'No Sense of an Ending: The effects of long-term imprisonment amongst Republican prisoners and their families' Ruth Jamieson & Adrian Grounds (2002)
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The following report has been contributed by the authors Ruth Jamieson and Adrian Grounds. The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
No Sense of an Ending
Published by SEESYU Press Ltd.
This publication is copyright (© 2002) of Ruth Jamieson and Adrian Grounds and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the authors and the publisher. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the authors. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.NOTE: The following page contains the text of the main body of the report but does not include the footnotes or the appendices.
No Sense of an Ending
The effects of long-term imprisonment
Ruth Jamieson & Adrian Grounds
Report of a study commissioned by
© Ruth Jamieson & Adrian Grounds 2002
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher and authors. The interview schedules in Appendix II may not be utilised without permission of the authors.
Report of an exploratory study commissioned by the Ex-Prisoners Assistance Committee (Expac) with Ruth Jamieson (Department of Criminology, University of Keele) & Adrian Grounds (Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge)
First published in 2002
Published by Seesyu Press Ltd,
Cover design by Ailish McShane, Ralaheen Ltd., Unit 21, Central Hotel Chambers, 7-9 Dame Court, Dublin 7.
ISBN: 0 9534019 5 2
Copies of the report can be obtained by contacting:
59 Glaslough Street, Monaghan, Republic of Ireland
Tel: 00 353 47 72 182
Fax: 00 353 47 72 332
1. Introduction 5
1.1 Background of the project 52. Methods 12
2.1 Sample 123. Findings 16
3.1 The ex-prisoners and their current circumstances 16
4. Conclusions 62
5. Recommendations 65
I Information notes for interviewees and interviewers 68
This report describes an exploratory study of the effects of long-term imprisonment amongst a group of Republican ex-prisoners and their families. The study highlights a range of needs and makes recommendations for further work to address them. Many of the aspects of post-release adjustment described in the report are likely to be common to other groups of ex-prisoners, including those of different political motivation, and so we hope the report will be seen to be of wider relevance across different communities.
The study was made possible by a grant from the European Union Special Support Fund for Peace and Reconciliation in Ireland. The generosity and support of the funding body is gratefully acknowledged. Expac would also like to thank the St. Stephen's Greens Trust for funding the launch of this report.
The field work described here was organised and carried out by Expac, with the assistance of Ruth Jamieson (Department of Criminology, Keele University), Adrian Grounds (Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge), Dave Wall (then Chief Executive of NIACRO), Nuala Kelly, (Co-ordinator of the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas), and Bernadette McAliskey, (Founder member of the H-Block Armagh Committee.) Committee.) The fieldwork was co-ordinated by Eugene Byrne on behalf of Expac. The work of the other interviewers is also acknowledged with thanks.
The interview based research summarised in this report had its origins in a two day conference in May 1999 which was remarkable for the candour with which the participants reflected on their experiences and different perspectives. The conference shaped the themes that were explored in the subsequent research interviews.
The introductory section of the report briefly outlines the background context and aims of the study. Sections two and three summarise the methods of the interview study and the main thematic findings. Sections four and five discuss some possible implications and make recommendations for further work and forms of support. The interview schedules are included in the appendices.
We express our gratitude to the conference participants, and the interviewees who contributed so much, sometimes with difficulty, in the shared belief that this enterprise was important.
1.1 Background of the project
In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement included a commitment to implement a programme for the early release of prisoners. By March 2001 decisions had been made in 475 cases, and the great majority were released. The text of the Agreement acknowledged that they would need a range of support.
In-depth studies of the experiences of previously released prisoners are therefore timely and may help to highlight issues to be faced by those who have more recently returned to their families and communities.
The nature of the challenges faced by ex-prisoners and their families will not be fully recognised without an understanding of the effects that Long-termlong term imprisonment had on them socially and psychologically; how they dealt with prison and separation; how they changed over the years. This study was primarily motivated by a recognition that these deeper aspects of the impact of imprisonment should be explored in order to identify ways in which ex-prisoners and their families may be better able to cope with release and the experience of the past.
Expac was enabled to commission this study through a generous grant from the European Union Special Support Fund for Peace and Reconciliation in Ireland. Expac organised an initial two-day residential conference, which was held on 22nd and 23rd May 1999. It brought together a group of about 25 ex-prisoners and their partners, and a small number of others with relevant interests in academic research, service organisation and group facilitation. During the conference the areas covered in group discussions included: lost experiences of work and career, dealing with a changed environment, self image and living in the community, managing family relationships, and problems of being understood. The event was cathartic. Themes of loss, change, of time that could not be put back, were prominent, together with disappointment, isolation and difficulty of regaining a sense of purpose. There was reference to the unspoken affinity between ex-prisoners but their sense of estrangement from others to whom understanding could not be communicated. Managing family relationships within and beyond prison could be particularly difficult. In conclusion the conference highlighted needs for further work in relation to employment, advice to others, and research to examine the themes discussed more systematically. Following the conference the proposal to carry out further research was taken forward by designing and implementing a systematic interview study with a small sample of ex-prisoners, partners and family members. The study and its implications are described in more detail in sections 2-4 below.
We believe that together with other recent studies this research highlights areas meriting more extensive inquiry as well as practical measures.
1.2 Previous research
1.2.1 Prison research
Until recently there has been a prevailing view that research on the psychological effects of imprisonment has found little good evidence of psychological deterioration in custody. However, much of this research has important limitations.
First, there is a lack of substantial longitudinal studies in which prisoners are followed up for very long periods of time; in consequence, research has lacked a developmental perspective. Long-termLong term prisoners, who typically may serve between ten and fifteen years before release, enter a different world from the one they left. They have adapted to the prison environment, and may have lost key relationships in the outside world, together with the decade or more of adult life when they would normally have been establishing themselves in their occupations, lifestyles, relationships and bringing up young families.
Secondly, studies of the effects of Long-termlong term imprisonment have generally been carried out during the period of custody, when what is of most importance and relevance is how Long-termlong term imprisonment effects people psychologically after release from prison. The few studies that have examined Long-termlong term prisoners after release have focused on general measures of social adjustment, rather than more subtle, hidden kinds of psychological and emotional disability.
Thirdly, there is a discrepancy between the minimal effects found in formal experimental psychological research and the vivid accounts of the difficulties experienced by Long-termlong term prisoners described in case studies, such as Cohen and Taylor’s Psychological Survival (1972). This suggests that the methods of the psychological studies have failed adequately to capture and characterise the kinds of distress that are reported by Long-termlong term prisoners.
Nonetheless, there are some findings of note in previous research. Separation from loved ones is generally experienced as the greatest source of emotional pain and prisoners may seek to cope with this by solitude and self-containment. Several studies also describe the sense amongst Long-termlong term prisoners that their life histories stop on entry to prison. Zamble and Porporino, for example, refer to the prisoner being "frozen developmentally". Released long-term prisoners commonly describe feeling as if they are the age they were on entry to prison, although they know they are in fact considerably older.
Cohen and Taylor noted that,
The impact of imprisonment on families and children has received less research, although there have been notable recent studies indicating that the effects on children can be particularly troubling.
