Prison a tough place to find yourself in - even as a visitor

By Fr Michael Commane - The Way I See It

Last week I wrote about John, not his real name, who is on remand in Cloverhill Prison.

On Monday I left my home near Rathgar in Dublin at 11.45. Using public transport I arrived at the prison at 1.30. Imagine if I were an old person, older than I am, unwell or a parent with children in tow how at all would I manage. I say that because after a 105-minute public transport odyssey it is approximately an eight minute walk from the bus stop to the prison gate. The signage directing a person to the prison is nil.

I find myself heading into Wheatfield Prison, which is across the road from Cloverhill Prison. About one minute after 2.10pm the shutter on the window goes up and the queue starts to move. One or two people are refused entry as they do not have the appropriate identification. You can imagine how upset/angry/annoyed they are. The prison officer is pleasant but firm.

It's my turn at the window. I give the prisoner's name and my name. The officer looks up a list and tells me my name is not on it. Eventually I discover I am on a 'professional visit' and should be in another part of the prison. I saw no signs suggesting there were different 'types' of queues. I go back to the locker where I had stored my belongings, take them out and head to the 'professional gate'. All the time the prison officers are courteous and polite. But I'm nervous and on a number of occasions let my passport fall on the ground. Through security, frisked and I'm sitting down in the final waiting room. The man sitting beside me is from India and he tells me a little about Indian prisons.

After about 10 to 15 minutes my prisoner's name is called out and I am brought into a room. It's bare, cold cement walls, a table and at the far side of the table is my man. We shake hands and we are both delighted to meet each other. I have never seen him look so well, spotless, in a tracksuit and his hands immaculately clean. And he's in good form.

After a few pleasantries I ask him if he had received my letter. I had posted a letter to him on Monday, February 6 and he tells me he had not yet received it. I'm confused as I know of at least one other person who had written to him. I'm later told by a prison officer that they might still be in the censor's office.

John and I spend about 20/25 minutes chatting and it is a most constructive encounter. I pass him on the greetings of a number of people. He tells me something of his history and how he first landed in prison as a 15-year-old child. It is a profoundly sad story and of course the man should not be in prison. It's most unlikely that he is going to benefit anything from his prison sojourn.

They say prison makes people angry. I got a tiny glimpse of that feeling of anger. Under no circumstances would I have been silly enough to have expressed a hint of criticism of some of the practices in place at the prison. How must prisoners feel? Yes prison is a place of punishment but surely also a place of rehabilitation. I'm thinking of that line in St Luke's Gospel: 'He has sent me to bring good news to the poor/to proclaim liberty to captives'.

And what happens John when he leaves prison?

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