When Irish Travellers die in British prisons

Inside and outside prison, Travellers have particular vulnerabilities.

By Owen Pooley for Voices Unheard, A Study of Irish Travellers in Prison, Irish Chaplaincy in Britain, 2011

A prisoner badly missed his family. Every night he called home on a mobile from his cell, said goodnight to his children. Prison staff found the mobile, confiscated it and disciplined the prisoner, known as Mr A. He obtained another mobile, it was confiscated, he got another. The prison’s head of security allegedly told Mr A that if he didn’t tell them how he was getting the illegal phones he wouldn’t be allowed to see his family.

During one search Mr A allegedly assaulted an officer. He spent the night in the segregation unit. Mr A, who had a history of self-harm, told another prisoner that he was very upset, finding it hard to cope. Later he was found hanged in his cell.

Mr A was an Irish Traveller. His story features in a report published last month by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, who investigates deaths in custody in England and Wales. (You can read the report here in PDF).

“All prisoners are affected by the separation from their family,” wrote the Ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen. “For Travellers, this separation is often a particularly difficult aspect of imprisonment. Travellers are highly family orientated, often marrying young and having large families. Although not all have nomadic lifestyles, Traveller families often do not have landline telephones, resulting in extra cost to call a mobile. Irish Travellers, in particular, are more likely to have family in the Republic of Ireland. This combination of factors can lead to  expensive calls to mobiles charged at an international call rate. The effect separation can have, and the distress it can cause, is illustrated by the case of Mr A.”

The Ombudsman’s report makes a series of suggestions about how to improve prison life for a minority ethnic group which is marginalized both outside and inside prison walls.

Who are Irish Travellers, what are the factors that lead to their relatively high incarceration rates and what are the specific issues that need to be tackled in order to reduce their vulnerability in prisons?

Who are Irish Travellers?

Irish Travellers are an indigenous nomadic ethnic group with a long established past in Irish history dating back to before the 12th century. There are approximately 40,000 Travellers on the island of Ireland, almost 15,000 in Great Britain and 10,000 in the United States. Travellers have a long shared history, cultural values, language, customs and traditions make them a self-defined group, and one which is recognisable and distinct from non-Travellers (often referred to as “settled people” or “country people” by Travellers). Their culture and way of life, of which nomadism is an important factor, distinguishes them from the sedentary (settled) population.

Traditionally Travellers played a vital role in an agrarian society, as seasonal labourers, tinsmiths, Bards, poets, providing services as needed to a settled rural population. Closely connected to their extended families, travellers were nomadic for part or all of the year, reflecting different family patterns and trades.

Irish Travellers and incarceration rates

Travellers, as individuals and as a group, experience a high level of prejudice and exclusion in Irish society and in the UK. A study by Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute back in 1986 revealed  that Travellers “fare poorly on every indicator used to measure disadvantage; unemployment, poverty, social exclusion, health status, infant mortality, life expectancy, illiteracy, education and training levels, access to decision making and political representation, gender equality, access to credit, accommodation and living conditions.”

The All-Ireland Traveller Health Study in 2010 identified a gap in life expectancy between Traveller women and settled women of 11 years. Between Traveller men and settled men the gap was 15 years. The suicide rate for Travellers is six times the rate of general population and accounts for approx 11 per cent of all Traveller deaths.

Socio economic factors have long been cited as one of the key contributing factors in the over-imprisonment of minority ethnic groups, specifically in relation to the increased risk of poverty, unemployment and educational disadvantage.

Travellers represent less than one tenth of the population in Ireland yet according to the All-Ireland Traveller Health Study Traveller men are between five and ten times more likely to be imprisoned than the general population. Traveller women face a risk of imprisonment as much as 18 to 22 times higher than that of the general population.

Research by Con Mac Gabhann for the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain revealed that just over half of offences involving Travellers in Britain relate to unlawfully obtaining property, compared with less than a third for all prisoners. Mac Gabhann’s research (PDF here) suggests that the main causal factor for Traveller incarceration was in order to provide for a family.

Much of the marginalisation of Travellers from the settled population results from loss of common lands and the fundamental differences in how sedentary and nomadic people view land use. These differences were exacerbated by rapid changes to Irish society in the 1960s including the mechanisation of farming, the cheap availability of plastic and rapid industrialisation, which proved to have huge consequences for Travellers. These changes resulted in the loss of defined roles which not only provided income and status for Travellers within Irish society but also supported nomadism as an expression of identity.

From the 1960s onwards, many Travellers, like many settled people, moved en masse from rural areas to urban centres in search of work in jobs where they lacked skills. Traveller families living in camps in cities and towns were viewed as “problems” which, to use the parlance of the government’s 1960-1963 Commission on Itinerancy, would be solved through “absorption” into Irish society. The policy was to  restrict opportunities for nomadism and permanently “settle” Travellers.

State policy focussed not on the needs of Travellers and how best they could be supported to build on their skills to provide for themselves and contribute to society, but on a misguided approach, at best a paternalistic charitable model, at worst a deeply racist one, which viewed a nomadic way of life as an anachronism and provided charity and welfare, not education and jobs.

This approach that limited expectations for Travellers in education solely to their receiving religious sacraments condemned many Travellers to further dependency on welfare, charity and intergenerational unemployment and propelled some into lives of crime.

Lessons to be learned

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s report makes a number of important recommendations, stressing the need for accurate data on the number of Travellers within the prison system and the need for targeted supports.Prison staff should be aware of the increased risk of suicide among Travellers, especially in light of anti-Traveller racism and intimidation within prison. The Ombudsman’s comments on the need for Travellers to be represented within prison equality groups probably does not go as far as needed — there are plenty of models of good practice of Traveller peer support, as led by the Irish Chaplaincy.

This Ombudsman’s report is timely. Liza Costello interviewed ten former prisoners the Irish Penal Reform Trust report, Travellers in the Irish Prison System  published in May 2014 (PDF here). From that report there emerged a new coordinating group, led by the St Stephen’s Green Trust, with Traveller organisations, the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service, Ireland’s health services and the Irish Penal Reform Trust to come together to develop a workplan to improve outcomes for Travellers in prison and their families.

In both jurisdictions, work by Prison services to develop culturally competent services could reduce Traveller vulnerability in prison and ultimately reduce recidivism for Travellers.

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