The mothers spending Christmas in prison
The ‘Storybook Mams’ project videos mothers reading stories to their children
Inmates attend the launch of Storybook Mams at Dóchas women’s prison, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
‘When the world says give up, hope whispers Try it one more time’. The words are on a wall just inside the entrance to Dóchas, after the airport-style security.
Everywhere you go in Dóchas women’s prison, the staff unlock doors or gates first, then lock them again after going through. “That is what I love about my holidays,” jokes Margaret Cronin, a teacher in the education and training unit. “No jingle of keys!”
It’s a constant reminder of the significance of incarceration. Visiting some of the women inside, I am acutely aware I can leave afterwards.
In the meantime, there’s a big crowd gathered in the gym.There’s a bit of excitement because of the break in routine, and maybe because of the tea and buns afterwards. The visitors drift in, including a team from Children’s Books Ireland, who talk about their Book Doctor Clinic, which helps “prescribe” children’s books, and a librarian from Dublin City Libraries, who looks after books in prisons.
A yell goes up from the back when another man joins them. “Does your mother know you’re out?” followed by laughter, and another roar: “Ya look well with your clothes on!” This is the raucous greeting for Mountjoy governor Eddie Mullins; the slagging is water off a duck’s back.
It’s the run-up to Christmas, and most of the prisoners will spend the family season inside. At any given time there are between 115 and 120 prisoners in Dóchas, the closed, medium-security women’s prison on the Mountjoy campus in Phibsborough, with a dozen or so on temporary release. At Christmas, an additional three or four women may get out for a night or more.
For the children of women inside, it’s distressing. Younger ones may not understand why mammy isn’t around; older ones may be resentful. The Storybook Mams project arose in response to this, supported by Dóchas governor Mary O’Connor. Women who opt to take part choose a book to read to a child they are separated from, and the Storybook team videos her reading the child a story. A package with the DVD, the book and a teddy made by the woman is sent home to the child. It’s a simple, moving concept.
Back in the gym, teacher Una Gildea talks to the women about how it works, encouraging more to take part, and shows a video Mary has already made for her children. On screen with children’s books behind her, Mary greets her two boys warmly, tells them to cuddle up, and starts to read This Is How Much I Love You, intercut with the book’s illustrations.
Afterwards, a few of us gather in a training room for a quieter chat. The women are appreciative of their teachers’ efforts and support, and they are talkative, with varying degrees of frankness.
Angelique is from Cork, and has five children under 16 – she made a Storybook for the youngest three, aged nine, 10 and 12. “I’m up here in the Dóchas 20 months but I was in Limerick 10 months before that. I do every course that’s happening. I done my Junior Cert in maths last year and I’m doing my Leaving Cert in English this year. I have 29 certificates since I came into prison.”
She’s due for release in August 2019, “but I’m hoping maybe after my Leaving Cert exams they might leave me out”.
Her children are in Cork, one with her husband’s family, the rest with hers. The children understand where their parents are. “They’ll like it, especially seeing me on the DVD, because they don’t get to see me that often. It is a good distance and they only came up to this prison twice, but I go down to Cork with two officers to see them sometimes.”
She left her family home with her husband when she was 14, and he was 21. “When I was getting reared up there wasn’t much books getting read out to me and it’s a lovely idea.”
Listen to Annie, Angelique and Manie talk about life inside, in prison apart from their children
Granny (59) with 49 grandchildren
Cronin and Gildea talk about one of the women who did Storybook Mams last year – a 59-year-old woman with 49 grandchildren, who could not read or write.
They teach literacy in the education unit, but “for some people literacy is not going to change the world”, says Cronin. “She’s managed up to 59, with all these grandchildren. And I was not going to insult or embarrass that woman, joining dots to write her name. But she wanted to read a story.
“So we put her in front of the camera. I read a line, then she repeated the line. When it came to turning the page, I kicked her in the ankle, a little tap, and she turned the page. I read, she told it. Then Una took my voice out and it’s all the lady herself reading a story. It was spectacular. She looks like the most confident reader you’ll ever meet. She was lovely, the way she said ‘Nanny here!’. You’d know she’s the matriarch of the family and it was just gorgeous.”
Annie is 31 and has a nine-year-old daughter. “I was in here last year for Christmas so I done a book, Room on the Broom. My daughter loved it. It makes a nice little present for your daughter or your young fella, to see you and to know you care about them and you love them.”
Her daughter doesn’t visit. “She gets very upset after visits, so I’d rather just let her know I love her. I ring her all the time, but I don’t like her coming up here, because she’s nine but she’s not stupid. I tried to fool her before, saying I’m in hospital. But she said that’s not a hospital, they’re garda. So you just have to explain: look, mammy’s been bold. I don’t want you being bold and this is where you end up when you’re bold. She does be sobbing going home from visits and it’s horrible to be looking at your child like that.”
