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'The State they are Still In. Republican Ex-Prisoners and their families: An Independent Evaluation' by Dr Pete Shirlow (2001)

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The following article has been contributed by Dr Pete Shirlow, a senior lecturer at the University of Ulster. The views expressed in this article 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.

This article is copyright (© 2001) of Dr Pete Shirlow and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

The State they are Still In.
Republican Ex-Prisoners and their families:
An Independent Evaluation

by Peter Shirlow


'No detainee in Northern Ireland has suffered permanent lasting injury whatsoever, mental or physical'
Reginald Maudling

ĎIt would be irresponsible to say that in relation to imprisonment that there would be no more long-term effects. We should be very worried about the delayed onset of symptoms in a person who has been subjected to ill-treatment whilst in prisoní
Professor Daly


There are several aims and objectives contained within this report. In particular, the report aims to understand the complex social, economic and psychological impacts of imprisonment and release upon ex-prisoners and their families. In addition this report also seeks to explore and explain the following;

  • The use of and attitude towards Tar Isteach; An Loiste Uir; Amach Agus Isteach and the Marrowbone Ex-Prisoners Group by ex-prisoners and their families;
  • The training, reskilling and educational needs of ex-prisoners and their families;
  • The impact of imprisonment upon employment seeking, self-esteem and personal capacity;
  • The emotional, traumatic and stress linked disorders that affect ex-prisoners and their families
  • The negative impact of imprisonment upon family life;
  • The capacity of self-help and other projects to aid the reconstruction of ex-prisoners and their families lives.

A recent analysis of Tar Isteach; An Loiste Uir; Amach Agus Isteach and the Marrowbone Ex-Prisoners Group has evaluated the capacity of these groups to deliver appropriate schemes, support structures and instruments capable of encouraging the successful reintegration of ex-prisoners and their families. This earlier report indicated that these groups possess the capacity to represent and challenge the negative impacts of imprisonment upon ex-prisoners and their families. This report aims to build upon this previous inquiry and in so doing expand upon the work already undertaken via a robust examination of social, educational, emotional and health needs among ex-prisoners and their families. Key issues include the impact of imprisonment and the influence of release upon self-esteem and other family and social relationships. Other factors, which create trauma and isolation include the impact of violence, the capacity of imprisonment to isolate and perceptions concerning the consequences of lost relationships and time.

It is only through determining the extent of the problems and difficulties experienced by ex-prisoners and their families that support groups can adequately facilitate needs, and in so doing construct valid and convincing support structures. Support structures, which are designed around issues, which are clearly identified by the target group. In addition it is evident that release from prison does not simply mean that the complex and emotive issues created by imprisonment are diluted or diminished. In many instances, release from imprisonment can lead to a whole range of new or intensified problems. The complexity, for example, of deprived family relations is in many instances brought into sharp relief by prisoner release. More crucially, the increase in the rate of prisoner releases in recent years has radically increased and amplified the need to augment and strengthen support structures for ex-prisoners and their families. The most common issues identified within this report include:

  • The need to develop a comprehensive vision for the re-integration of the ex-prisoner outgroup, via knowledge enhancement and the development of collective solutions;
  • A focus on and identification of the welfare and emotional needs of ex-prisoners and their families;
  • Reacting to the negative experiences endured during imprisonment;
  • Developing significant and useful support services;
  • Researching the issues that impact upon released prisoners and their families;
  • Clarifying and challenging the negative issues that affect ex-prisoners;
  • Challenging the prejudices experienced by ex-prisoners;
  • Developing meaningful resources and facilities which aid re-integration, emotional development, family relationships and the promotion of the ex-prisoner community;
  • Providing structures and networks which aid the transition from incarceration to release;
  • Developing and investing in the educational, emotional, educational and employment needs of ex-prisoners;
  • Building and investing in the assets that many ex-prisoners hold;
  • Continual evaluation of knowledge enhancement, practice and procedures;
  • Emphasising and promoting self-help.

