New report by the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain
Irish Traveller prisoners are unable to access prison rehabilitation courses because three in five cannot read or write claims a recent report released by the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain.
The report, Voices Unheard; Irish Travellers in prison, released on the 13th June, says that nearly half of the UK’s estimated 400-800 Irish Travellers in jail are young adults, compared with 10% amongst the wider prison population. This has raised concerns that a significant proportion of a whole generation of this marginalized ethnic minority may be at risk.
Researchers from the ICB also discovered widespread discrimination by both prison staff and other prison inmates towards Irish Traveller prisoners, including the widespread use of racist name-calling.
The report also highlights a discriminatory system which included a paper-based “Kafka-esque” bureaucracy that excluded illiterate Irish Traveller prisoners from prison complaints procedures, education courses – including basic literacy classes – and behavior management workshops. Irish Traveller prisoners were also effectively barred from parole procedures and early release schemes because prison authorities did not consider that Traveller sites where suitable addresses for rehabilitating prisoners. In addition to this, the report says, Irish Traveller prisoners found it difficult to access medical services in prison, and health and mental health problems were left untreated. This was happening to prisoners from a community that already suffers from poor health and early mortality, with half of Irish Traveller men dying before their 50th birthday, the report warned.
“The reason why so many are in prison in the first place is poor education”
Lord Avebury, a veteran campaigner for Gypsy and Traveller rights, welcomed the report. “The reason why so many are in prison in the first place is poor education. If they can’t read or write how can they communicate with the authorities when they get out, let alone earn a living? No wonder so many get into trouble again,” he said.
The report also found that a younger generation of Irish Traveller men where increasingly unable to make a living as self-employed traders or builders because their poor education barred them from navigating the amount of paperwork involved. Having no legitimate way to make a living, the report said, meant that some young Irish Travellers were stealing just to feed and house their families. This, the report suggested, was exacerbated by the break-up of Irish Traveller communities due to the lack of legal sites and draconian laws that have made a nomadic way of life illegal in the UK.
“What else am I meant to do?”
These findings were backed up by a young Romany Gypsy man who was interviewed by The Partisan News. Although Romany Gypsies and Irish Traveller culture differs and the two ethnic minorities have a distinct history and language, the two communities do share similar problems of racism and discrimination, economic change and marginalization. Speaking under an assumed name to protect his identity, Jim, 24, from the East Midlands said: “I do the scrap, get caught, go inside, come out. I left school at 13 with no qualifications; I can barely read or write. No one is going to give a Gypsy with a criminal record a job. What else am I meant to do to make a living?”
“If we had settled sites, the crime rate would drop overnight”
Another problem that is common to both Gypsies and Irish Travellers is the lack of legal sites. The report quotes an Irish Traveller prisoner who says: “If we had sites, if we had settled places to be as a community the crime rate would drop overnight. But when you’ve got families split up, kids running wild, then you can’t supervise them.”
The main recommendation that the report makes is that prison authorities should count and monitor ethnic Irish Traveller prisoners and that the National Offender Management Service records this information on their data base. “If they are not counted then they don’t count,” said Philomena Cullen, the Director of the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain. The other recommendations were for flexibility of service delivery so that education courses where available to those with a low education attainment, and the roll-out of mentoring schemes within prisons that are specifically targeted at Irish Traveller prisoners.
When contacted, a spokesman from the prison service said: “We are committed to fairness for all and take prompt action whenever discrimination is discovered. Teachers in prisons deal with all levels of literacy including those with no basic skills. Prisoners with poor literacy skills can still take accredited education courses. In some cases offenders may be referred to a literacy class before inclusion on a course.” The spokesman also said that “there is nothing in principle to prevent the release on home detention curfew of Irish Travellers,” although a “mobile home” presents “technical difficulties” for monitoring early release schemes to Traveller sites. However, the spokesman did recognise the lack of ethnic monitoring. “We are in the process of updating our system so it will include Gypsy or Irish Traveller as ethnic categories,” he said.
At 140 – 200 per 100,000 Irish Travellers in prison compared to 148 in the wider population, there may be a slightly higher percentage of incarceration amongst Irish Travellers. But compared with the wider poorer population, it is about the same or slightly less.
By Mike Dherty
Pictures borrowed from Irish Traveller Movement.