Annie was out in June, but back inside by September, “unfortunately, yeah”. Cronin, beside her, says quietly, “Or fortunately, because she would have been dead if . . .” Annie agrees. “Yeah, prison saves ya, it does.”
She will be out in January 2018, and “there will be temptation [to go back on drugs] . . . But there’s a time in your life when you are going to have to turn around and deal with it.”
Slight and self-contained, Manie looks as frail as a child herself. She has been inside 13 months and her sentence ends just before Christmas. “I can’t wait.” Her Storybook is for “my baby sister. She is nine now, bless her. Every night now, my mam said on the phone, she puts on the DVD and she watches it when she’s in bed before she goes to sleep, and she’s all like ‘Oh look Mam, look look look, Manie’s on, look at Manie’. And that’s every night now.”
She knows Manie is in prison. “She is very saddened over it. She went through a part where she was coming around to talking on the phone. It was only small talk but she would say ‘I love you’ at the end of the call. And then she stopped talking completely.”
After getting the DVD “she’s coming around again now. So I done it to try and build up my bond with her again. I’m doing the course Recover Me at the moment to try and change your ways of thinking. If you keep thinking bad things, then bad things is gonna happen to you. And if you think good things, then good things gonna happen. But I always say, out of every bad situation you make a good. Like, you think of all the good even though life can be so bad at the moment or so cruel. I still have to think of the good things to keep going.”
Jade (26) is from Manchester and has three girls, aged 10, nine and five. She has been in Dóchas eight months and is due for release in September 2018.
“I haven’t seen my children the whole time I’ve been here. It’s too far for them to travel and I just don’t want them coming into the prison. The two older ones know I’m in prison and it upsets them just knowing, so I can’t imagine what they’d be like if they do come to the prison. The youngest thinks I’m working on a big boat in the middle of the sea in Ireland. She keeps asking me when I’m coming home and I keep saying, when the boss doesn’t need me anymore.
“It was good to do the Storybook, so the kids know I’m okay and that I still think about them and I still love them, and just because I’m here doesn’t mean I’ve stopped loving them or stopped thinking about them. I did Peppa Pig’s First Pet for the youngest and The Gruffalo’s Child for the older two.”
The older ones are with their dad, and the youngest with her sister. On Christmas Day, Jade will talk to them. She doesn’t know what Santa is bringing. “I know they’ve asked Santa for me to come home. It is a very hard one, that one. I know they’ll probably stop believing after this year.”
Jade phones her children twice a day. They talk about “school. Whether they’re being good, what they’ve done during the day. You know, just things like that. How they’re growing and what they’re learning. I like to know everything about them.”
Mary is nervous and cautious. She has “three beautiful children. My daughter’s 18 and I have two boys who are in foster care – they are 11 and seven years old. I do really miss them a lot and it’s very hard when you’re stuck in here knowing they are out there, but I know they are safe and sound. I miss my boys because I don’t get to see them. That’s something we are working on with the social worker. My 11-year-old boy is very anxious and also a bit upset” about coming to Dóchas, but her daughter visits. “So that keeps my spirit going.”
She doesn’t know if the children will visit at Christmas. “It’s very hard but we’re still working on it.”
She was sentenced in January 2017 and will be released in December 2018. “So it’s two years, but I’m keeping myself busy and well-focused and positive and just keeping it in the day. And I’m coming to the school and I’m moving to computers and I do website design. I did Parenting and Steps last year. I’m just keeping my mind going. ”
In creating the storybooks, Gildea works with the women, filming their stories, and does the final edit. Cronin prepares them. “I go outside with whoever is going to be reading next and we sit down and we have a cigarette and a little chat,” she says. “And then we read the story and we practise, and they know how to intonate the words – “whoosh, he was gone” – and if it’s written in bold it means it’s louder.”
When we finish recording the audio, the women relax before lunch and it’s like a cue to let off steam. They talk about bullying, not having enough money for cigarettes, how some people always get the nicer jobs, temporary release.
“It’s not fair, it’s the same people who get all the jobs, working in reception or the IPS [cleaning in the Irish Prison Service offices at Mountjoy]. Others who have addictions and that, they never get a chance for those jobs. It’s the people that were never in prison before, or who are in on fraud charges or for smuggling drugs.”
They say fewer women are getting temporary release than before. “Because there’s other people that f***ed it up for other ones who really do deserve to get out, and it’s not fair because we’re all suffering then for other people’s doin’s. Whereas we are doing well, and we are working our heads to get out.”
Some names have been changed