It should be stressed that many of the problems that are experienced by ex-prisoners and their families are unique to them. Without doubt the brutalising effects of imprisonment, loss of 'normal' family structures, alienation by the media and sections of society and issues concerning mobility and safety are crucial in determining the needs of ex-prisoners. In addition it should be stressed that the impacts of imprisonment are not uniform. Given that the conflict went through distinct phases, that prison regimes altered and that wider social changes influenced moral issues it is evident that age, duration of imprisonment, era of imprisonment, religious conviction and family structure have each impacted upon the ex-prisoner community in different ways. As have educational attainment, the ability to find work and the psychological impact of incarceration. However, although it is evident that many prisoners and their families experience difficulties in relation to trauma and family breakdown it is not always the case that the experiences of an ex-prisoner and her/his family are uniform within the ex-prisoner community. Although, it is evident that experiences are uneven it is also the case that the vast majority of ex-prisoners are coping with a wide range of complex and emotive issues.

The evaluation undertaken was conducted during the Autumn of 2000. It was based upon a sample of 100 ex-prisoners and 40 relatives of ex-prisoners. The survey of ex-prisoners was undertaken across North Belfast and included a sample of 85 men and 15 women in order to represent respective prison populations. In addition surveyors aimed to divide the sample equally between the age bands 50+, 30-50 and below 30 in order to determine the impact of prison regime, time since release and the impact of release upon age groups. The survey of family members was divided between parents, partners and children. The survey was structured around a series of closed and open-ended questions (see appendices). Among the 40 family members who completed the surveys 16 were partners, 18 were children and 6 were parents of ex-prisoners. Nearly three quarters of the family sub-group were females. Finally, the survey was divided into the following sections:

  • General Issues-Age,Health, duration of imprisonment, employment status, qualifications, family structure;
  • Dealing with Stress/Trauma-Knowledge of support services, post-traumatic stress disorder;
  • Careers Guidance-Professional Training, Transferable Skills;
  • Employment Seeking and Retraining and Further Education-Job seeking, training/retraining needs, welfare support;
  • Open section: additional comments, attitudes towards services.

In addition to these surveys a series of interviews with ex-prisoners and the family of ex-prisoners were also conducted. Interview sessions with groups ranging from 2 to 8 individuals were embarked upon. The aim of these interviews was to present survey findings and test their validity and meaning.

These interviews were also used to test the appropriateness of the delivery mechanism and structure used to provide present support services.

General Issues

In terms of determining general healthcare issues respondents were asked to describe their health and emotional well being. The evidence produced on physical and emotional well being should not be seen as a definitive guide as the questions asked are merely perceptual. However, perceptions of oneís health and well being are useful guides in determining social fatalism and other senses of worthlessness and low self-esteem.

As indicated in the figure below 58% of ex-prisoners stated that their physical health was either poor or very poor. Although 42% of respondents aged 55+ stated that they suffered from very poor health it was also the case that perceived ill health was spread across all age ranges. Among those, for example, aged 25-35 35% stated that they were in very poor health. A figure which should be significantly lower than the rate recorded among those aged 55+. There is no definite reason why perceived rates of ill health are so high although it was stressed during interviews that alcohol abuse was a defining factor in the reproduction of ill health. Furthermore, beatings, wounding and poor conditions whilst in jail were also cited as potential reasons for ill health.

Among family members the share that cited that they were in very poor or poor health fell to 24%. Among those aged 55+ the rate of poor or ill health was nearly 40% lower among family members than it is for ex-prisoners. Although more robust and significant analysis of rates of ill health need to be undertaken in order to comprehensively analyse the links between imprisonment and ill-health it is evident from this survey that there is a correlation between ill-health and imprisonment.

% Share: Ex-Prisoners health

In relation to emotional well being nearly 60% of ex-prisoners and their relatives stated that they suffered from poor or very poor emotional well being. Among prisoners over 70% stated that they considered themselves to be in poor or very poor states of well being. This compared to 45% of family members. Ex-prisoners who had served sentences of more than 10 years or who were divorced stated high levels of emotional distress. As did those prisoners who were imprisoned prior to and during the ĎBlanket Protest/Hunger Strike eraí. It could be that those who experienced this particular prison regime and the subsequent resistance to prison authority have been unduly affected by such experiences.