1.2.2 Recent studies in Northern Ireland
The impact of long-term imprisonment, and the problems faced after release by Republican ex-prisoners and their families, were the focus of a recent study by Dr Peter Shirlow, sponsored by the Community Relations Council. The study was based on a substantial sample of 100 ex-prisoners and 40 relatives. The report described complex and long-lasting negative impacts of imprisonment on family relationships and children, and substantial problems in relation to employment. The report indicated that features of post-traumatic stress disorder were common amongst ex-prisoners, but often unrecognised. The report strongly endorsed the value of ex-prisoner based support organisations, and emphasised the importance of forms of help that are trusted by the ex-prisoner community.
A major earlier study by Kieran McEvoy and colleagues surveyed over 200 partners of Republican and Loyalist prisoners in 1992. The authors stressed that the fact of being politically motivated did not insulate prisoners and families from having to face substantial emotional, practical and emotional pressures. Support in coping was likely to be sought from families, friends and paramilitary welfare organisations rather than the professional and voluntary organisations established to help ‘ordinary’ prisoners. Structural barriers to reintegration also had to be recognised.
Some of the difficulties of reintegration experienced by ex-prisoners were outlined in a paper prepared by Clare Digney following an earlier Expac conference. Her report particularly focussed on administrative, economic and legal barriers in the field of employment and in other areas of civil life including compensation, pensions, travel, and the adoption of children. The paper argued for policies and legislation to erase these discriminatory practices.
1.2.3 Other research
Studies of prisoners in other jurisdictions may be of limited applicability to the context of paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland. However, there is one body of research literature that may be of partial relevance to the problems of released prisoners, namely, studies of the adjustment difficulties of war veterans. Many of the issues identified in the conference discussions of May 1999 had clear parallels in accounts by the veterans in other contexts, for example Vietnam and the Second World War.
The effects of wartime separation (especially on relationships with children) have been well documented in the army welfare literature and in military sociology. These studies have shown that the longer families or couples are separated, the more problems they experience in trying to re-establish relationships. More recently, (after the Vietnam and Gulf Wars) it has also been recognised that the nature of combat or POW experience can have damaging effects on the veterans’ capacity to sustain family and marital relationships. Soldiers returned with an unrealistic, idealised view of the family, and experienced restlessness, irritability and severe difficulties in restoring intimate relationships. There was reluctance by the authorities to recognise the need for psychological help for those returning home, and the men themselves could be particularly disinclined to seek help. Amongst those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) the difficulties could be especially severe, as described, for example, by Solomon (1993) in her follow-up study of Israeli soldiers who had fought in the Lebanon war in 1982 and suffered combat stress reactions.
In addition, the veteran's tension, irritability and aggressive outbursts could impair family relationships; there were quarrels over trivial matters and difficulties in resuming a paternal role. Solomon (1993) also noted that the symptoms that interfere with the resumption of family relationships also apply to the veteran's wider social life. He may feel distant, uninvolved, reluctant to go out, and mistrustful of others, believing that others cannot understand what he has been through. Returning to work may also be impossible because of irritability, loss of motivation and loss of sense of purpose.
There were several themes in the May 1999 conference that had resonance with this research literature.
Community of experience
Shared experience of combat or prisoner of war camps can be a source of solidarity and common understanding, but at the same time it can promote contempt or antagonism towards others who have not shared this experience and are presumed to be unable to understand. One of the contradictions arising from this ‘community of experience’ is that others may be shut out from it at the same time as being blamed or resented for not understanding. The shared experience may also be a source of guilt or shame (about the individual POW’s conduct under pressure, letting the side down etc.). It is not always possible to let the Cause carry the responsibility for harm done to others. The insensitivity or ignorance of people the veteran encounters in the community can also exacerbate the sense of isolation and alienation from others.
The discussion about the masking of feelings echoed the literature on psychological survival in prison and the experience of POWs. Individuals mask their own vulnerability and there is a culture of not disclosing what sort of shape you are in; self censorship is exercised in talking about the experiences of imprisonment, and there is the ideal role model of POW that can be difficult to live up to.
Public and private self
One of the issues raised in discussion was resentment of the community's expectations of ex-prisoners and the sense that they had an obligation to continue to play the role of the political prisoner. Examples of this were the perception that the ex-prisoner could be used by political leadership, and that the ‘private self’ was appropriated by political leadership when it suited them. This is echoed in the experience of Vietnam POWs who felt they were being asked to put on a false front and to deny the harm done to them, as part of the war boosting effort.
Questions were raised about the value of the sacrifice, and whether it had been worth the cost. These debates focussed both on the lack of assistance with resettlement and the outcome of the conflict. Both factors tended to increase the level of resentment about authority and the personal cost paid.
Whilst release from prison may provide a form of ‘closure’ for the community, it does not necessarily represent an ending for the ex-prisoner. Post-release may be the beginning of a new form of prisoner identity and exclusion. There is also an acute consciousness of time irrevocably lost and of reduced time ahead.
There were related issues in relation to losses of life history and opportunities, and missed experiences, which may be difficult to acknowledge and come to terms with.
One of the ways in which POWs survive is to imagine taking up where they left off (for example with wives and families). It may therefore be hard to accept that there have been changes in oneself and others that cannot be undone.
The strategies and modes of coping which prisoners developed inside, and which were adaptive in the prison situation (e.g., non-disclosure, blocking off emotion) may be inappropriate and maladaptive when continued outside prison, for example in a family context. These strategies for coping during imprisonment and post-release need to be explored further.
1.3 Aims of the interview study
It was clear from the (May 1999 Conference) that whilst the multiple difficulties faced after release can be hard to separate at the level of experience, it is important to distinguish them for the purpose of analysis. For example, a clear analytical distinction can be made between the material or economic effects of long-term imprisonment, the human rights implications relating to past convictions for scheduled offences, and the psychological issues relating to trauma, separation and adjustment.
The purpose of the interview-based study was to obtain a descriptive, in-depth account of the effects of Long-termlong term imprisonment on ex-prisoners and their families. A central assumption was that a better understanding of these effects could only be achieved from the perspectives of those involved. The interviews followed a biographical, historical format so that the present situation of interviewees could be seen in the context of their life histories, and so that comparisons could be made between the individual's situation and prospects before imprisonment, and those that were faced after imprisonment. As far as possible we aimed to cover parallel questions in separate interviews with ex-prisoners, their partners and family members, in order to build up a cumulative and corroborated picture.
It was hoped that the interview based study would explore in greater depth key themes identified at the residential conference, and that the insights gained from the interviews could be used to assist other ex-prisoners and their families with the problems of reintegration into the community.
In addition, we were conscious that the interviews recorded first-hand accounts of a historical era and unique form of prison experience that is passing, and in this regard the interview transcripts may form a valuable archive in due course, subject to the requirements of confidentiality.
The initial aim was to recruit a group of about 20 Republican ex-prisoners including women who had been affiliated with a cross-section of Republican groups. In view of the sensitivity of the topics covered in the interviews, and the overriding need to develop a context of trust and frank disclosure, the interview group was generated by a snowball method of recruitment. This began with some of those who had participated in the initial conference, and through personal contacts they in turn suggested others who were willing to contribute to the study.
