Why do we tolerate places like St Patrick's Institution?

Sat, Oct 20, 2012, 01:00

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.

Dr Hourigan conducted three years of research on the ground in Limerick. An older northside resident named Jim introduced her to a concept that she found very valuable. He spoke of the “advantaged among the disadvantaged, and the disadvantaged among the disadvantaged”.

In other words, even within the poorest of the estates, there were important distinctions. Dr Hourigan points out that “the advantaged of the disadvantaged are defined first and foremost by their stable family structures. Even if lone parents are heading the household, they enjoy support from their extended family.” (These positive family structures must be distinguished from the warped kinship structures of the “disadvantaged of the disadvantaged”, where membership of a “tribe” is an important badge of identity, but also a severe source of stress because of violence and dysfunction inflicted on each other.)

In contrast, the “advantaged from the disadvantaged” have good family support, value education, are not involved in serious crime and want to make better lives. Their greatest barrier is stigma. The mainstream community rejects them because of the way they dress, their accents and their addresses. At the same time, the most criminal members of their own communities are quick to punish them for “getting above themselves”.

In another chapter by Patricia Kelleher and Pat O’Connor, the particular problems experienced by men are described. One of the participants in their study commented that marriage in his community is a rare event.

Steven Pinker, author of the recent book, Better Angels of Our Nature, may have overstated the case when he said that “the idea that young men are civilised by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology”. But there are serious consequences to marriage becoming more and more the preserve of those already benefiting from the way in which society is structured.

Since the age of criminal responsibility moved to 12, children as young as three to eight have been recruited to carry out harassment mandated by the worst of the criminal families. The lack of boundaries created by positive male role models, especially fathers, married or unmarried, means that the children are left to the mercy of the worst elements.

We know where money is best invested. Again and again, support for families and investment in education, especially in early childhood and early second level, have been proven to be effective.

Yet again and again, we choose to spend hundreds of thousands on incarceration, rather than thousands on education and intervention. Why do we tolerate this?

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