Female prisoners (78%) also stated above average levels of emotional distress. In relation to female prisoners it would seem that the issue of strip-searching and a sense of isolation within the ex-prisoner community might well contribute to sense of emotional distress. As one interviewee pointed out;

"Itís hard on women who have been in prison. You see when they get out nobody pats them on the back or tells them their proud of them. People think women who are involved are odd. Most people think that only men should be fighting-not women.

Also all that strip-searching and all. I know one girl still cleans here house every day from top to bottom. You see itís the way she was stripped searched she feels dirty of something".

78% of those who cited that they were in poor health also stated that they were in poor emotional condition. As such there is an obvious correlation between ill health and emotional well being.

% share: Ex Prisoners and their families emotional well-being

The impact and reasons for poor emotional well being are varied. As stated by a wife of one ex-prisoner a central issue is fear:

"How could you not be marred by what happened. Stuck in a cell being beaten and only seeing your loved ones every so often. I know he is still suffering and is full of fear and worry. He has been out of jail some 12 odd years. You see if the wind makes a coke can roll down the street at night he jumps up out of fear. Fear seems to trigger something inside him".

For another respondent the lack of mobility has a distinct impact upon well being:

"Sure of course the most of them (ex-prisoners) is full of worry. Sure they canít go anywhere outside of the district for fear of getting a hiding or something. They are stuck in this district and that canít be good for them. Itís like youíre in a bigger prison. These fellas need to be able to move around and be part of more than just a district.

Whereas for one respondent, when talking about the well-being of families, clear issues of experience and familiarity with distress makes the situation between ex-prisoners and their families variable.

"Iím not criticising ex-prisoners but you see this emotional well-being there is a big problem with this. You see us women had to keep going. We had kids to feed jobs to hold onto and all the everyday problems.

Them it was up and down to the Long Kesh and telling the men things at home that things were fine and all. When they werenít. You see most of us had to just keep going so we had no time for to be distressed.

Then he comes home, he has lost the friendships he had inside, he has a lot of issues but he canít talk to us about it because he has always had his fellow prisoners as his confidants. Those are the people he can relate to. So you think to yourself there is no point asking him whatís up because he wonít tell you. He just will say ĎYou donít understandí.

As with most combatants the creation of stress and trauma has been a feature of imprisonment and release. In many instances, masking and controlling emotions has been common whilst in and out of jail. Without doubt a significant loss of part of ones life, emotional support and family relationships has meant that there is a need for strong programs of emotional support.

Without doubt the witnessing and experience of violence has caused post traumatic stresses, which lead to depression, hyper activity, hyper alertness, negative self-appraisal, loss of sleep and deep seated emotional distress. The loss of comradeship developed within prison and the sense of having little in common with non-ex-prisoners, alcohol dependency and complex modes of social rejection can further intensify the nature and intricacy of negative emotions. The survey evidence suggest at least 3 in 4 ex-prisoner respondents have suffered some form of post traumatic stress disorder.

In overall terms only 15% of those who had witnessed a serious threat to life did not cite any characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, partners of ex-prisoners believed that their partners had experienced the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder more frequently than ex-prisoners stated. In general family of ex-prisoners indicated rates on average 10% higher than those stated by ex-prisoners. This would suggest that many ex-prisoners, predominantly males, do not recognise the symptoms of this condition or are too proud to exhibit what may be construed as signs of weakness. Among the relative sub-set the rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are much lower although it is evident that over 40% have suffered some symptoms, with particularly high numbers experiencing serious threat to life, hyper vigilance and a lack of self-confidence.

Ex-prisoners were also asked if they had endured the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the last four weeks (L4W). With he exception of serious threat to life at least 1 in 5 respondents stated that they had endured stress and trauma symptoms in the L4W. Moreover, nearly 40% had been affected by hyper vigilance, anger, fatalism and lack of confidence during the same time period.

