Why do we tolerate places like St Patrick's Institution?
St Patrick’s has failed our troubled youth. We need real solutions based on intervention
‘I MET a child on B Wing who was on 23-hour lock up. This child was quite fragile. He explained to me that he was now talking to himself.’ I don’t know why these sentences from the damning report on St Patrick’s Institution by Judge Michael Reilly have stuck with me more than the blocked toilets, the cold, the fear, the lack of educational facilities or the clothes cut from protesting young bodies by prison officers using knives.
Perhaps it is the idea of a skinny, undersized teenager sitting in a cell, hour after hour, mumbling to himself, slowly losing his mind. Why can’t we close this place down? Why do we tolerate it? Again, and again, in report after report, the same shocking practices in St Pat’s have been highlighted.
The Children’s Ombudsman, Emily Logan, has described how she was patronised and metaphorically patted on the head when she raised concerns. The Irish Prison Chaplains (described by Judge Reilly as providing an absolutely vital service) in 2010 described St Pat’s as a “warehouse for young people, many of whom were broken by childhood experiences”.
There is a dignified, restrained anger in what Judge Reilly has written, the anger of a decent man when confronted with something that is gravely wrong.
He acknowledges the positive changes that have happened. He is quick to recognise that it is a minority of prison officers who bully and intimidate not only prisoners but some of their fellow prison officers.
And yet the question remains. Why do we tolerate this? Is it because we are afraid of them, these outwardly tough and hardened child-men, with their unpredictable impulses? We are right to be. They have grown up where learning to model yourself on aggressive and violent older members of your community is an essential survival tactic.
Yet the increasing divide between the classes in Ireland means that we can be permitted to ignore them until they impinge on us by breaking into our houses, or scaring us witless when we accidentally bump into them on streets we rarely frequent.
It is not as if we do not have insights into what is going wrong in the communities from which these young people come. Take the fascinating 2011 book, Understanding Limerick: Social Exclusion and Change, edited by sociologist Dr Niamh Hourigan.
Limerick is in some ways a special case, having the unique distinction of being at once perhaps the most globalised of Irish cities, and also having the highest proportion of local authority estates, the highest rate of suicide, self-harm and marriage breakdown, as well as extremely high rates of unemployment and single parenthood.
However, it also provides potent proof that certain factors are vital to functioning communities – stable families, worthwhile work, education, leadership, positive community networks, a functioning moral framework, decent housing and social services, and acceptance by the wider world.