What happens to people such as Dwyer on conviction?

Graham Dwyer will serve his sentence in the jail-grey atmosphere of Arbour Hill prison


Upon telling someone some years ago that I worked as a prison officer in Arbour Hill Prison, a medium-security jail in Dublin that houses male sex offenders and killers of women and children, the person to whom I was speaking visibly recoiled.

“How do you work with those people?”

That person, it transpired, imagined sex offenders and killers as easily recognisable people who were covered in tattoos and sported simian foreheads and narrowed eyes. When I said that, on the contrary, many could stand beside one unnoticed in a pub, a bus queue or a local library, the person gave me a look of frank incredulity.

Graham Dwyer is that person who would probably give his seat to an elderly person on the bus, if he found himself on a bus. A modern-looking man dressed, as he was at his trial for the murder of Elaine O’Hara, in a stylish suit, Dwyer has the additional advantage of not looking smarmy or slick. No one, looking at a photograph of him without any knowledge of his crime, could plausibly say they knew just from looking that he was intrinsically bad.

Dwyer appeared to be the sober essence of normality. That’s the scary thing.

So what happens to people such as Dwyer upon conviction?

The period beforehand, on remand in jail, is surreal for all concerned. Charged with a crime but still innocent in the eyes of the law, the person on remand has to contend with grey walls, steel bars and jail life.

The initial shock of freedom lost may be assuaged by hope: hope of success in court; of visits from solicitors and family members; of making the best case by going over every detail again and again.

When a guilty verdict is delivered, the convicted person’s level of shock depends largely on previous experience.

The “career” criminal has been through the process already and quickly accepts the situation. A newly convicted “normal” person, however, experiences massive shock. The verdict “guilty as charged” has a ring of finality about it.

After such a verdict, the court quickly clears. All that is left is the legal team and a few onlookers lingering. The convict’s lawyer signals his or her departure, perhaps by saying he or she will call up to see the client in a few days. The click of the handcuffs confirms the verdict. The convict and prison officers wait for the prison van, the former’s vacant look feeding the gloom of the emptying courtroom.

Prisoner number

In jail the suit is put away. The prisoner is given a number by which he is identified. Jail clothing is issued, worn until the prisoner gets in two changes of his own clothing. Typically, a green/grey/maroon jumper covers a garish shirt matched with ill-fitting cheap denim jeans. The letter “PS” are stamped on them, leaving no doubt as to their provenance.

The prisoner is given a jug of tea, some buns and a bowl of corn flakes (porridge went out with Ronnie Barker). The realisation that the game is up probably sets in as the cell door is banged shut. Panic may set in but a gulp of tea may help.

The next morning the prison governor’s parade is held. The newly convicted inmate waits in line to be seen.

Rules and regulations are explained. Prisoners on remand are allowed daily visits of 20 minutes each. Upon conviction that changes to one 30-minute visit a week. An additional visit may be permitted with the governor’s consent. Other issues for discussion include a potential appeal of the verdict, forms for which are issued as required.

The prisoner is then assessed for work. Arbour Hill had, in my time, workshops for Braille, printing, carpentry and fabric. Once a prisoner is assigned to one of those areas it is up to him to make his mark. In time he may progress to working in the library or – the plum position – as a landing cleaner. Others work in the kitchen, reception or laundry. None is allowed to be idle in the Hill.

Classes from lessons in basic writing and numeracy to Open University courses are available. So also is a state-of-the-art gym. Three square meals a day ensure dietary requirements are met. The kitchen has a Q mark for excellence.

A new prisoner’s initial anger towards or resistance to the prison system and society usually abates, given time. The prisoner finds his level, “friends”, niche and place within the hierarchy of the institution. Lives may revolve around the weekly visit, letter or phone call.

But life goes on and, gradually, acceptance sets in. Within the system, once prisoners conform, they don’t have an extra cachet or notoriety. Hence a mass murderer doing life in a “normal” manner would command more respect from staff than a young man serving six months for robbing an iPhone but who fought the system at every turn.


As the lights dim in Arbour Hill at night the inmates are finally alone with their thoughts. Only they know what goes on in their minds. On the landings the officers hear only the low sound of a radio or television.

To the outside world the prisoners are no longer relevant to the majority of the population.

The prisoner and his crime are alone together until morning unlock and another day on the treadmill. John Cuffe worked as a prison officer at Arbour Hill Prison

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