The Prison Trap: mental strains of solitary confinement
‘I was always a happy kid, chirpy, happy-go-lucky . . . but prison really broke me’
He fought with officers at the dispensing clinic and ended up in solitary confinement – this time in an adult prison. “It was the most horrible time in my whole life. I cried, I just wished the time away . . . I was going through withdrawals as well so I was in a pretty bad way. I was vomiting and I had diarrhoea at the same time.”
An Oireachtas sub-committee last year heard of a similar case when the Inspector of Prisons Mr Justice Michael Reilly revealed he had come across a prisoner who could not control his bodily functions, lying on the floor of an isolation cell.
Solitary confinement for self-protection has been a feature of Irish prisons. Figures last July showed that of the 211 prisoners kept in isolation, 171 were held for their own protection. Some 114 at-risk prisoners were locked up for 23 hours, while the remaining 57 were locked up for 22 hours. The other reasons for isolation are discipline and medical treatment.
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Irish Prisons Service director general Michael Donnellan has said the figures are “not acceptable” and the service was aiming to reduce the number in isolation over the next 12 months. Its hand may be forced by the courts, according to The Irish Penal Reform Trust, which has cited “an increasing volume of litigation across Europe in this area”.
However, it and other campaigners argue that the isolation regime is only one part of the problem. “Lack of amenities and options for constructive activity is just as damaging,” says Fr Peter McVerry. “The mindless existence of watching TV and walking around your cell all day can be almost as destructive as solitary confinement.”
Violence, interlinked with drug abuse, creates further psychological strain. McVerry singles out St Patrick’s as having a particularly oppressive atmosphere.
“Being independent and macho is part of the image a young person has to present in prison if they are going to survive. People can let go of antagonisms in adult prison but in juvenile prison you have to retaliate. You have to be seen to get your own back, otherwise you are seen to be soft.”
Identifying vulnerable prisoners in this environment can be very difficult, not to mention diagnosing underlying or evolving mental illnesses.
“Serious psychotic mental illness typically develops in the late teens or early 20s,” says Dr Stephen Monks, consultant psychiatrist at St Patrick’s.
What impact exactly does prison have on mental health? Prisoners themselves are emphatic on the point. “The long-term effect is that it made me really aggressive,” says Barry*, who spent much of his 20s and 30s in jail but is now back living with his girlfriend and children in Dublin. “I find it really difficult to have a conversation with a person without thinking there’s an ulterior motive. I’m doing counselling now for relationships and to be a better father.”