Interviews were completed with 18 ex-prisoners from communities across Northern Ireland. All but two of the men interviewed served most or all of their sentences in the Maze; one served all of his sentence in England and one served all of his sentence in the Republic of Ireland.
In four cases additional interviews were completed: with a partner and close relative in two cases, and with a close relative alone in two cases. There were few of these additional interviews because sometimes a partner or close relative was unavailable, some declined to participate, and sometimes it was the ex-prisoner’s preference that only he should be interviewed.
2.2 Data collection and analysis
Three semi-structured interview schedules (for ex-prisoners, relatives and partners) were developed for the study. These went through several drafts and were refined through discussion and pilot interviews. The final interview schedules are reproduced in Appendix II.
The schedules were designed to enable open-ended exploration of the main topic areas, but in a consistent and systematic way by different interviewers. Each topic area was introduced by pre-set questions, and there were prompts to ensure that relevant aspects of the topic were covered.
The interviews were carried out by five interviewers, with interview training being provided by Ruth Jamieson before the main fieldwork began. Instructions for interviewers are reproduced in Appendix I below.
The interviews were tape recorded and transcribed, and a thematic content analysis of the verbatim transcripts was carried out.
The interviewed ex-prisoners were also given a set of self-completion questionnaires designed to identify current post-traumatic stress disorder and allied symptomatology. These diagnostic assessment instruments have been used in previous research studies on other groups, including ex-prisoners. The Traumatic Life Events Questionnaire (Kubany et al 2000) relates to traumatic history, and an additional question was added to cover any exceptional traumatic events experienced in custody. The Purdue PTSD Scale Revised (Lauterbach and Vrana, 1996) and the Revised Civilian Mississippi Scale (Norris and Perilla, 1996) measure PTSD symptomatology. The Beck Depression Inventory (Beck et al, 1979) assesses severity of depression, and the Beck Hopelessness Scale (Beck et al, 1974) assesses negative attitudes and pessimism about the future.
2.3 Ethical issues
A guiding principle of the project was that an understanding of the effects of long term political imprisonment could only be achieved from the perspective of those who experienced it, in their own words and in the context of their own life experiences, and that the researchers, therefore, should not attempt to appropriate the ‘voice’ of the participants. In conducting this research we were guided by the principles set out below which were agreed by the working group.
The research was also guided by the following understandings:
Interviewers participated in a training workshop in Belfast during April 2000 covering interviewing skills, ethical issues and the nature and responsibilities of the research relationship.
3.1 The ex-prisoners and their current circumstances
At the time of the interviews with the 18 ex-prisoners they had been out of prison for an average of 11.5 years (range 5 – 19). Half had been out for 13 years or more. Their average age was 40 (range 32-55). All were men. Fewer than half were in employment.
Five of the ex-prisoners were divorced or single. In total, eight had suffered broken relationships, and amongst the five who were married before they went into prison, three marriages had survived. Nine men were in new marriages or relationships which had begun since their release or whilst in prison. Most of the men (12) had children.
One respondent said that he felt closer to the people with whom he had lived so long in prison than he did to his parental family.
Although the majority of interviewees said that they had regular contact (sometimes daily) with their families, some reported feeling guilty about their lack of emotional connection with their parents and siblings.
These phenomena are further described in section 3.4.4. below.
3.2 Life before prison
At the time of their arrests the men were predominantly young: on average 20 years old (range 16-26), and half were under 21. Most were single. Five were married and had children. Most had settled accommodation of their own or with families, but three were on the run. When asked about how their lives would probably have progressed had they not been arrested, most men saw their prospects in terms of stable marriages and family lives, but a small minority anticipated that they would be imprisoned at some point. Two men were sure that they would have been killed if they had remained out of prison, and thus ironically imprisonment had saved their lives.
3.3 Prison experience
Most of the ex-prisoners we interviewed reported having been subjected to some degree of physical abuse, sleep deprivation and threat when they were first taken into custody, including death threats and threats to their families. Their reported experiences of violence ranged from,
to beatings, to treatment amounting to physical or psychological torture. For example, one relative reported that,
Although this was one of the more extreme cases of maltreatment reported, some other men described being subjected to mock executions involving guns while being transported to jail or during interrogation. The reported death threats, which were credible to the men at that time, entailed guns being put to the head with the threat that they would be executed and this would be attributed to their having been shot while trying to escape; or that they would be shot and dumped and the death would be attributed to a Loyalist killing; or that they would be released and it would be put about that the man was an informer.
Six of these men reported persistent nightmares or intrusive memories afterwards. For example,
A number of interviewees - not just those who reported being subjected to abuse - expressed a wish to receive counselling to deal with their interrogation or prison experiences, but few were aware of how to obtain it.
3.3.2 Coping strategies
The men spent an average of over 11 years in prison (range 5-18). Six spent less than 10 years, and three spent 15 years or more in custody. At the time of release their average age was 32 (range 25-41). Only 4 were under 30.
It is not the purpose of this report to give a detailed account of the men's experiences of imprisonment, and it would be difficult to convey adequately the context and nature of their lives at that time within the compass of this summary. Most were involved in eras of turmoil, conflict and change. Several were in custody during the period of internment (1971-75) and most during the period of the Blanket Protest and hunger strikes (1976-81). As McKeown (2001) describes, the period was associated with powerful solidarity amongst the Republican prisoner community as well as episodes of division. The interviewed men who lived through the period of the hunger strikes remembered it as an intensely distressing and difficult time.
Most of the men (14) suffered significant bereavements during the years in custody. Over half experienced deaths of close family members, and the loss of the possibility of recovering relationships with them in the future.
The men described a range of personal coping strategies to deal with the pressures in prison. Predominantly they emphasised intellectual, stoical determination, and focussing on the present rather than the future.
The recognition that emotional ties with the outside could be a source of comfort but also undermine resolve was expressed by a number of the men. One said that the photos of his family which he had put up on the wall were a constant reminder of life on the outside and that in some ways it would have been easier not to have had these emotional ties. Another bleakly observed,
This ‘fatalistic relief’ in reducing emotional reliance upon outsiders was also noted by Cohen and Taylor in their study of psychological survival among long term prisoners.
Several acknowledged times of despair and profound feelings of depression (the ‘big D’), particularly at the time of the hunger strikes. The men also described a strong sense of solidarity and group support. There was mutual recognition when individuals were under pressure, some personal help from other prisoners, and debates about psychology. However at the same time many strongly emphasised the importance of blocking off emotional feeling and avoiding showing vulnerability to others.
Some of the men said that there was awareness amongst fellow prisoners of the contagious effects of depression and anxiety on others and consequently limits to what could be asked of others in terms of emotional support.
A number of interviewees also talked about their fear of breakdown, and the necessity of hiding it behind a ‘macho’ front, especially under the strain of the Blanket and ‘no wash’ protests. This was partly for their own psychological survival and partly for the larger struggle with prison authorities.
