21 September 2000 Edition
The out of prison experience
Groundbreaking Tar Anall study on former republican prisoners
BY FERN LANE
Analysis of the issues facing former political prisoners tends necessarily to deal in either anecdotal evidence - applying what happens in the life of one particular individual to the entire ex-prisoner community - or alternatively in generalisations such as, for instance, that prisoners often find it extremely hard to cope in the months after leaving jail. Although such comments are undoubtedly broadly true, they do not convey the true complexities that lie beneath such difficulties.
Republican ex-prisoners have served extraordinarily long periods of imprisonment - an average of almost 13 years - experience particularly high levels of unemployment - over 70% - and levels of participation in mainstream training provision are very low (27%)
Since 1995, Tar Anall has been providing help and resources to republican ex-prisoners and their families from its premises on the Falls Road in Belfast. In 1996, it began a study, organised in accordance with standard academic practice and funded by NIACRO and an anonymous benefactor, into what opportunities for employment, training and further education were open to those republican prisoners who had been released from jail before 1990.
As part of these investigations, it also undertook to determine what other needs ex-prisoners might have in trying to resettle and to identify the existing degree and quality of support for ex-prisoners. The fruits of this research have now been collated and analysed and the resulting document will be launched by Tar Anall in mid-October at a ceremony to award certificates to ex-prisoners who have successfully completed training courses under its auspices.
One of the more remarkable and disturbing findings of this study is that ex-prisoners applying to universities in the Six Counties are more likely to be turned down than those applying to universities in England
The primary importance of this study lies in the fact that it provides concrete statistical evidence of deeply-held perceptions relating to the range and different levels of difficulties and discrimination - not only in training and employment but also in other areas; money, accommodation, social and personal relationships - which ex-prisoners encounter. It also demonstrates how many of these problems are closely interrelated. One cannot look at, say, levels of unemployment without also taking into account the associated effects of extreme financial hardship and family tensions. Amongst other things, Tar Anall's research has confirmed that republican ex-prisoners have served extraordinarily long periods of imprisonment - an average of almost 13 years - that they experience particularly high levels of unemployment - over 70% - and that levels of participation in mainstream training provision are very low (27%).
After release, separation from those left inside the prison could also be almost as painful as the initial separation from family. Many prisoners felt they could not articulate such feelings and were consequently were left to cope alone
Having established the terms of reference for the study, the earliest challenge faced by researchers - perhaps surprisingly - was actually identifying their target group. Finding out exactly how many republican prisoners there had been in the Six Counties between 1973 and 1990 was not an easy task since the prison service, which would seem to be the obvious source for such information, did not, as part of the criminalisation process, admit to making any distinction between political prisoners and others in jail, or between loyalist and republican prisoners, a rather silly position given the practical reality of Long Kesh in particular.
Because of the political exigencies, therefore, valuable data had been lost. The solution to the problem was to compare the Prison Service's own Annual Reports with the records held by the Sinn Féin POW Department and information provided by NIACRO, and then make a number of mathematical calculations. Ultimately, the researchers arrived at a target group of around 7,625 men and women. However, as the documents itself points out, this figure consciously underestimates the total number of political prisoners for a number of reasons. Sinn Féin's own records indicate that something like 10,000 people have been imprisoned as a result of the conflict. This figure, however, includes internees and those released after 1990, groups which both fell outside the remit of Tar Anall's investigation. Also excluded were those imprisoned between 1969 and 1973 because the data available was simply too sparse to accommodate within the rigorous academic framework of the study.
Having identified their potential target group, the researchers then set about creating a mailing list of republican ex-prisoners - another task with its own set of problems - in order to send out carefully structured and worded questionnaires. Tar Anall also decided to complement these questionnaires by carrying out face-to-face interviews with a number of former prisoners. These proved to be something of a revelation, both for the researches and the prisoners themselves. They were often unbearably difficult for both, as long-suppressed feeling of guilt, loss and alienation surfaced.
Although the study is primarily concerned with training and employment opportunities, it was through these interviews that a ripple effect of related problems became clear. Some 73% of prisoners experienced what was defined as `difficulty/great difficulty/or exceptional difficulty' in `settling down with family'. Added to this, probably the most pressing problem for prisoners immediately after leaving jail was the financial hardship and the associated pressure to find employment, set against discrimination, physical danger and the difficulties of explaining to any potential employer the five, eight or ten-year gap on their CV.
