Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Prison priest of Wormwood Scrubs

Fr Gerry McFlynn, a prison chaplain from Newcastle, Co Down, works with Irish prisoners in UK jails. He hears their stories, and often, improbable denials of guilt. But he does not judge

EVERY DAY, Gerry McFlynn spends hours on the landings and cells of Wormwood Scrubs prison, tending to the spiritual, but more often the not-so spiritual needs of his flock, of all religions and none.

Men slow to seek the help of anyone, or indeed quick to harm, end private chats, hurrying to catch up with “Father”, asking for a call to be made to home, for contact with a solicitor, or often just to talk.

From Newcastle, Co Down, McFlynn has spent almost more time in jail than most lifers – working from 1993 with the Irish Council for Prisoners’ Overseas (Icpo), and, more latterly, daily inside Wormwood.

During that time, he has seen many crumble: “He grows old quickly, very quickly – in every way, emotionally, psychologically, in every way. They become resigned. Sure, maybe they will rebel in the early years, but then they realise that it is a waste of time fighting the system, that it is going to win anyway, so why make life difficult for yourself?

“A lot of what keeps an average person going slowly dies, it is not a pleasant thing to see. It is easy to go in and say ‘keep your spirits up’. That is easy for me to say, I am walking out of the bloody place.

“They are having to put up with all the shit and keep going for another day. It is very difficult. Some have no family contact, no visitors. They’re on their own,” he says.

Set up by Mary McAleese, now president of Ireland, and Nuala Kelly, the Irish Council for Prisoners’ Overseas is 25 years old this year. “They decided that something must be done to help,” said McFlynn.

The Home Office says that there are 650 Irish prisoners in British jails, but Icpo puts it higher, at 900, because some prisoners from Northern Ireland are not classified as Irish – though they would wish to be.

Funded by the Irish Government, Icpo is one of three projects run by the Irish Chaplaincy – the body set up by Catholic bishops in 1957 to tend to emigrants’ needs. The others deal with Travellers and the elderly. With two full-time visitors (including up to recently Conor McGinn, who is now running for the Labour Party in the London council elections and who volunteers) Icpo contacts up to 450 Irish prisoners annually.

In the 25 years some things have changed for Irish prisoners, some have not. The gradual disappearance of the Troubles has helped. The casual culture of intimidation and insult from warders, who were often ex-soldiers, has eased. Mental illnesses, however, are more the norm not the exception. Literacy levels are poor, the consequences of broken families everywhere. Travellers form a high percentage of the jailed.

“There is a sameness about the problems. We have a large percentage of Travellers. We can’t easily quantify it, but it must be somewhere in the region of 40 and 45 per cent,” says the Co Down priest.

Now an Icpo trustee, McFlynn speaks softly to prisoners, hears their stories, and, often, improbable denials of guilt. But he does not judge. He has not got the time. More importantly, he does not have the interest.

“The Daily Mail and others might say, ‘Lock them up and throw away the key’. Fine, but I could never reduce myself to that. There is something morally superior about that sort of attitude that I find arrogant.

“I actually can’t handle that,” he continues, emphasising every word with a quiet stamp of his hand on the table, “I actually would have difficulty with somebody coming to Mass receiving the sacraments with that sort of mindset. Because I would wonder what the hell are they doing? Let God be the judge of it, why should we be doing any of the judging? If you can’t help to make people’s lives a bit easier, then what the hell are you doing?”

He goes on: “I have heard some horror stories. You come out of a cell and you can’t believe what you have heard. If I had been brought up in the same situation that they had been, and had the same dysfunctional background, I could well have ended up there.”

Prisoners speak in confidence: “I treat it almost like the secrecy in the confessional. If it has been a big effort for them to confide in you, to trust you, then you owe it to them to keep it to yourself.”

Sometimes the crimes are petty, but far from always. Some are jailed for paedophilia, others for murder, or rape. “They may tell you what happened. You don’t ask them for the details, unless they want to volunteer it.”

Struggling with budgets, British prisons are becoming harder places in which to exist. Most of those in London are now “warehouses”, merely holding their complement until places are found elsewhere.

“They can be moved at very short notice. That obviously has an effect on them, on family ties, if partners and families are in London and tomorrow they find that they are moved up to Leeds,” he said. During a five-year sentence, some can move twice, or three times, said McFlynn, who spent 15 years criss-crossing England and Wales in search of Irish prisoners during his time on the staff of Icpo.