A number of the ex-prisoners and relatives we interviewed observed that for many Republican ex-prisoners there was still a stigma attached to breaking down or admitting to needing help, and their pride or ‘macho’ attitudes from prison prevented them from admitting they were having problems. As Toch noted, ‘every stressful setting has norms which dictate unrealistic adjustments - the soldier must be brave, the patient must be ‘patient’’. The stance of being – in the words of one interviewee – ‘.. rough, tough Provies ..’, which the men were at pains to maintain in prison, prevented some getting the help they needed on the outside.
One family member remarked that,
A small number of ex-prisoners who had been in the Cages and the H-Blocks said that they had experienced added pressure from other prisoners, or particular individuals in the Republican command structure, as a consequence of having signed a statement under interrogation or because they were members of one of the smaller Republican organisations. For some these experiences had lasting effects on their self-esteem and confidence.
3.3.3 Family ties and visits
Visits, however, could entail additional pressures. For most men their main visitors were parents, particularly mothers. For many the most difficult aspect to cope with was their knowledge that there was nothing they could do about what was happening outside in their families.
Almost all the men (16) said that they tended to hold back from talking to family visitors about their worries and concerns, mainly so as not to upset their relatives.
In a similar way the families also held back from disclosing their difficulties from the prisoners, in order not to upset them.
This is consistent with the findings of McEvoy et al (1999) that many prisoners' partners felt under pressure not to spoil visits by talking about problems they were having at home. In consequence mutual understanding between prisoners and their families could gradually be lost. By not disclosing to each other the difficulties they were facing they became estranged from each other’s experiences over a period of many years.
Some respondents reported that there were some things they didn't want to know during visits, for example, they would avoid the issue of their partner's fidelity.
Some men described becoming gradually more distant and detached over time.
During this stage of his imprisonment he found that,
Others also reported engaging in modes of shutting down or blocking off upsetting thoughts and feelings which threatened their psychological equilibrium.
The frequency and type of visits (open or closed) varied considerably over the period that the men in our sample were in prison.
The presence of prison officers was also a factor. In addition to the interaction with visitors, prisoners had to face intimate security searches (which were conducted with varying degrees of rigour during prison protests) going to and from the visiting hall. Many reported having to ‘psyche themselves up’ to get through visits.
One man recalled visits at the time of the Blanket Protest as follows:
Men who had been on hunger strike said they found visits at that time like ‘a nightmare’ or an ‘ordeal’. A number of Blanket men remarked on how embarrassing it was for them to appear in front of their families dirty and unshaven. One said that he found having to wear the clothes of an orderly particularly humiliating and degrading.
Although they were ‘impersonal’ transactions, ‘Business'Another kind of visit was the ‘business visit’ (for smuggling communications or other items). Although these visits involved impersonal transactions they were also remembered as being extremely stressful, especially during the heaviest protest period, because of beatings, mirror searches and fear of getting caught.
3.4 Life after prison
Over half of the ex-prisoners we spoke to returned to their family homes on release and then moved on once they had established relationships. This is not surprising given their relative youth on entry into prison
On average the ex-prisoners in our sample had moved three or four times since their release from prison. The main reasons given for these moves were getting married or transfers to better accommodation. Three men had moved very frequently (6, 11 and 20 times), reflecting the level of turbulence in some ex-prisoner's lives since release. This was typically associated with breakdown of relationships, the search for work, restlessness, or moves to avoid security threats. Most of those who moved because of concerns for personal or family security had experienced these problems in Belfast.
That said, several ex-prisoners were in the process of buying their own homes and many attributed this achievement either to the extraordinary joint efforts or the continuous employment of their partners during the term in prison. Four-fifths of the ex-prisoners were living in Housing Executive accommodation and most considered it adequate for their needs.
The majority of ex-prisoners said that they had found it very difficult financially since their release. Many reported that they were ‘just scraping by’. They were managing to stay afloat financially through a combination of their partner's continued employment, ‘ducking and diving’, ‘doing a bit of doubling’ and getting money when they could.
The majority of ex-prisoners described themselves as having problems handling money. This may be accounted for, in part, by the relative youth of most of the men on imprisonment. Many had gone directly into the IRA after leaving school, still lived at home or were on the run, so had no experience of the routine management of a wage or operating a bank account.
Virtually all of the men who were in relationships, including those who considered themselves competent at handling money, left the management of money up to their partners.
Men also reported being given money raised by the community immediately on their release and having no idea of its worth. Few kept it for long enough to derive real benefit from it.
A number of the ex-prisoners reported getting into serious financial difficulties, especially in the period soon after release. Most reported that they had neither sought nor received any advice on how to sort out their debts.
Many reported having problems ‘facing up to the people across the desk’ at the Local Social Benefits Office, either because an application process was too complicated or opaque or because the process itself made them feel as if they were being interrogated again.
The major single obstacle to successful resettlement for the ex-prisoners we spoke to was finding and keeping meaningful employment. Finding adequate employment was also of fundamental importance for the ex-prisoner's financial circumstances. No other factor, including problems with managing money or accessing state benefits, was reported to be as important. More than half the men were unemployed at the time of interview. A third were working in the community sector, and all but one of them had university degrees. Three were involved in volunteer work in their communities. Over a third of the men had a skilled trade or other specialist manual skills, and a fifth had at least ‘A’ level qualifications. A fifth had no formal skills qualifications. Overall, the men tended to have significantly higher educational qualifications at the time of their release than was average for men in Northern Ireland, and considerably higher qualifications than other unemployed men .
The fact that the rate of unemployment among the Republican ex-prisoners we talked to was higher than the average for men in Northern Ireland (7.7%) will surprise few people, but the size of the ‘employment gap’ between them and other males, including other Catholic men in Northern Ireland is startling. Fifty three per cent of the ex-prisoners we interviewed were currently unemployed compared to 10.4 % of Catholic and 5.2% of Protestant men. The size of the group we interviewed is too small to allow statistically reliable generalisation to all Republican ex-prisoners. However, if the men in our study are typical, then, as a group, Republican ex-prisoners would be five times more likely to be unemployed than their Catholic counterparts and over six and a half times more likely to be without work than all men in Northern Ireland. (See Table 1 below).
Table 1: Northern Ireland Unemployment Rate - Males (%)
These figures were derived from the Continuous Household Survey, Unemployment Estimates by Stated Religion, CHS 1983-1989/99.
**Source: Annual Labour Force Survey, Unemployment Rates 1990-1999 for Male and Female Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland (economically active aged 16+)
The date of release of the ex-prisoners we interviewed is also relevant to the issue of employment. The rate of unemployment in Northern Ireland rose steeply throughout the 1980s peaking at around 26% for all males and 37% for Catholic males during 1985-87. For the ex-prisoners in our sample, the earliest year of release was 1982 when the unemployment rate for Catholic men was running at 30%. The rate was never less than 20% for those released in later years. Over half the men in our sample were released between 1986 and 1990 and consequently they found themselves confronting a bleak economic environment in which to seek work. This was after an average absence from the labour force of over 11 years and in three cases over 15 years. As previously noted, on average they were in their early thirties on release.
Moreover, the chances of finding employment were even more stark for those ex-prisoners trying to resettle in areas like Armagh, Cookstown, Craigavon, Dungannon, Derry, Newry &Mourne, or West Belfast which historically hadhave the highest rates of unemployment in Northern Ireland. A recent report by Féilim O'hAdhmaill (2001) provides a detailed analysis of the training and employment opportunities for ex-prisoners.
