Fr Kevin Hegarty
Oscar Wilde is best known as the creator of sophisticated comedies of manners. He is the author of witticisms that have stood the test of time.
His writings are not confined to an evocation of the cultivated hypocrisies of the British upper class. He also delved into the darker side of life. His lengthy poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, centred on the execution of a murderer, telescopes the dismal horror of prison life.
He wrote from personal experience. In 1896 he was sentenced to two years imprisonment having been convicted of homosexual activity.
“I know not whether laws be right or whether laws be wrong, all that we know who die in gaol is that the wall is strong and that each day is like a year, a year whose days are long”.
Prisoners long for the freedoms we take for granted: “I never saw sad men who looked with such a wistful eye upon that little tent of blue we prisoners called the sky and at every happy cloud that passed in such strange freedom by”.
They experienced degrading conditions: “Each narrow cell in which we dwell is a foul and dark latrine and the fetid breath of living death choked up each grated scream, and all but lust is turned to dust in Humanity’s machine.
The brackish water that we drink creeps with a loathsome slime and the bitter bread they weigh in scales is full of chalk and lime, and sleep will not lie down but walks wild-eyed and cries to time”.
Wilde wrote as the reign of that stern moralist, Queen Victoria, petered to an end. Her world is now consigned to history. Unfortunately, there is evidence that Victorian-type conditions continue in several of the fourteen prisons in the Irish Republic.
The report of a government-commissioned inquiry into our penal system, under the chairmanship of T.K. Whitaker appeared in 1985. It was trenchant in its indictment. It recommended that “basic living conditions should be provided for prisoners. It stated that basic living conditions should correspond broadly to those available to persons with an average disposable income”. It highlighted five particular conditions which can be monitored:
a) “Normally (and where a prisoner so desires) private sleeping accommodation in a single cell”.
b) “Ready access to toilet facilities at all times”.
c) “Much more out of cell time” (at least twelve hours).
d) “Flexible access to participation in ordered activity such as education and work, to recreation facilities and to welfare services”.
e) Liberal visiting arrangements with minimum of supervision (especially of family visits) and maximum allowance of personal contact”.
So what is the story twenty-seven years later? According to Kevin Warner who for 20 years to 2009, was national coordinator of prison education, in an informative article in the current edition of “Working Notes” magazine, while food is much improved, other living conditions in our prisons are much worse than those criticised strongly by the Whitaker Committee.
In 1985 almost all prisoners had single cells. There was some doubling up in Cork and Arbour Hill prisons. Today 60% of our prisoners share cramped cells. Toilet facilities remain degrading. According to Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice and Equality, forty-four per cent of our prisoners are “required to use normal toilet facilities in the presence of others”.
Also the vast majority of prisoners are not allowed the recommended 12 hours out of cell time. While staffing for education, welfare and psychological services has increased, it has not matched the surge in the prison population .
The inadequacy of visiting arrangements in several Irish prisons is substantiated by the report of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture in 2010. About Cork prison it stated:
“The visiting arrangements in Cork prison are totally unsuitable. Up to 12 prisoners were placed shoulder to shoulder on one side of a wide table running the length of the room communicating with two or three visitors, each on the other side of the table.
Prisoners were forbidden to have any contact with their visitors, including with children. Those who defied the ban were subject to a disciplinary punishment. Such a systematic ban on physical contact between prisoners and their families, in particular their children, is unreasonable, given the search procedures in place”.
I sense that the rights of prisoners will continue to receive a low priority in our recession-haunted country. Yet the civility of a democracy is judged by how it treats the vulnerable, including those perceived as outcasts. Prison should not just be a place of punishment, it should also offer the possibility of rehabilitation. Otherwise, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, prisoners may be hardened and brutalised rather than reformed by their incarceration.