A mother in prison: ‘I wasn’t allowed to cuddle my only child’

Jail was ‘wasted time’ for Paula Kearney who is now starting a university degree course

Erika Browne  and Paula Kearney who addressed the conference Inside Out: the Human Rights Implications of Imprisonment, at the Law Society, Dublin, at the weekend.

Erika Browne and Paula Kearney who addressed the conference Inside Out: the Human Rights Implications of Imprisonment, at the Law Society, Dublin, at the weekend.

 

The damage caused to women and children when mothers are sent to prison is “enormous”, a former drug abuser and convicted shop lifter told a human rights conference in Dublin at the weekend.

After her child came on prison visits during which he was not allowed have physical contact with her because she was a drug user, she would be “distraught” and would go back to her cell to “self-medicate”, Paula Kearney told the Law Society Human Rights Committee conference.

“I wasn’t allowed to cuddle my only child,” Ms Kearney said. “There are few things in life as painful as that.”

Many women when they returned to their cells after meeting their children self-harmed, or even considered suicide, she said. Children sometimes blamed themselves for not being allowed to touch their mothers.

Ms Kearney, who was last in prison in 2010, has returned to education in recent years and completed courses in addiction and community education studies. She is now a peer worker with Saol, a Dublin organisation that works with women with addiction. She is to start a degree course with Maynooth University next year.

She said she finished the programmes and courses she had done while homeless and living in a hotel room. If there were more programmes and opportunities available when she was in prison, then she might have been able to transform her life earlier than she had. Prison had been “wasted time”.

Recidivism

“Hopelessness is a reason for recidivism,” she said. “Negative re-enforcement doesn’t work.”

Erika Browne told of the effect on her and her family of her partner being imprisoned for theft in 2002 when her children were aged just five and two. The children “got used to it but did not get over it. It became normal.”

Her partner became depressed and self-harmed in a serious way. He was moved around different Dublin prisons, but the family would not be informed. She recalled arriving at Mountjoy one winter’s day only to be told he had been moved to another prison. “Families should be told,” she said.

Eventually she became a “chaotic drug user” and her children were taken into care. “To this day I am still rebuilding my life since that sentence in 2002.”

Ms Browne, who is also active with Saol, said she and Ms Kearney had interviewed 12 women prisoners about their experiences and only one had said that prison had been a positive experience. “Prison can be a positive experience when you are homeless.

“If prison is only there to punish, then well done, it really works. But if it is meant to rehabilitate, then it is not working,” she told the conference on the human rights implications of imprisonment.