To a large extent the high rate of unemployment among ex-prisoners as well as their involvement in the informal economy is overdetermined. The interviews indicated that at least three major factors may play a role: discontinuity of employment through involvement in the conflict and imprisonment; restricted access to employment; and psychological effects of long-term imprisonment.
Discontinuity of employment
It is not unusual for returning war veterans to have higher rates of unemployment than their non-combatant counterparts in civilian society. (This is due to military service causing not only disrupted employment, but also the loss of work experience, skills acquisition and employment networks for the duration of the person's absence from civilian life.) However, the level of unemployment experienced by Republican ex-prisoners we studied is of a different order of magnitude than that found among Vietnam or other veterans. It was more akin to levels that would be expected among long-term criminal offenders.
Restricted access to employment
It is a commonplace observation of studies of returning veterans that restricted access to employment makes the re-entry process harder and prolongs the period of adjustment to civilian life. But the situation of the ex-prisoners in our study is exacerbated by a number of factors, not least of which is the fact that the conflict in Northern Ireland is not unambiguously ‘over’. Thus the opportunities for the employment of ex-prisoners are constrained by issues of security. Many of the respondents in our study reported that concern for their personal safety also severely limited the areas in which they could work.
The safest areas for the ex-prisoners to work in - their own or other nationalist communities - are often the areas that historically have had the poorest job opportunities. At the same time, the nearby areas with more job opportunities (for example, East and South Belfast) are often locations where the qualified ex-prisoners are least likely to be offered or to accept work because of security considerations or discrimination.
In addition, concerns about the safety of co-workers who might be at risk by association prevented otherwise willing employers from offering ex-prisoners work, or restricted the types or location of the work they were given. Some of our interviewees reported that police harassment when travelling to work as part of a group also led to work-mates or employers being unwilling to have ex-prisoners in the workforce.
Some of our interviewees reported that even when they had managed to secure employment, the intervention of the security forces could lead to their dismissal from jobs.
One ex-prisoner cited the direct intervention of the security forces as the cause of losing his job and being prosecuted for social security fraud.
Given concerns about personal safety and the safety of others, it was often the case that ex-prisoners looking for work, especially those living in divided communities, were limited de facto to Republican areas. Here much of the work available was in the informal economy and largely controlled by the Republican Movement. Some of the ex-prisoners interviewed remarked that the political vetting which operates in this area of possible employment left them ‘out in the cold’.
A further significant factor restricting access to employment, particularly secure and permanent employment, was having a criminal record as a scheduled offender. Ex-prisoners were faced with a choice of either declaring their ex-prisoner status - which automatically excluded them from consideration for many jobs - or covering up the gap in their CV's and risking later discovery. Only a few held out any hope that this dilemma would be resolved by the declaration of an amnesty.
As has also been noted in Peter Shirlow's (2001) study of the resettlement of Republican ex-prisoners, all of these factors tend to ‘push’ towards insecure, cash-in-hand, casualised employment in the ‘informal’ economy where ex-prisoner status can sometimes be an advantage. Almost all of the ex-prisoners we interviewed reported that they had worked in the informal economy at some time since their release.
But at the same time it may render the ex-prisoners open to greater exploitation than others working in these sorts of jobs.
Psychological effects of long-term imprisonment
One of the most significant psychological factors that impeded settling into work was unwillingness or inability to accept the petty tyrannies of workplace authority and a number of ex-prisoners reported walking off the job as a consequence of this.
Others mentioned lack of confidence and anxiety about the use of new technology as problems.
But, as one ex-prisoner remarked, there is ".. not much technology in using a spade and shovel", stacking bricks or doing "low paid donkey work"; and not working could also have psychological costs.
Almost all of the ex-prisoners who had participated in the ACE (Action for Community Employment) scheme reported finding the work experience either irrelevant or demeaning. Some found the ACE employers patronising. One said that the ACE manager he had contact with was exceptionally sympathetic and helpful in helping sort many practical aspects of resettlement. None thought that the scheme served as a springboard to ‘real’ employment and none reported acquiring transferable skills or confidence as a result of it. This is largely consistent with O'hAdhmaill's finding that the main factors militating against ex-prisoners obtaining training and qualifications, apart from security issues, were discrimination, a lack of sensitivity to ex-prisoner's training needs, a lack of appropriate courses and a lack of confidence on the part of ex-prisoners.
Taken together, restricted mobility due to security concerns, discrimination because of a record of imprisonment, lack of training, lack of experience, lack of local jobs in the formal economy all serve to produce a very significant overrepresentation of ex-prisoners among the low paid and unemployed.
3.4.4 Social integration
Most of the ex-prisoners we spoke to said that they had been warmly welcomed back into their own communities. Some said that they were treated as heroes and accorded a certain status and respect. But despite this goodwill, the welcome tended to be short-lived. After an initial period of solicitude, the men were ‘left to their own devices’.
One of the most difficult readjustment issues facing returning ex-prisoners is negotiating the status of ‘ex-prisoner’. It is not always clear what being an ex-prisoner means, especially to other people. Most respondents felt that the years they spent in prison had a profound effect on their place in the community. Many said that they felt they did not fit in anymore. They did not know people even though others claimed to know them.
Negotiating the ex-prisoner identity is particularly difficult for those who are well known figures from the prison protests or in the Republican Movement. Although they can take some satisfaction in the public acknowledgement of their role, they have little prospect of escaping scrutiny. One respondent explained,
He also said that people have an image of him as ‘the IRA man, the big tough man or whatever.’ He found it difficult to deal with ‘idiot type bar persons’, and,
Many felt that they did not fit in anywhere, that others had preconceived and ill-founded notions of what they were like as people and had the impression that ex-prisoners were in a position to act as ‘fixers’ or go-betweens. A number felt used in this way.
The ex-prisoners’ politics could be an important factor in determining the kind of reception they were given in the community. For the most part Republican ex-prisoners said they were welcomed in to the community, but those who were seen as critical of mainstream Republicanism reported that not only were people wary of associating with them, they could also find themselves excluded from jobs. One observed that,
To the extent that the Republican Movement serves as an informal distributor of jobs, resources and assistance, public disagreement with mainstream position can have negative consequences, particularly for employment. It may also affect the ex-prisoner's social relationships in the wider community where people may be afraid to be ‘tarred by the same brush’ or ostracised by association.
A common observation was that the gap in experience between those who had been in prison and those who had not was unbridgeable.
Some said they had had to start again socially, but that they found it hard to form new relationships. Others expressed only limited interest in building relationships with others, saying that a very small group of good friends (usually other ex-prisoners) was sufficient.
The shared experience of imprisonment, particularly the shared experience of prison protests, were a source of common understanding and solidarity among ex-prisoners. The strength of these social and emotional bonds is intense.