    1 = Have you witnessed serious threat to life?
    2 = Have you re-experienced these threats via flashbacks etc?
    3 = Do you avoid places where you witnessed this threat to life?
    4 = Do you find that you are hyper vigilant, cannot sleep and are easily startled?
    5 = Does threat from this incident still make you feel irritable, angered, emotional?
    6 = Do you suffer from either fatalism, loss of confidence, depression, insomnia?
    7 = Do you lack self-confidence?
    8 = Do you ever freeze, feel terror stricken, panic running?
    9 = Do you feel total exhaustion, apathy, loss of skills memory?

In terms of age and period of release it was clear that those released in the past 5 years are most likely to suffer from hyper vigilance, insomnia and feelings of apathy and exhaustion. Whereas those imprisoned prior to the mid 1980s tended to state higher levels of irritability, and the tendency to either freeze, panic run or feel terror stricken. In relation to flashbacks it is clear that this a common-experience among all age groups and duration of imprisonment.

Evidently, a high proportion of respondents who have been subjected to the negative impact of imprisonment are likely to continue to exhibit anxiety attacks, tremors, insomnia, nightmares and other symptoms of neurosis after release. In their most extreme manifestations post-traumatic symptoms can run to hypochondriacal and hysterical reactions. As well as phobias, depressions, emotional fatigue and compulsive reactions can also occur. The anxieties created can in their turn produce gastro-intestinal, cardlo-vascular and genito-urinary symptoms, tremors, sleep disturbance, all of which may be very long lasting, if not permanent. As determined via this analysis around 67% of those who cited that they suffer from poor of very poor health had experienced symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder in the past four weeks. It could be supposed that traumas and stresses are directly linked to overall patterns of ill health.

Evidently, the need to locate confidential programs, which offer emotional support, is a primary concern for many ex-prisoners. Furthermore, the reality that many of the emotional issues affecting ex-prisoners are linked to imprisonment means that the support of counselling services linked to this particular issue are of crucial importance.

Family Issues

In relation to their most recent imprisonment 62% of respondents were sentenced compared to 22% who were on remand and never sentenced and 16% who were interned. Among those sentenced the average period of imprisonment was 9 years. Not surprisingly the divorce rate among those sentenced is much higher than for internees and remand prisoners. As is the incidence of having two sets of children by different partners. The overall divorce rate at 52% is 17% higher than the average for Belfast. However, it is evident that marital breakdown is also linked to age. The divorce rate, for example, among those aged under 40 is nearly twice as high as for those aged over 40. This is most probably due to a host of factors such as changing moral values, a growth in females leaving their spouses and less stigma being attached to divorce and separation. However, a decline in religious conviction is most probably a key factor in relation to age. As one female respondent noted:

"Iím not being superior or anything. But for us older ones religion meant there was no way you would even consider leaving your man. I think for younger ones religion isnít as important and they felt that they needed to get on with their lives. Itís sad to think of all of those marriages ruined".

For some families the loss of a parent, child or partner through imprisonment creates a whole range of arenas within which complex and confusing senses of loss, grief and isolation are also experienced. As noted by one respondent:

"Your kids ask you at first ĎWhen will my daddy be homeí. To keep them happy youíd say soon. Then they want to know why he isnít home yet so you tell them he is away working or something. Then when you canít take it you tell them the truth.

I remember my wee oneís faces. They were so sad because they knew he wouldnít be home. When you are that age your daddy being away for 10 hours seems like a lifetime. What would 10 years be like for them? It was just so sad".

According to another respondent the sense of loss is still an enduring emotional issue:

"Itís nearly 20 odd years since my husband got out. He was in for nearly 10 years. Do you know something? I am still afraid that someone would come and take him away again. I couldnít bear that loss again. Being on your own with just children for company".

As stated by a female respondent whose partner went to jail in the late 1980s.

"I was 8 months pregnant when they took him away. There I was four weeks later having a baby on my own. Then he misses everything-the babyís first step, talking for the first time and going to school for the first time.