``You never know how an employer will take it'' explains one ex-POW. ``You don't want to be going into a job, sort of starting with a bit of a lie, but at the same time you don't want to NOT get the job because you revealed that you are an ex-prisoner.... Then there are employers where you know you could end up dead if they ever found out that you were a republican prisoner... In my view it is best not to work for that that type of an employer, but some ex-prisoners do - out of necessity - they need the money. But they are literally taking their lives into their hands.''
Another said: ``I only spent seven years inside, so at the interview I just said that I had been unemployed - which in a way was true!'' However, once his employer discovered that he was an ex-prisoner ``he just wanted rid of me, but I think he didn't want to sack me because of possible legal implications. He must have decided that he would `drive me out'. So he became obsessed - watching everything I did, noting how long my breaks were, finding mistakes with everything. But I used my prison experience to just wear him down. I just kept at the job and sure enough after about four months of this madness he just got tired and gave up! I've been there now for three and a half years and recently got promoted.''
The deep feelings of guilt at the plight in which many prisoners' partners and children were left also emerged; many families lost their homes because of the imprisonment of the main bread-winner and in two cases, farms which had been in their respective families for generations had to be sold.
Then again, after release, separation from those left inside the prison could also be almost as painful as the initial separation from family. Many prisoners felt they could not articulate such feelings and were consequently were left to cope alone. As one ex-prisoner recalled: ``I'm embarrassed to say how much I missed all the fellas those first few months... I also missed the routine that we all had... I found it hard coming to terms with all the irregularities of family life after having so much structure, for so many years. It was very, very stressful. These feelings of guilt would also just come over me at different times - like when I would be in the pub or at the cinema - I would start thinking about the fellas still inside.''
Other interesting issues have also been raised by the document. For example, the significantly higher level of educational achievement amongst republican ex-prisoners than the general population arguably demonstrates the differential in desire for a decent education in the Catholic population and the opportunity historically provided by the Six-County state to achieve this. Given an opportunity to learn, republicans grasped it with both hands; after the hunger strikes, something like 95% of prisoners in Long Kesh participated in formal or informal education. Opportunities for education, however, are still being denied. One of the more remarkable and disturbing findings of this study is that ex-prisoners applying to universities in the Six Counties are more likely to be turned down than those applying to universities in England.
Another was the difference in attitudes, even within the nationalist community, to women prisoners and particularly women prisoners with children. There was (and perhaps still is) an often clearly expressed assumption that `good mothers' should not involve themselves in political conflict, an assumption rarely applied in such a direct way to male prisoners with children. One former POW, who served a six-year sentence in Amagh prison, told the interviewer: ``You feel bad enough about being separated from your children. You miss them and realise that they need their mum. But I tried to do the best I could for them from the inside. They were well looked after by their father, who also gave me tons of support. It was others, like my husband's parents and my own mum, who would try to make me feel guilty for being politically active. Most times I could ignore it... It was just those times when you know, if you had been out, you could have made a difference in a particular circumstance... Those were the times when I would get a bit down.''
Coiste na n-Iarchimí, the umbrella group for all ex-POW self-help and support groups, in its foreword to the document calls the research ground-breaking: ``The effects of long-term imprisonment emerge strongly from the interviews. The financial hardship, the pressure to find work, the loss and hardship of families during imprisonment and feelings of inadequacy and pressures of re-integration. The heart-breaking stories give a glimpse into the trauma experienced by whole communities. It is a story seldom heard since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Ex-prisoners have been held up as the unworthy recipients of early release and there has been little thought given to the sacrifice experienced by prisoners and their families. This report represents the beginning of an important project of documentation which will be continuing over the next number of years.''
And indeed, further studies are planned by Tar Anall; one will undertake similar research on those prisoners released after 1990 (this study provides valuable information to those released after 1990 about the medium and long-term pressures they may well have to deal with) and another will follow up the group identified in this study to evaluate the progress they have made since the original investigation.
Roisin Kelly, the Training and Education Resource Worker at Tar Anall and a member of the research team, is justifiably proud of the group's achievement in publishing this research. It gives them something tangible at which to point, she says, when attending conferences or applying for funding. She gives great credit to the ex-prisoners who have been willing to come to organisations such as Tar Anall and actually admit to experiencing emotional and financial difficulty. ``Nobody wants to say `can you help me?' or that they have an issue,'' she explains, ``but the fact that centres like ours have opened has shown that people have had the courage to say `this is not as easy as I thought it was going to be'.'' Of the high levels of academic achievement by republican prisoners, she says that it is a reflection of ``how organised and disciplined they were in prison, finding a positive thing within a negative experience''.