The affinity and shared experience among them is a valuable source of mutual support and assistance, but one with which an ex-prisoner's partner, friends or family may feel they cannot compete. Many ex-prisoners reported that they have continued to be dependent on other ex-prisoners when they encounter problems after prison and that their partners and families were not really part of this network of supportive relationships. To illustrate the lasting nature of these bonds, one man said of his relationship with another Blanket man,
Ex-prisoners are uniquely positioned to understand and support each other, but their solidarity, which can be such a source of strength and resilience, can also work to exclude others. This exclusionary potential is evident in the assertion that civilian others ‘can never understand’. This insistence on the impossibility of others ever understanding only serves to perpetuate the distance between the individual ex-prisoner and the uncomprehending others with whom he should be communicating.
The work of Yerkes and Holloway on the readjustment of returning veterans from the Persian Gulf War is pertinent to the problem of bridging the communication gap between ex-prisoners and their families and others. They argue that the acceptance of veterans’ claim that civilian others can never understand serves a number of ultimately self-defeating functions. First, it allows the veteran to avoid developing a method of communication with others about his experience and reinforces the conviction of the specialness of the veteran. Although, the veteran's avoidance of communication with non-veterans may protect him against pain, it is at the price of his continued isolation. Secondly, it enables members of the family and the community ‘to close out or isolate themselves from veterans' experiences’ with the result that, ‘with few shared …experiences between them, each is seen as a stranger in the other's world’.
In this respect there are important parallels with the returning Republican prisoners, and an important step in rebuilding relationships between the ex-prisoner, his family and others in the community is to begin to find ways of communicating about the prison experience and its effects. Aphrodite Matsakis argued that acknowledgement of the Vietnam veteran's experience by his family was a vitally important emotional dimension of his resettlement and that, while society might prefer to forget or deny the veteran's experience, he could not do so ‘without annihilating a part of himself’. The desire for acknowledgement of sacrifices made or costs paid is not limited to veterans; indeed, the issue of acknowledgement was one that continued to cause friction between one ex-prisoner and his family. Similarly, it is important for the family and other members of the community to try to convey some sense of what their own experience of the prison years was like.
One interviewee reported that there had been little attempt on his part to talk through the missed years, in part to avoid hurt and conflict.
There is a dilemma: whilst things remain unspoken they are not understood, but there are also costs and risks to talking about them. One ex-prisoner's partner observed that,
Other ex-prisoners readily acknowledged the problems the lost years presented to his family. For example, one said,
3.4.5 Family relationships
Many of our respondents talked about the ‘lost years’ in terms of what they had missed in their personal lives (e.g., seeing children grown up, the chance of starting a family, establishing careers). They had missed changes in technology and the built environment; and had lost worldly ‘know how’ (how to operate a bank account, apply for benefits etc.). The men also talked of having spent the prison years in a different world.
However, it appeared that ex-prisoners tended to evaluate their own relationships with their families or with partners against unrealistic, developmentally static and often idealistic conceptions of what these relationships ought to be like, or were like for other people. They tended not to realise the extent to which others might also grow away from their families, and, for example, find them irritating, lacking in understanding, or tolerable only briefly at Christmas etc. As a consequence, the men tended to overestimate how different they were from other people.
The returning prisoner’s emotions and coping behaviours are not abandoned at the prison gate when he is released. He brings his emotions (both acknowledged and unacknowledged) and coping behaviours from prison into interpersonal relationships with people outside, particularly relationships with his family. The same is true for the family and friends of the ex-prisoner; they will bring their own feelings and changed ways of being into the relationship with the ex-prisoner. Neither is likely fully to appreciate the changes in the other during the years of imprisonment. This may be partly due to the constrained and superficial nature of communication during visits. One respondent summed up visits well:
Most prisoners reported that they were aware that their families also were holding back from disclosing things that concerned them. After years of this non-disclosure and superficial conversation, it is not surprising that people felt as if they did not know their son, brother, father, or friend who returned. Problems of readjustment could be particularly difficult when the prisoner was returning to his own family and children after missing a significant period of family life.
Re-establishing relationships with wives and children
Most of the men (12) had children, and a number of the ex-prisoners we interviewed reported that they previously had, or were continuing to have, difficulties in their relationships with them. This is consistent with the findings of McEvoy et al to the effect that 63% of prisoners’ partners reported that their children were experiencing problems relating to their parent's imprisonment (e.g., disturbed behaviour, anger, depression). One man said that he had noticed a change in the way his children related to him when he got out of prison and he suggested that the children might have been protecting themselves from being hurt by his leaving again.
Another father made a similar observation.
In some cases the problems faced by ex-prisoners concerned the anti-social or self-destructive behaviour of their sons, for example, misusing drugs. Although the number of respondents reporting these problems was small, the kinds of difficulty they were having were consistent with studies indicating that father absence has a more negative impact on sons, and that adolescent males may be particularly vulnerable to problems on the father's return. These problems are likely to be more marked where fathers are suffering from PTSD.
Another father expressed the fear that,
Some found that they related to children in a way that was no longer appropriate to the child’s age, and where relationships were resumed there could be a permanent degree of estrangement.
Another important aspect of children's experience of a parent's imprisonment concerns what they are told about the imprisonment and the circumstances surrounding it. McEvoy et al (1999) found that 90% of the partners of politically motivated prisoners said that all or some of their children knew of their parent's imprisonment. However, it is not clear whether their respondents' children had been told of the nature of the offences for which their absent parents had been imprisoned. Other studies of prisoners' children emphasise that withholding the truth has potentially harmful effects on the child later on, for example if the child is given a partial or distorted account of the circumstances at school, from other adults, or from the media. In the course of our research we became aware of one case in which the child of a life sentence prisoner was led to believe he had been imprisoned for knocking down a dog in the street. The importance of telling the truth - i.e. developing an honest and age appropriate response to the child's questions about the absent parent's imprisonment - cannot be overstated. It is an issue that is relevant for all ex-prisoners’ groups.
After release the forms of behaviour that were habitual in prison could also cause conflict and tension when the prisoner returned to his family.
Both families and ex-prisoners have to make adjustments in order to cope with the situations in which they find themselves. Families have to ‘close ranks’ to cover the gaps (practical, financial and emotional) left by the prisoner's absence from family life. Members of the family will have adapted to the man’s absence - for example, the wife taking on the father's role, gaining self-confidence, making independent decisions, taking on responsibility for supporting the family. The ex-prisoner may feel he has been ‘phased out’ of family life when he returns unless the family is able to make space for him to find new roles and ways of being within the family.
Inevitably, both the returning prisoner and members of his family will have changed over the period of his imprisonment. Changes are likely to be more marked for those who were younger at the time of imprisonment and for those who had more traumatic experiences. Although the age of the prisoners in our sample was typical of most serving soldiers, the period of their separation from home (more than a decade on average) is far longer than for virtually all veterans and most prisoners of war. Therefore, problems of readjustment are likely to be more rather than less marked among the men we interviewed.
Establishing new relationships
Most of the ex-prisoners were married and many of these relationships were established after the prisoner's release. Some respondents reported that they previously had several unsuccessful relationships before living with their current partner, or they were now living alone. Most of the men we interviewed also acknowledged that they brought difficulties with them into the relationships.
Another found the demands of his relationship overwhelming.
Simple generalisations can not be made about the impact of long-term imprisonment on the personal relationships of the men in our sample. Only a small number were married at the time of imprisonment and of those, half were still with their partners. Most ofthe men who reported the breakdown of relationships while in prison formed new relationships since their release and it is significant that, despite the difficulties experienced in resettling, many said that their families and particularly their children gave them a sense of purpose for the future.