“It was easy for me to drive there, or get there by train, but I tried to work out what it would be like to bring a family, a partner coming with two, or three kids to somewhere like Leeds, or Doncaster, or even further north. “I am full of admiration for the families, but it is another strain on them. It is another way of bringing it home to you that while their partners are doing time in prison, the families are doing time as well.

“They are often forgotten. I have told the guys that many a time – that it is much harder on their partners than it is on them. They are here, they are getting on with serving their time because there is nothing else they can do. But their partner has got to carry on with life and keep the family and the house together. It is probably no surprise that relationships break down. It is the stress, the strain, the emotions. You’d see it etched in their faces, it is just there.”

Prison governors, says McFlynn, who clearly has had his own wars with some of them, are doing their very best in what can be very difficult circumstances.

Given the public’s belief that prisons are homes for those who will offend again, and statistics show that many do, McFlynn is more hopeful. “There are some you see again, but the vast majority, no.

“Once they have a taste of the system, they don’t like it. They realise the impact that it is having on their families. It may well be the first time that they have come to a full stop in their lives.

“They have gotten a chance to think about where they are going and what has brought them here. That registers big time with them, especially if they have got young kids. They will miss out on these things.

“It is a real problem around Christmas time. Christmas is the worst time to be in a prison. It is a dead day, a dead day. It is very quiet, subdued. New Year’s Day, by contrast, is better, it’s another year gone.”

The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas sometimes provides character references for those on remand, which can help to sway sentencing magistrates and judges.

You can tell, says McFlynn, if “a lad on the landings doesn’t belong, who looks like a fish out of water,” and who, if given the right encouragement, will never darken the door of her majesty’s prisons again.

“One guy said to me recently, ‘You’ll never believe it, Gerry, but the judge read your letter out. He said he was going to give me a four-year sentence but on the basis of my good character as verified by the chaplain, he gave two.’” Though Icpo’s actions are cleared first with the prisoner, McFlynn says: “I would always be guided by the solicitor. Would this do any good? Sometimes they say it would. Other times they say it wouldn’t. That is the end of that.”

Character references are not given out easily: “My street cred does depend on being right. You just don’t do it after meeting a person once. These would be people that I have known for some time,” he said.

Besides being a link with families, Icpo also takes care of the mundane, making sure that prisoners “have a couple of quids’ phone credit”, or presentable clothes for a court hearing. Icpo also keeps an eye on prisoners’ appeals: “It is important that you check out whether they have had appeals, or, if the appeals have failed, you might ask if everything that could have been done was done.

Occasionally, not everything has. “From time to time you do come across a guy who says that ‘my legal team didn’t pull the finger out at all for me. My solicitor told me that I was looking at four years and I got eight’. So something went wrong there if a barrister could say that and it turned out so differently, he says, adding passionately a moment later, “It would happen because they got it bloody well wrong. In some cases it is ineptitude. Evidence that should have been submitted wasn’t. That is a serious failing. They should be up to scratch. They are playing with people’s lives, whether they like what they are there for, or not,” he says.

McFlynn is but one of a number of religious attached to Wormwood. “We have Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, evangelical, Free Churches, the Society of Friends, a rabbi once a fortnight.

The Muslim imams, he says, think differently. “We would have a very pastoral approach. They’d don’t understand pastoral in the way that we do. We have a holistic approach, we’ll look after prisoners’ welfare as much as anything else.

“You would never get imams doing that. They’ll tell you. ‘I have had it out with some of them’. They say these people are here for a reason, they have broken the law, they are serving their time.

“It is very much black-and-white, it’s judgmental, it reinforces your own impressions of Islam. You make a mistake and you bloody well pay for it. It’s as simple as that. Black and white and very few grey areas,” he says.

Life behind bars, even just during the day, takes its toll. “You realise that you are just working with the tip of the iceberg, that there are guys that you will never get to see because there are so many of them.

“The emotional load is fairly heavy. You place yourself in their position, it is very difficult to cut off from it all. I am not the sort of person who can wrap it up at five o’clock until the next day. “Their problems become yours. You try not to let them take over your life in any way, obviously, but there has to be a certain empathy,” says McFlynn, the prison priest of Wormwood Scrubs.


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