Prisoner Red Cross volunteers making prison a safer place
Ireland was first country in the world to introduce the programme in a prison setting
Wheatfield prison governor Frances Daly, who has been involved with the programme since 2009, says she is proud to say how the programme has changed the lives of prisoners. Photograph: Alan Betson
“I witnessed a vicious attack here in Wheatfield where a prisoner was left in need of 180 stitches,” says Stephen (not his real name), who is an Irish Red Cross (IRC) prison inmate volunteer.
He is one of 360 prisoners across Ireland who have undergone training to become healthcare and first aid volunteers within the prison system, and to help the prisons – and prisoners – tackle drug and violence problems as they arise.
Prisoners who become IRC volunteers complete an intensive course, that includes basic first aid, disease prevention and health promotion. Once fully qualified, the prisoners become, in effect, the healthcare advocates.
Wheatfield prison in Dublin recently hosted a Lessons Learned Workshop in conjunction with the IRC to showcase the work being done by inmate volunteers in the 12 prisons across the country.
Inmate volunteers talked about the projects they have been working on as part of their involvement in the Community-Based Health and First Aid in Action programme.
Ireland was the first country in the world to introduce the programme in a prison setting.
The project operates under a partnership of the Irish Prison Service and Education and Training Boards. Initially piloted in Wheatfield prison in June 2009, it is showing positive results.
The programme sees prisoners who have trained as volunteers working with other inmates on violence prevention, mental health awareness, smoking education and other projects.
Stephen, who is serving a life sentence, says that witnessing such a violent attack as the one that left a fellow inmate in need of 180 stitches is the reason a weapons amnesty was called for within Wheatfield prison.
“The prison staff here in Wheatfield and the volunteer inmates came together, because the violent attacks were getting out of control.
“We realised that something had to be done so we called a meeting between gang members and prison staff. We came to an agreement that we would put buckets and containers on both landings in the prison and inmates were encouraged to hand over their weapons.
“It was the beginning of a weapons amnesty, and there has been a 90 per cent decrease in violent attacks on prisoners in Wheatfield since. In the initial six months after the amnesty, there was only one cutting [person cut] at the prison. It’s made the prison a safer place,” says Stephen.
Since running ongoing weapons amnesty projects to remove cutting weapons in Wheatfield, and assisting management with an advocacy role through the volunteers, there has been more than a 97 per cent reduction in cuttings with a weapon and 50 per cent fewer assaults.
IRC volunteer inmates have also assisted staff in designing a peer-led two-day culture of non-violence course for prisoners.
Dr Graham Betts-Symonds, the Irish Prison Service director of the programme, says Ireland is unique in the way it has successfully adapted the international programme to a prison setting
“Volunteers [prisoners] are chosen to complete the training and they then become volunteers. “Their role is to learn in the classroom and then take that training into their prison community,” he says.
A drug education programme has been widely praised within the prison community, particularly within Cloverhill Prison.
Earlier this year a drug named “spice”, which sparked something of an epidemic in UK prisons, was introduced to Cloverhill.
The drug has had devastating effects in UK prisons. It is a collection of substances called synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, originally designed to mimic cannabis but found to be far more potent, with an array of additional, unexpected effects not seen with cannabis.
Users of the drug have been reported as experiencing deeply confusing, terrifying, numbing and sedating effects, which can include seizures, near-catatonic trips lasting hours, and significant harm to users’ physical and mental health. The effects could potentially be fatal. Dr Betts-Symonds says the inmate volunteers at Cloverhill are to be commended for their positive and fast response to stop the drug spreading in their prison.
“Cloverhill has been a great example of how our training has worked because we had a problem emerging of this new psychoactive substance called ‘spice’.
“Following an incident at Cloverhill involving the psychoactive substance, our volunteers did what we have trained them to do and that was to warn other prisoners of the dangers of this emerging drug,” says Dr Betts-Symonds.
John (not his real name) is one of the inmate volunteers who was a driving force in educating other prisoners in Cloverhill on the dangers of the psychoactive substance.
“I first wanted to become involved as a volunteer because as an older prisoner, you see the younger guys coming in and how scared and lonely it can be.
“Drugs are the easy rabbit hole to fall down once the lock the doors on you. It’s not an easy journey by any means,” says John.
‘Up to us’
“The spice incident frightened us all. The inmates weren’t going to listen to the governor or the prison officers so it was up to us to get the message across.”
“They were just out of it after smoking [it] and it scared us. When we realised how dangerous this drug [was] we as a team were all over it and in one day we saw eight inmates drop to the floor with hallucinations after taking the drug. It was the worst thing I have ever seen, medical staff surrounding the guys with oxygen tanks. It was the wake-up call Cloverhill needed,” he adds.
Part of the role of inmate volunteers was to go on to the landings in Cloverhill in the evenings and discuss the impact the drug was having in the prison.
“The message was received and we won the war on spice before it became a drugs epidemic,” he says.
The Dochas Centre is also participating with the Red Cross to train female prisoners. Another project developed under the scheme is the “meet and greet” within the Dochas Centre which was written as a guide to female prisoners entering for the system.
Bernie is Red Cross inmate volunteer who has been helping to write the 10 step guide to life inside the Dochas Centre.
“Dochas is a semi-open prison, it’s not built like the other prisons. It’s terrifying the first few days, you’re not shown anything. I was told ‘go for lunch’ and I didn’t know where to go.
“With the meet and greet scheme life is much better but it’s very scary once you leave your family and the reality to life in prison sets in,” says Bernie.
Wheatfield governor Frances Daly, who has been involved with the programme since 2009, says she is proud to say how the programme has changed the lives of prisoners.
“This programme has broken down barriers between prisoners and staff. There was a barrier between inmates and health care as they would only go when they needed it. Now, as we can they are educating others about mental health and smoking.
“As a governor, I know prisoners wouldn’t listen to me but through their peers we now have found a balance to communicate,” says the governor.
Almost 800 Irish Red Cross volunteer inmates have been recruited since 2009 and roughly half of these completed the full course and graduated.
Facts about Irish Red Cross inmate volunteers
1: Some 360 Irish prisoners are trained as Irish Red Cross Volunteers. This represents approximately 10 per cent of the prison population.
2: Volunteers in Cork Prison have been undertaking anti-bullying projects and a survey on the extent to which inmates are being bullied.
3: A two-day culture of non-violence and peace workshop (designed by two inmate IRC facilitators at Wheatfield prison, was facilitated by them in Wheatfield, Cloverhill, Shelton Abbey, Castlerea and Limerick prisons.
4: Listing calories in foods in the prison and tuck shop has led to greater awareness about junk foods and in many cases in partnership with management, healthier items have been introduced into tuck shops.
5: Smoking cessation training by the HSE has been given to volunteers in Wheatfield. This has given them the skill to facilitate a smoking cessation workshop for their peers, which has the potential to be extended to other prisons.