3.4.6 Psychological issues
Until recently there has been little recognition that the return to civilian life is itself a stressful event, particularly for prisoners of war. One ex-prisoner compared his experience of release to ‘getting thrown off a cliff’ because he had been given little warning of his release and no preparation for the pressures of being on the outside.
The emotional experience of resettlement amongst prisoners of war has been observed to follow a common pattern. Immediately on release the individual may typically experience a sense of euphoria, followed by a period of over-stimulation and then depression. This is consistent with the first experience of release from prison (both home leaves and actual release) reported by the ex-prisoners we interviewed.
Others reported being unable to believe that they were really getting out of prison or being afraid that it was not true.
However, one ex-prisoner said that he found that his emotions were numbed on his first day home.
Another reported feeling just,
Another took some satisfaction in the belief that he had managed to emerge from prison unscathed.
Many reported experiencing a period of over-stimulation.
Many reported experiencing a period of depression and excessive use of alcohol once the ‘high’ of being free had worn off and the practical reality of trying to find employment and make their own way began to bite.
A number of ex-prisoners also reported experiencing profound sadness before they left the prison because of the difficulty of leaving comrades behind.
A different world
Many ex-prisoners echoed this feeling of having inhabited another world, of ‘crossing over’ into a different world, or of experiencing both time and space as unreal. There are similarities between our interviewees’ descriptions of their post-release experience and those of returning political prisoners in the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors, who felt disoriented and harassed on their return in similar ways.
Virtually all mentioned the sensory impact of the outside, especially the impact of colour. One ex-prisoner described it as being hit by a ‘tidal wave of sensitivity’.
So many things [were] fresh and new.
Changes in external environment
Most ex-prisoners remarked on the changed nature of the built environment and feeling lost in their own neighbourhoods, especially those who were returning to Belfast. By contrast, one mentioned the depressing lack of change in his run down neighbourhood, despite redevelopment of the commercial part of his town, noting that he found seeing the same old wall murals dispiriting. Another mentioned the greater geographical polarisation of communities. Several remarked on the improved standard of living, especially in housing (heating, indoor toilets, etc.). The number, quality and speed of cars was very striking to many.
Other changes of material existence and daily life (for example supermarkets and supermarket trolleys), and in particular the faster pace of life, were singled out as striking differences.
Some of the changes which had taken place in the external environment presented problems to prisoners on their release, for example, the introduction of escalators in shops and the volume of traffic.
For this reason, many found learning to drive unusually stressful. Using domestic appliances such as washing machines and videos also often had to be learned for the first time. Using money had to be re-learned and presented difficulties for many. Decimal currency was a torment for some. A significant number of ex-prisoners had never used a bank account, cash card or ATM machine. The value of money was also confusing.
A few ex-prisoners remarked that the values and morals of the younger generation had changed, citing the number of single mothers, earlier sexual experience and lack of engagement with politics (the preference for drinking, parties and dances). After a decade or more in the intensely politicised environment of the prison, many perceived a general lack of political engagement or commitment of people in their communities.
One man reported continuing to act with the constricted sense of autonomy he had in prison.
Being with others
One ex-prisoner observed that his prison experience was something that ‘you cannot phase out of your whole psyche’ and this was reflected for many in problems coping with crowds and feeling overwhelmed by ‘a sea of people’.
Many reported that mixing with other people made them feel restless or uncomfortable.
Many reported that they found being at home unexpectedly difficult and that they felt less closely attached to their families.
The impossibility of small talk
Some ex-prisoners described having to make small talk as excruciating. They found it very difficult after their experiences in prison to relate to the mundane everyday concerns of others, and they could find the business of surface interaction an effort. They often did not know how to respond, or became irritated by others’ attempts to converse.
The unspeakability of the prison experience
Despite their impatience with these forms of social interaction and their intense irritation with the banality of small talk, virtually all found talking about their prison experience to anyone other than another ex-prisoner (including Loyalist ex-prisoners) more or less impossible.
On the one hand the men held out the possibility of emotional disclosure (with other prisoners only) but at the same time asserted the impossibility of communicating the experience to anyone else. These sentiments served to perpetuate the guilt and isolation felt by ex-prisoners, and closely echo the ‘residual bitterness’ (towards both captors and civilians) observed in Far East prisoners of war returning to the UK after 1945.
One ex-prisoner suggested that it might be possible to meet his family halfway if they could read about what it had been like for him and others.
As noted above, most of the ex-prisoners (14) in our sample had family bereavements during their time in prison. Over half of these deaths were of close family members and were violent or conflict-related. Several ex-prisoners reported that they were only able to accept the reality of the loss once they had been released and were able to visit their relatives’ graves. They felt that they had to put emotional parentheses around their grief for as long as they were in prison. This was particularly acutely felt by those who had not been allowed compassionate home leave or who had suffered bereavements related to the conflict which were reported on television.
A number of the ex-prisoners who suffered the loss of a family member, particularly the death of their fathers, reported feeling overwhelmed with guilt and a belief that the death had been hastened by the parent’s worry about their son’s involvement and imprisonment. One ex-prisoner's partner suggested that the deaths which occurred after prison resonated with all the previous bereavements which the ex-prisoner had not allowed himself to feel at the time.
Depression and alcohol use
In the interviews ten men reported problems with depression since release and five considered that they had problems with excessive alcohol use. Two men reported having suicidal ideation that was acutely felt while in prison and in one case it continued after release.
The descriptions of depression ranged from just feeling ‘low’ about life problems such as looking for work, to depression that was sufficiently disabling for the men to seek help.
Several other ex-prisoners commented on the close connection between misuse of alcohol and despair. Some observed that they had used alcohol as a form of self-medication for dealing with depression. Two respondents remarked that it could be particularly difficult for ex-prisoners to resist the alcohol culture that had grown up in their city.
Even when some of our respondents had recognised the need for assistance in dealing with their depression or use of alcohol, and had taken steps to get help, the response they received was sometimes not very useful. One observed that it could be difficult for ex-prisoners to access help for such confidential problems because the organisations providing support did not make it easy for ex-prisoners to access the services without everyone in the neighbourhood knowing.
One respondent said that when he went to his GP to ask about counselling he was told,
‘It’s broken, can’t fix it. Get on with it, that’s just the way it is.’
The Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) was completed by 11 men. A score in the range of 30-63 indicates very severe depression, 19-28 moderate to severe depression, 10-18 mild to moderate depression, and 0-9 is the normal range. Three men had BDI scores indicating moderate to severe depression; seven men had scores indicating mild to moderate depression, and only one man had a BDI score in the normal range.
Only six men fully completed the Beck Hopelessness Scale. Scores of 0-3 are in the normal range; scores of 4-8 indicate mild, 9-14 moderate, and over 14 severe negative attitudes/pessimism. Four of the 6 men had scores in the ‘moderate’ category, one was in the ‘mild’ category, and one was in the normal range.
