A lifeline for Travellers in prison

Conn Mac Gabhann, Manager of the Traveller Project at the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain, explains why they are reaching out to a vulnerable prison population.

It’s usually a lot noisier. The men were so attentive, a different atmosphere today. I think they really appreciated it.

These are the words that we hear often after a visit by the Traveller Project to a Traveller Group meeting in any one of the 138 prisons across England and Wales. The speaker, usually a prison officer or chaplain, is often surprised by the engagement of the Travellers present but for us at the Traveller Project it simply makes sense – the group meetings are about things that are relevant, interesting and helpful to them and their families.

Traveller Groups in prison are by and large a recent phenomenon but they are a vital source of support and advice for a section of society that experiences an unrelentingly negative media portrayal. However, encouraging the provision of effective custody and rehabilitation of Travellers in prison is a challenge; a challenge that means starting from scratch within prisons – encouraging groups but also encouraging the sharing of ideas and news amongst staff and prisoners.

A few years ago before many Traveller Groups in prison were launched, a Traveller prisoner would do his or her time the ‘hard way’. The high levels of illiteracy amongst Travellers affecting over 60% of the community means many Travellers are isolated in the rigid bureaucracy that is prison life. Without literacy skills, he or she, even if willing, cannot do rehab courses necessary for early release or vocational training like bricklaying to go straight or even to gain a prized prison job.

Irish Travellers and Gypsies represent approximately 5% of the prison population – a vast over-representation in relation to their numbers in the general population – but quite standard for traditional or aboriginal communities adapting poorly to modern economic and social realities.

With this population spread across so many prisons it was a great challenge for our small team to disseminate the information and news that are necessary in promoting the needs of Travellers in prison. We needed a forum that was interesting and informative, useful and enjoyable. So we started the Travellers in Prison News (TIPN), a newsletter supported by Barrow Cadbury Trust, now read in over 100 prisons by approximately 500 men and women.

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TIPN is a lively mix. It provides a platform for Travellers contributing articles, poems and drawings. It covers news relevant to Travellers, from Britain and Ireland often about success stories and role models. One of the most important elements of TIPN is its work in promoting literacy, education and the use of services in prison and upon release. In short, TIPN is a tool written mainly by Travellers for Travellers with the ultimate aim of building an empowered community inside and outside.

TIPN has become an integral part of building a greater awareness of Travellers in prison in England and Wales. As well as highlighting local prison initiatives, it has been crucial in the development of some of our own national projects. For example, the increased interest and uptake amongst Travellers in the reading programme Toe By Toe undoubtedly stems in part from TIPN’s circulation and TIPN’s testimonies from Travellers on the programme.

Travellers in Prison News has proven such a successful blueprint that the National Offender Management Service, the people who run prisons and probation have just commissioned a monthly programme for Travellers on Prison Radio.

Thanks for the Newsletter. I passed it on to one of the girls a few weeks back. It was about Travellers in prison, anyway it really inspired me to step up and be heard. I’m now training to be a Toe by Toe mentor and I am the Traveller Rep at Downview – Catherine, Traveller Representative, HMP Downview

Race Review 2008, a report by the National Offender Management Service, stated a particular concern for Gypsy Traveller Roma prisoners which ‘included: difficulties accessing services, including offender behaviour programmes, as the literacy level required was too high, derogatory and racist name calling primarily by prisoners, and by some staff, in two of the prisons visited, lack of confidence in the complaints system and the lack of cultural awareness and understanding of staff.’

As each month passes more and more prisons are conscious that there is a demand and interest in the provision of services for Travellers in prison. Travellers in prison are no longer so easy to disregard as being ‘hard to reach’. All of this is in no small part thanks to Travellers in Prison News and the support of Barrow Cadbury Trust.

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