Opinion: religious personnel were once pivotal in the operation of criminal justice in prisons, but the role has undergone a striking evolution of late

In 2020, the chaplain's report from the Dóchas Centre women's prison in Dublin was not published. This is not unusual; there are often lengthy delays publishing the reports of inspection bodies and other persons across the Irish prison system, including in relation to problems in the Dóchas. In fact, no chaplain’s reports had been published at all since 2010.

But in this case, the report contained biting criticism of the Dublin women’s prison, built in 1999 and named after the Irish for 'hope’. The report’s author, then prison chaplain Claire Hargaden, wrote of serious concerns at the treatment of women in the prison, including those who described their lives to her as ‘hell’. Hargaden had left her post as chaplain, citing what she described as a ‘toxic environment’, in which the role of chaplain had been "actively sidelined, ignored, and undermined". Other recent high-profile exits tell the same story.

'A troubling picture'

A joint statement from the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice noted that 'chaplaincy is a pivotal service within the prison environment' and that 'both organisations are dismayed to hear reports that suggest systemic marginalisation and undermining of this office'. In response, the The Irish Prison Service resumed publication of the chaplains’ reports, though recent reports suggest chaplains still face obstacles ensuring their reports are published in a timely manner. The Prison Service announced last October that it was commissioning an independent review of the chaplaincy service across the Irish prison system.

The 2019 report paints a troubling picture of life in Ireland’s largest women’s prison. Yet it also suggests an independence and critical advocacy of the chaplaincy role that is a striking evolution of the role of religious personnel in Irish women’s prisons historically.

In my research on women and murder in Ireland post-1922, religious personnel were pivotal in the day-to-day operation of criminal justice. In the case of women serving life sentences for murder, the prison chaplain could be the only contact some women had with the outside world. Chaplains were also influential in decision-making on when women were released from prison – and where they were released to. In many cases, chaplains acted as go-betweens, linking imprisoned women with religious orders beyond the prison in whose institutions they would serve out the remainder of their sentences.

Chaplains were one cog in a machine which could do good, but which frequently did harm

Some examples from the archives held by the National Archives of Ireland illustrate this role. Elizabeth Hannon, who had killed her newborn infant in 1927, was transferred from Mountjoy to High Park convent in 1930, with the agreement of the chaplain who said this course of action would provide ‘whatever hope of permanent improvement’ there was.

Hannah Flynn had spent over 18 years in prison for the murder of her former employer in Co. Kerry in 1923, when the decision was made to release her to the Good Shepherd convent in Limerick. On hearing the news, the chaplain wrote to the governor: ‘my only regret is that this good news came while I am on retreat, and so I could not take the pleasure of giving it to Hannah myself.’

Mary Somerville, a farmer from Co. Monaghan, had been convicted in 1938 for the murder of her newborn grandchild. As one of the few Protestant women among those serving life for murder, her pastoral needs were within the remit of the Church of Ireland prison chaplain. After two years in Mountjoy, the chaplain wrote to the Department of Justice asking that she be released ‘to one of our Protestant Homes’, on foot of which she was released to the Bethany Home.

They were voices representing these most marginalised women, but we see them now almost inevitably as being on the side of the institutions

Chaplains played their part in a largely informal and discretionary decision-making landscape, taking their place alongside other key players such as the prison governor, probation officers, religious sisters, other charitable organisations and the Department of Justice. Nominally, they were voices representing these most marginalised women, but we see them now almost inevitably as being on the side of the institutions, be they secular or religious, government or church. Writing in 1927 about Mary Moynihan, a young woman from Co. Cork who had been convicted of the murder of her employer in 1922, Mountjoy’s junior Catholic chaplain summed up his experience of the work: ‘eleven years’ association with criminals has taught me not to trust their word, but it has taught me also to understand them.’

Chaplains were one cog in a machine which could do good, but which frequently did harm. While chaplains undoubtedly served an important pastoral function, they wielded considerable influence, an influence they often exercised in intensely conservative ways which saw women subjected to religious confinement for lengthy periods of time. The evolution of this role, and an understanding of the chaplaincy as a means of elevating and making visible a marginalised group of women, is a welcome development, though this critical voice has seemingly come at the expense of influence.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