All the men reported events that were potential traumatic stressors. On the Purdue PTSD Scale (Revised) scores in the range 58-85 indicate full PTSD, and three men had scores in this range. On the Revised Civilian Mississippi Scale a score of 89 or more indicates full PTSD. Two men had scores in this range. One man met these thresholds on both scales.
The results from these diagnostic assessment instruments suggest that most of the men are likely to have been suffering from significant symptoms of depression, and up to four of the men may have had significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, at the time of the interviews.
Changes of personality
As Ursano et al (1996) described, personality changes resulting from prisoner of war experience need not be pathological; the experience of captivity may lead POWs to redirect their goals and life priorities. They argue that the degree of maltreatment and deprivation experienced is equally significant as the length of captivity in bringing about personality changes. This appears to be consistent with the experiences of the men we talked to. Another factor alluded to by those who held positions of command responsibility, especially in the H-Blocks, was the burden of decision-making in a situation where so much was at stake for the men and families involved in the protests.
When reflecting on whether they had changed in character and outlook, the men gave a wide range of responses. Some saw positive changes, for example in becoming less impulsive and more diplomatic, and more highly educated.
Others were aware of persisting changes in their capacity to relate to others.
In discussing how he dealt with problems he had in his personal relationships, one ex-prisoner remarked that he would,
Some family members observed more complex consequences of the years in prison; a mix of strengths and areas of inexperience in the ex-prisoner, together with deeper questions and uncertainties about what might have been.
In their personal evaluations of the past, some men looked back with a predominant sense of achievement. For some, weighing the cost of the past remained troubling because they saw political objectives unachieved and great personal costs to their families.
3.4.7 Pathways to reintegration
It was evident in our interviews with the ex-prisoners that each man had to find his own way on the outside and that this was what most wanted after the unfreedom of prison. However, it was also clear that some encountered and continue to experience difficulties in resettling that they cannot overcome alone. Some of the most intractable of these at a personal level were psychological problems attributable to long term imprisonment, primarily depression, PTSD, alcohol misuse, or impaired ability to work and to love.
It is not easy to unravel the knot of challenges encountered on resettlement, but if the process of returning to the community is seen as comprising a series of tasks and pathways taken - some material, others social, emotional or existential - then successful re-integration involves:
The men reported that the most significant sources of support and assistance in achieving these tasks were their families, other ex-prisoners, ex-prisoner self-help groups and health professionals. Many needed the help of knowledgeable friends and advisors in order to claim the benefits to which they were entitled. Others needed the encouragement of family members or other ex-prisoners to seek individual counselling or help with psychiatric problems. None of the people who were experiencing problems in relationships with their partners or with children had either sought or received outside help.
The interviews indicated that a number of conditions need to be in place if help is to become possible:
As noted in section 3.4.3 above, the single biggest obstacle faced by the returning prisoners was the problem of employment. Most of the men reported that they found the task of getting work, especially finding any meaningful work, extremely demoralising - in part because the unskilled work in the informal economy which so many found themselves doing was so discrepant from the significant and highly committed roles many had played in the Republican Movement. This makes the tasks of making sense of their prison experiences, re-establishing relationships on the outside and having a sense of purpose for the future much more difficult. Some have found ways of surviving in the interstices of the (often disadvantaged) local economies where they live. Others have fared better. What is clear is that it is beyond the means of any individual ex-prisoner, or individual ex-prisoner group to create their own employment without significant inward investment into the areas of high unemployment to which most of them have returned.
Important themes emerged from these interviews. The ex-prisoners and their families faced complex issues of loss, psychological change, and areas of experience that were not, or could not be, communicated. They described persistent structural and cultural barriers to social integration, particularly in the area of employment. Most of the ex-prisoners had been out of prison for over a decade; but for some, difficulties in coming to terms with the losses and sacrifices of the past, and in finding purpose for the future, remained vivid.
In relation to further academic research, the exploratory work described above suggests strong parallels between the experiences of this group of Republican ex-prisoners and other groups who have experienced very different kinds of trauma or captivity. The literature on war veterans returning home at other times and other places has important resonances not only with the experiences of this group, but with other prisoners more generally. All long-term prisoners have to find forms of adaptation to the prison environment, and face irrevocable losses of time and life history. We hope that the theoretical background and methodology developed for this small study may be of wider applicability in future research.
It should be stressed that the interviews in this study focused predominantly on areas of personal and social life that had been experienced as problematic, and so the overall picture conveyed may not do proper justice to the varied and innovative forms of support that have been developed by and for ex-prisoner communities. The picture also needs to be balanced by recognising the resilience and strengths of the interviewees. However, it is clear from this study that much continues to be suffered, and much more needs to be done.
The ex-prisoners and their families saw, in retrospect, a clear need for better and more informed preparation for release. There was a need for information and education about the difficulties they were likely to face, so that they would not be surprised and react with bewilderment and incomprehension when faced with unexpected behaviour. Programmes of psychological and educational work would have to be provided by people with personal knowledge about what to expect, and whose perspectives could be trusted and accepted by prisoners and their families.
There was also a need for more open discussion between prisoners and their families about their hopes and expectations on release.
Expac has begun the process of exploring the difficulties of adjustment faced by ex-prisoners and their families. It is likely that the accounts given in this report will be reflected in the experiences of other ex-prisoners and the organisations that support them. It is important that mechanisms are established to enable families and ex-prisoners to explore more openly the areas of difficulty described in this study, especially those that have tended to remain closed and hidden. Ways need to be found of making such disclosure safe and culturally acceptable. The experience of ex-prisoners is an essential part of the experience of the community as a whole. It must be interpreted, valued and helped to contribute to a resolution of the broader conflict.
The problems described in these interviews require a range of forms of support, extending from practical advisory work to more specialist work for those whose difficulties, for example with depression or alcohol use, are most severe.
The support needs to be extended beyond the ex-prisoner. The partners and families need their own sources of help and understanding to which they can turn, and they need to know that their difficulties are shared. The broader community too must be informed and positively influenced to develop empathy and understanding of the needs of ex-prisoners and their families. The quieter and more distant voices that echo in this study have been those of the children, whose own problems of lost parenting and family disruption also need to be recognised
The problems that are experienced by families and ex-prisoners and their relationships with the broader community will take much time to resolve. The first step in effective resettlement of any ex-prisoner is establishing a belief in their value - in themselves and in the community. The most direct way of achieving that is through work. Urgent and thorough mechanisms must be put in place to integrate ex-prisoners fully into employment, and to overcome the serious impediments that currently hinder their efforts to find satisfactory work. As emphasised by Clare Digney, substantial action is needed to remove the barriers to ex-prisoners gaining employment that is properly commensurate with their abilities, age and often high educational status.
This report reflects profound difficulties faced by a substantial section of the community who can make a major contribution to the resolution of the conflict of which they are a part. We hope our report and recommendations will help facilitate this contribution. For too many, after the initial welcoming party that greeted their homecoming, the promise of social integration and acceptance was empty and unfulfilled.
We hope this report will be of relevance to several audiences, including ex-prisoners and their families; organisations concerned with human rights and equality; policymakers; health and social care agencies, and the broader community. Whilst specific tasks need to be further developed by those who have particular expertise in the key areas identified above, we hope that the following recommendations will be helpful.
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