He hates it when you talk about her first few years. He just feels upset that he wasnít here. So we stopped talking about her life before he got out. It was bad enough that our wee girl never went near him for the first year that he was out. Without reminding him about it all".

In wider terms and particularly among older interviewees it is evident that senses of loss are coupled with a belief that conflict had a very strong and negative impact upon the stability of communities. As stated by one respondent:

"People wanted for very little. All of us women here had young families in the late 1960s. Our men all worked and we had what we needed.

Then this war started and they were taking our men away, and placing us under curfew and terrifying our children.

People talk about this area being deprived. It wasnít. It became deprived through violence and us being treated like animals. Then people wonder why marriages fell apart, unemployment got worse and some children became so bad. Maybe Iím wrong but the shock of what happened with the army and internment was enough to wreck what we had. A nice wee community".

According to a respondent of a similar age:

"Every night when I am saying my prayers I think of worrying about my husband when he was lifted and we didnít know were he was. I think of him being thrown out of helicopters to scare him. But most of all I think of my wee children having their lives ruined and others like them being filled with bitterness and hatred. I think of them lying below the bed crying when the raids were on".

Of course another issue created by imprisonment is that many prisoners have two sets of children. In several instances it is clear that many ex-prisoners do not have good relationships with children from their original partnerships. As noted by the second partner of an ex-prisoner:

"My partner has difficulty in coping with his kids from a previous relationship. Although he loves them he feels others make it hard for him to rebuild his life with them".

Many partners of ex-prisoners have faced the double bind of raising families on their own and then coping with the issues raised by the return of their partners. In many instances partners of ex-prisoners may feel that the support, financial and discipline structures that they have developed when their partner was in prison are undermined or challenged on their partners return. In certain instances new relationships have evolved, partnerships have been eroded and families find it difficult to cope with the return of an ex-prisoner. As noted above marriages among younger ex-prisoners have been those most likely to end. In addition it is also clear that non-marital partnerships did not stand the test of imprisonment. However, it is evident that those families, which have stayed together have done so through endurance and effort. As noted by on respondent:

"When he first came home I thought thatís it I canít have this big child in the house. He was just sitting there doing nothing. I had to tell him to get his act together or else. I knew he had a hard time inside but I couldnít have gone through all that and ended up with him moping around the house"

As noted by another respondent the reason for marriage breakdown is also due to another sense of loss:

"You get some fellas who lost out on their 20s. So they come out and they want to be 20 again. Like drinking, chasing women and having no responsibility. But if there married their partners want them to come how and start helping. That is one of the biggest tensions you got".

As stated by another interviewee:

"You are so glad he is back and then all hell breaks loose. The kids donít get on with him. The thrill of him being back wears of. But you have to work at it. All the sorrow and sadness is there everyday. But you have to work and work at it. It is like a different type of relationship".

Interviews with children whose father/mother have been imprisoned indicated that may find it difficult to adapt to another discipline figure within the home. Some children of ex-prisoners stated that they resented their parent(s) for not being around during their childhood. Given that prison visits and paroles were limited it could be that no meaningful communicative dimension has emerged between ex-prisoners and their families, especially children, in recent years. A common theme among children of ex-prisoners is that their imprisoned parent was a virtual stranger to them when they were released. Some stated that this sense of a parent being unknown to them never changed. Some, mostly those in their mid-late teens stated that they were ashamed of this imprisoned relative and the activities they undertook. As one respondent noted;

"When you son calls you a murderer it hurts. When you know they are only saying it because you werenít around when they were growing up it hurts even more".

In addition the loss of a parent can result in children losing an important authority figure. A commonly stated supposition was that many of the children of ex-prisoners, especially those whose children are now in their teens have become involved in anti-social activity. As stated by an interviewee:

"A lot of the hoods had dads inside. You see no one at home to keep you straight. I was lucky in that my uncle made sure all the boys in our family were kept in line".

