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A Visit to Mountjoy Women's Prison
by Breda O'Brien, Muckross Park College, Dublin.

A second year class in Muckross Park College in Dublin decided to research women in prison as their action project for that year. It came about in part because one of the girls knew John Lonergan, Governor of Mountjoy, through his involvement in her local sports club. As a group, they decided that they would invite in John Lonergan to speak to second year, then conduct surveys throughout the rest of the school to determine attitudes to and knowledge about women in prison, and finally that they would organise a visit to Mountjoy Women's Prison. This meant that there was ample opportunity for everyone to be involved, whether it be in providing the cup of tea after John Lonergan's talk, or writing a letter to request a visit to the prison. Most students had more than one role to play.

They learnt a great deal from the project, especially from Governor Lonergan's talk, as he told them of a girl not much older than themselves from a town near Dublin who ended up in prison because she broke the window of a chipper, and the judge decided that she needed a sharp lesson. He also mentioned a girl who had spent a brief time in prison due to non-payment of a bus ticket. These stories made a deep impression on them, as did his whole emphasis on the kind of people who end up in prison and why. They had not been aware that non-payment of fines was such a big reason why people spend time behind bars.

They found that while most of the students they surveyed were sympathetic to women prisoners, that those surveyed had little real knowledge of why people went to prison or what conditions were like there. They learnt most of all from the visit to the prison. They were quite nervous about the visit and very anxious not to be seen as one student put it, as "people gawking through the bars at the zoo." Interestingly, some of them felt that the women's prison was too comfortable, and that their own rooms at home did not measure up to the standard of the new women's prison. This would have been particularly true of students from less affluent backgrounds. It did not help that some of the prisoners call it " the hotel" and refer to the visitor's area as McDonalds due to the style of the seating.

The prison officers emphasised that lack of freedom was the real punishment and asked them how they would feel if they were unable to leave their school once the final bell went. The visit sparked interesting discussions back in class about the difference between an emphasis on rehabilitation and on punishment. The students were also very thrown by the cultured, educated accountant who spoke to them about the dangers of ending up in prison, and checked several times to see that she really was a prisoner, and not a prison officer. Again, this led to some interesting discussions on stereotyping when we returned to class.

The group felt a deep sense of satisfaction that they managed to negotiate all the hurdles necessary to complete their project, which included everything from obtaining permission from staff to absent themselves for an afternoon, to collating the survey results.