The Prison Trap: mental strains of solitary confinement
‘I was always a happy kid, chirpy, happy-go-lucky . . . but prison really broke me’
Peter* was just 17 when he first entered solitary confinement. “I had 30 days of my sentence left – I will never forget it – and I got into a fight. Because of what I did, I was put into ‘the pad’ for 24 days. The only person I could see was the priest who’d bring down a cigarette for me and we’d sit there and have a chat for maybe 10 minutes. I would try to hold him there for longer, just for someone to talk to.”
During his period of isolation at St Patrick’s Institution, he said he wasn’t allowed out of the cell to exercise and had nothing to distract him other than a few pamphlets the chaplain had left behind.
“You can go mental in the pad. You go insane in it. You can cry your f**king eyes out, punch the walls, headbutt the walls, you can do what you want but you’re not going anywhere. It’s something that will stay with me forever, the moment I got out of that pad. I was so disorientated.
The Irish Times takes no responsibility for the content or availability of other websites.
“Looking back on it now, I feel angry about it. I’m 37 now, so that was 20 years ago, but it’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Prison isn’t meant to be fun, but should it be allowed to damage people’s physical or mental health? Inspection reports by Irish and international agencies over the past decade have blamed prison conditions for incubating psychological problems that then spill over into self-harming or troubling behaviour.
“Overcrowding, lack of privacy, enforced isolation and violence tend to exacerbate mental disabilities. However, there is often little access to even rudimentary mental healthcare and support services,” a 2005 UN special rapporteur report into Irish prisons stated.
Today Peter is back in society, studying and contributing to his community but he suffers from depression and anxiety, for which he takes Zispin. “That’s down to prison. I was never a depressed person. I was always a happy kid, chirpy, happy-go-lucky. But prison really f**ked with me, especially my last sentence. It really broke me.”
He speaks of the terror he experienced of having a drug debt in prison. He used heroin, which led to him owing €2,500 to a notoriously violent gang. “I knew if I didn’t pay that bill I would be sliced up bad.” He eventually got a family member to pay off the debt but still had the addiction to deal with. This led to a clash with prison authorities over access to methadone.