Many Travellers have first positive school experience in prison, committee hears

Advocate says legacy issues and exclusion mean minorities account for high proportion of inmates globally

Fergal Black, of the Irish Prison Service, said prisons were ‘full of poor people...Not just poor economically, but also poor emotionally, educationally, socially and in the context of their health status’. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Fergal Black, of the Irish Prison Service, said prisons were ‘full of poor people...Not just poor economically, but also poor emotionally, educationally, socially and in the context of their health status’. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Many Travellers have their first positive experience of school in prison, an Oireachtas committee heard on Thursday.

Anne Costello, coordinator of the Travellers in Prison Initiative, said it was often in the prison education system that Travellers felt for the first time that their identity was respected in a school setting, and many thrived in their learning in that context.

Addressing the committee on key issues affecting the Traveller community, Ms Costello said Travellers accounted for 10 per cent of the prison population, despite making up less than 1 per cent of the general population. Traveller women account for 15 per cent of the female prisoner population.

“Minority and indigenous groups the world over experience over-representation in the prison population,” said Ms Costello.

Among the factors behind this, she said, was the legacy of stripping indigenous and minority groups of their land, their culture and language; “forced assimilation”; exclusion and poverty.

Stephen O’Connor, organiser of the City of Dublin Education and Training Board’s (CDETB) education service in prisons, agreed prejudice against Travellers was a “major barrier” to their progress in education.

Dominated

Citing 2010 research by Maria Campbell and Niamh Hourigan, he said mainstream education and workplaces were “dominated by the values, behaviours and authority structures of the settled community”.

The CDETB had initiated “simple measures” to promote a “more culturally responsive environment” in prison education centres, he said. These included a designated ‘Traveller champion’ in each to advise teachers and encourage Traveller prisoners to attend class.

In all, 16 CDETB teachers had attended a two-day course delivered by Maynooth University on discrimination and inclusion. Traveller organisations visited the prison schools and Traveller culture had been actively promoted and celebrated.

“In addition, we use materials that reflect Traveller culture in classes. In Cloverhill Prison, for example these range from books for literacy students by Ann Marie Collins to recordings for use in the music class by artists such as Johnny Doran, ” he said.

“Without considerable efforts to recognise the value of Traveller identity in our schools, colleges and centres, reaching the goal of educational equality for all our Traveller citizens will be very difficult indeed.”

Full of poor people

Fergal Black, director of care and rehabilitation with the Irish Prison Service, said prisons were “full of poor people...Not just poor economically, but also poor emotionally, educationally, socially and in the context of their health status.

“Many have difficulty regulating their emotions. Typically, they are young men who have fallen out of school, education, training and have fallen out of society into prison,” he said.

“The most effective interventions with someone in prison is the relationship with staff. This builds relationships. The relationship is an instrument to take offenders into a space where they begin to own some of their behaviours and take responsibility.”

Among initiatives that had had positive engagement from Traveller prisoners had been a conflict-resolution workshop led by Travellers and an equine project - both in Castlerea prison.

Describing the equine course as “exciting and innovative”, he said the collaboration between the IPS and the horse community was a “first of its kind in Europe” and was open to all prisoners. Early indications, he said, pointed to “a significant level of interest in the programme from Traveller men”.