Quakers have a long history of concern for people in prisons and their families – right back to the era of Elizabeth Fry. Inspired by the work of Ulster Quakers at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, a group of Dublin Quakers, partly with a gentle push from President Mary Robinson, decided that much more must be done to care for the families visiting prisoners in Mountjoy – Dublin’s Victorian era prison. At that time the only waiting area was a stinking little wooden shack on the entrance road. Luckily the Society of St. Vincent de Paul had the same concern at the same time and we decided to form a joint committee called the Prison Visitors Centres Committee.
The early work involved a sympathetic ear and serving cups of tea and biscuits in a caravan parked next to the entrance gate. Later it became clear that pressure on the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Authority might help us to achieve our aims and in this we have been wonderfully successful. A new visitor centre for Mountjoy was built as part of the new women’s prison and new visitors’ centres were planned and built at both Cloverhill and Portlaoise. The Prison Authority has agreed to finance management and staff at the centres and all the necessary consumables like tea, coffee, etc come from prison supplies.
The result is a warm friendly atmosphere for families who are visiting prisoners and a well equipped and staffed play area for the children. The friendly ear is still right there even if the staff comprises paid professionals. The Committee consists of three members each from Dublin Quaker Service Committee and Saint Vincent de Paul and representatives from the Prison Service and the Probation and Welfare Service. Our work is not done, another centre is needed at Wheatfield Prison and in the distance looms the massive new prison to be built at Thornton Hall in Co. Meath.
Jonathan Pim May 2010