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Mental health in Irish prisons: ‘Behind that door they think about their family, they think about everything’

Now in its 20th year, the Listener service enables prison inmates going through a tough time to have their voices heard

“I was down, low, a few years ago and when I put out my hand for help, they helped me,” says Tom, one of 850 prisoners in the Midlands Prison, the State’s largest jail. “I was going through a severe depression and I tried to take my own life. I thought I had nobody, because I was at my lowest. But when I was able to talk to them, it did the world of good for me.”

When Tom speaks of “them”, he is referring to fellow prisoners who work as Listeners with the Samaritans inside Irish jails. In the macho prison community, where sharing personal information can be dangerous and leave prisoners open to being targeted, the Listener service is now in its 20th year.

It came into its own during the pandemic, a time when in-person family visits were cancelled and when the most restrictive conditions were introduced. Prisoners were kept in their cells for long periods, save for an hour a day, in a bid to halt the spread of Covid-19.

“When the pandemic first broke out, we actually didn’t realise what it was until we started to get locked down,” Tom says. “We could be locked in our cells for anything up to two weeks; no contact with people, no visits with our families. People were sitting there by themselves; even people in single cells who had no one to chat to for two weeks. The only contact they had was when officers came in to give you your food and, other than that, you didn’t see anybody.”


Having emerged from his own struggles, Tom has since gone through Listener training, supplied by Samaritans Ireland volunteers who come into the prison setting. During the challenging period of the pandemic, Tom was part of the frontline, listening to the problems and concerns of other prisoners to minimise their risk of self-harm and suicide.

He, and other Listeners, were fetched by staff and taken at all hours to the landings where prisoners had signalled their need for help by turning on the red lights in their cells. In muffled conversations through locked cell doors, prisoners could share their troubles with the Listeners, who were themselves serving their time amid heightened restrictions due to the threat of Covid-19.

Staff in the Midlands and Irish Prison Service said the Listener service was instrumental in keeping a lid on distress during the pandemic. This was especially the case in 2021, before the prison service managed to install phones in cells and arrange family visits via video link, among other measures to minimise prisoner isolation. Once the worst of the pandemic had passed, 28 prisoners in the Midlands stepped up to volunteer to become Listeners, prompted to join a service they had benefited from.

Tom says that because some prisoners regarded themselves as “hard men”, they were very reluctant to be open in their conversations with listeners, or to seek help at all, although trust could be built over time.

“There are a lot of young fellas in prison who do think they’re ‘big boys’. But deep down, any man who goes into that cell, behind the door from 7pm, they think about their family, they think about everything. So it is hard.”

The Samaritans Listener service began in the UK in 1991, when a 15-year-old boy serving a sentence in HM Prison Swansea for stealing a handbag took his own life. Prisoners in the jail went to management and the Samaritans to explore what might be done to avoid a repeat, resulting in the Listener system.

It is operational in all 13 jails across the Irish Prison Service. Just over 100 prisoners work as ‘Listeners’, supported by 80 Samaritans volunteers.

Cindy O’Shea, the Samaritans regional prison support officer, said prisoners who work as Listeners report that their communication skills have improved, greatly aiding relationships with their families and loved ones. She says it doesn’t just reduce self-harm and suicide in prisons, but sets them up for release.

“When all of the mental health institutions closed, basically nothing was put in place afterwards, so you have an awful lot of people ending up in prison who have significant mental health problems,” Ms O’Shea said at the Midlands Prison on Wednesday, where an event was held to mark the 20th year of the Listener service in the State. “And prisons are not a suitable place for people who have mental health issues.”

She said the Listener scheme gives prisoners support, and they are much more likely to talk to peers than staff. “If we can get people talking at an early stage when they’ve got problems, it prevents it escalating.”

Midlands Prison governor Ray O’Keeffe said some prisoners were in the Midlands for life sentences, meaning that “this is their home, this is where they live, and the rest of us just work here”. The Listener system helped to create the kind of support any would receive in their community when faced with challenges.

While the general population may be surprised to hear prisoners were volunteering to support each other, O’Keeffe saw it as “community support” which, he said, was “a very strong part of being Irish”.

“Being Irish, you are part of a community,” he said, “and if you take here today, there are 850 people in custody and between all of the other teams – custody management, the staff, education - you probably have 1,100 people and that’s the size of a good [sized] village in Ireland. So [prisoners] will support people in the same way that any village would.”

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, text HELLO to 50808, or contact the Samaritans at free phone 116123 or email

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times