison chaplain, who seems a lovely man.

The Prison Service Director Michael Donnellan speaking at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on February 1, feast of St Brigid, said that Irish prisons were the 'asylums' of the 21st century. He told PAC that a massive 70 per cent of the 3,715 prisoners in Irish gaols are experiencing alcohol and drug addiction. Another 30 people are waiting for accommodation in mental health care facilities.

He went on to say: 'We need early intervention to stop people falling out of society and back into prison. People end up in the justice system and we have to pick up the pieces. It's the education system, the housing system, we need a joined up government approach to drive down prison numbers.'

Yes, John can be a proper nuisance and he is no saint. Who is? And I'm not for a moment attempting to justify his unsocial and bad behaviour. But throwing him in prison will not solve the problem. There is something positive about his incarceration in that it guarantees him accommodation and food. As far as I know he is homeless but I'm not fully sure about that. I do know putting him in prison makes a man who can get angry even more angry towards those whom he considers are unjust to him. It is absurd that he is in prison. It's simply wrong and I am ashamed of being a citizen of a State that puts John and people in his condition into prison. And the waste of money too. It is nothing less than cruel and a scandal.

A student, completing a doctorate, who has visited John in prison, sent me this text. Food for thought. It's a post from Indigenous Americans: 'Before our white brothers arrived to make us civilised men, we didn't have any kind of prison. Because of this, we had no delinquents. Without a prison, there can be no delinquents. We had no locks nor keys and therefore among us there were no thieves. When someone was so poor that he couldn't afford a horse, a tent or a blanket, he would, in that case, receive it all as a gift. We were too uncivilised to give great importance to private property. We didn't know any kind of money...'

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