Nurturing responsibility in Cavan’s open prison
Can growing vegetables help prepare prisoners to return to society as law-abiding citizens?
Social and therapeutic horticulturist Caitriona Kelly with prisoners participating in a gardening course at Loughan House open prison in Co Cavan. Photograph: Barry Cronin/barrycronin.com
Driving into Loughan House open prison in Co Cavan is a surreal experience. There’s no gate or security barrier operator to check my credentials. I park in the visitor car park and walk to the wooden shed next to a row of large polytunnels, searching for Caitriona Kelly, the horticulturist who has invited me here to meet prisoners taking the social horticulture course she runs with GIY Ireland (giy.ie).*
Men in tracksuits wander the expansive grounds which overlook MacNean lake in the heartlands of the Cavan countryside. The shed is a public cafe which is just opening for business next to the polytunnels full of plants for sale. The prisoners also grow 4,000 sunflowers annually, which are donated to the North West Hospice for fundraising.
Some prisoners work in a bike repair shop and a car valeting service – both of which are open to the public. Other men work on the farm, where donated calves are reared into 18-month old pregnant cows which are then shipped to African countries in partnership with the charity, BothairBóthar International. The site of 47 acres started off as a seminary in 1953 and with falling vocations was transformed into an adult detention centre in the 1980s.
I’m a little nervous – everything looks far too normal and nobody in a uniform approaches me. It’s hard to imagine that many of the men here have spent years locked up in prison cells for up to 18 hours a day.
At Loughan House (one of only two open prisons in Ireland – the other is in Shelton Abbey in Co Wicklow), the prisoners have keys to their own rooms (single or shared with one other man). They make their own breakfast, work or go to classes and eat together in the dining hall at lunchtime and in the evening. They have mobile phones (without internet access, cameras or recording devises) and are free to make contact with whoever they like.
“This open prison model is built on [the principle] of rehabilitation rather than security,” says Jimmy Keely, chief officer at Loughan House. He adds that the gardening course will be useful to prisoners on release, giving them realistic options for employment or self-employment. The two open prisons in Ireland accommodate just over 5 per cent of the entire prison population of about 4,000.
Kelly wanders out of a polytunnel where she has been preparing plants for her two-hour class. This is week six of the 12-week certified course, and 11 out of the original 12 are still attending class. In the classroom, Kelly explains the importance of keeping weeds down and sowing “companion plants” – the crops that attract or deter insects from lettuce, scallions, peppers and the various herbs due for planting today.
As the men move from the classroom block to plant seeds and seedlings in the polytunnel and outdoor beds, the mood becomes more relaxed. Some of them are willing to talk to me, while others are absolute in their refusal. John (58) visits the plot daily to clear weeds and check on the plants. “I never gardened before, but I find it so interesting to plant seeds and see how quickly they grow into plants.” Once his sentence is finished in about 18 months, he hopes to get an allotment to grow vegetables to sell in a farmers’ market.
Michael (28) says that there is more freedom and more courses in Loughan House compared to a closed prison. “I’m doing woodwork, art, gardening and a parenting course, because I have three children who I see at the weekends. I also use the gym five days a week.”
Kevin (27) says that he’d like to work as a tiler when he’s released from prison. “I’m getting my driver’s licence while I’m in here and I’ve done the parenting course too because I’ve two children. I came to this class because my kids grow strawberries and it’s something I could help them with.”
Kelly says that research has found several therapeutic benefits of growing food. “It’s part lifelong learning and engaging in a meaningful activity which enhances people’s focus – particularly if they are recovering from an addiction,” she explains.
“There’s also the nurturing aspect and sense of responsibility for caring for the plants. And there’s the physical activity and connection to nature. I’ve seen changes in confidence and engagement among many of the men since the classes started.”
Brenda McMullan is the head teacher employed by the Cavan and Monaghan Educational Training Board to oversee the practical and academic courses at Loughan House. About 100 of the 140 prisoners attend courses in literacy, numeracy, woodwork, outdoor pursuits, art and craft, information technology and music. There are also short courses in caring and parenting.
“We have 18 prisoners here now on life sentences [with no end date] who are mixed in with prisoners here for six-12 months for assault, robbery, the possession of drugs,” explains McMullan. Because the prisoners have different levels of education (ranging from junior certificate to university degrees) and different arrival dates, educational programmes are individualised within the classes.”
The prisoners have freedom of movement and don’t need prison staff to escort them to class so they walk from the accommodation block to the classroom block. “It’s challenging to teach prisoners as they are inclined to drop out. The teachers have to engage them quickly and make it worthwhile and relevant, but we do find that they want to share their life experiences and talk things through,” says McMullan.
She says that the parenting and caring courses are particularly popular. “Some of these prisoners will be looking after elderly parents when they leave prison. Their marriages are gone, their homes are gone and they will be glad to go back to live with their parents,” says McMullan.
The parenting course is of interest to those who still have contact with partners and children and family visits to Loughan House are encouraged. The prisoners who complete the Red Cross drugs awareness course give on site workshops to transition-year students from local schools.
Loughan House has a full-time lay chaplain, a nurse, addiction counsellors and a visiting psychologist and medical doctor. There is an on-site gym with various fitness classes and a theatre where theatre companies work with prisoners on musicals and plays.
Governor Maria Connolly and assistant governor Geraldine Carrick says that an open prison like Loughan House is all about rehabilitating prisoners for their return to the community. “It’s based on trust. Prison officers have a much closer relationship and are more relaxed with the prisoners here. The hardest thing for me was the open gate and getting used to seeing prisoners with mobile phones,” says Connolly who previously worked in Limerick Prison, the Dochas Women’s Prison and St Patrick’s Prison in Mountjoy.
Carrick points out that the gates to Loughan House were removed in 2012, after which time the number of “absconsions” dropped from 37 to four, and then two in the following years. The entire site is, however, covered by CCTV cameras. Five staff members are on duty at night-time for about 140 prisoners.
“There are not too many hardened criminals here,” says Connolly, by which she means no gangland criminals and nobody imprisoned for sexual offences. “We have a zero tolerance of alcohol and drugs and there’s no fighting here,” she adds. She explains that prisoners on temporary release are given urine tests on their return to check for alcohol and drugs.
“Most prisoners here want to be here. Some can struggle with their freedom initially because they’ve become institutionalised. Some can be almost euphoric when they first arrive going from a regimented regime to somewhere they have to manage their own days,” says Carrick.
Both governors stress the importance of maintaining family links and talk about how prisoners act as stewards on charity walks, partake in work parties in Tidy Towns initiatives and host a Christmas party for older people in the area.
“We’re looking into job experiences with employers which would be a new initiative in an open prison,” says Connolly.
“Some people say it’s very cosy [for prisoners] here, but the best way to honour victims of crime is to ensure that when these guys leave here, there won’t be any more victims from these particular prisoners,” says Carrick.
*This article was edited on May 9th, 2018