Of course the loss of a parent has been traumatic for many children of ex-prisoners. In particular, interview work indicated that children were negatively influenced in a range of ways including bullying, lack of family income, family rows and loss of opportunity. Furthermore, many children of ex-prisoners have been negatively impacted upon via gossip, stigma, negative perception, discrimination and overt hostility. For one child of an ex-prisoner now in their forties the memory of loss is still a major emotional issue:

"My father just went one day. I remember watching my mother exhausted trying hard to keep ends together. I remember my fatherís face when we left the visits. He was always trying so hard to smile. When I think about that I just remember being a child and knowing my life wasnít complete. That I missed out on something most people had. If I still think like this years after he got out how can I sit here and say I am not hurt by what happened".

As noted by another interviewee;

"My da when to jail. My mother was left with four kids to raise. I had to put up with bullying because my da was inside. My brother left because he couldnít hack it. My da gets out and him and my ma argue all the time. Then he packs his bags and goes. I think what my da did for Ireland was right but sometimes I wish he hadnít done it and then we would be together and all that".

This sense of loss was also complicated by the impact of imprisonment upon finding work and also the nature of policing. As noted by one respondent:

"My da got out and the first thing he did was book us a holiday in Scotland. We were so happy. But when we went down to get the boat my da was lifted by the peelers.

Then the brits and peelers raid your house and you terrified.

Then you grow up and you have to get work. I got a job down the town. I loved it but the peelers used to come in who knew who I was and talk to me. My work mates used to ask why the peelers knew me. I couldnít tell them that it was because my da was in the IRA. So I gave up the job. Now I have a girlfriend who is a prod but I canít tell her about my family. So you see you try to get away from it all but it just keeps coming back.

Iím proud of my da so I understand why I have to pay a price for what he did".

Children may wish to know a great deal or nothing about their parents imprisonment. In both instances the asking or avoidance of complex issues can be of concern. It should be acknowledged that such scenarios have also impacted upon adult relatives. In several instances, being associated with prisoners and ex-prisoners has cost people their jobs. In each of these instances many ex-prisoners feel responsible for negative impacts upon their family members. For those who served life sentences further difficulties with family relationships may well emerge. In several instances ex-prisoners may have insufficient knowledge of the social changes that have occurred among teenage and young people in recent years. Body piercing, tattooing, alternations in sexual practice, the rave culture, young people staying out late and developing long-term sexual relationships before marriage can cause confusion and dismay among a generation of ex-prisoners who entered prison during more conservative times. In addition the fact that we now live in a more consumption-led and individualistic society can also affect perceptions of young people. As noted by one respondent:

"When my husband got out our house was like a battlefield between him and the kids. Then one night our eldest girl came down in a mini skirt and she had done her hair all spiky.

He hit the roof and told her to put on a proper dress. I told him that she was only wearing what was the fashion. He didnít understand and kept saying she was dressed like prostitute. He just didnít know that she was dressing like all her mates and that nobody would think she looked tarty.

I got up and got myself a piece of card. It was massive and I wrote on it that I wouldnít be back until the rowing stopped. When I came back they were all matey and that was the end of the rowing. I think they all needed the shock of me leaving to make them understand that I couldnít take anymore".

In many families normalised relationships have been restored. However, it should be stressed that in the vast majority of relationships distinct and significant stresses have been placed upon family relationships. In terms of evaluating the burdens and issues that have affected relationships a series of questions relating to the impact of imprisonment upon family members were raised.

As is evident from the data presented in the Table below the majority of respondents, who were relatives of ex-prisoners, viewed imprisonment as having a very negative impact upon their relationship. 68% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the negative impact of imprisonment still influences their relationship. Whereas only 12% believed that imprisonment had strengthened their relationship. A highly significant 82% believed that the suffering endured by partners/children of ex-prisoners is not understood. This was a common view stated throughout interviews. It was constantly articulated, among women in particular, that their partners did not have any idea of the privation, hardship and loneliness that they endured whilst their partners were inside. Although, it should be noted that most partners and children of ex-prisoners have purposefully obscured how the realities of imprisonment affected them in order to support their partners/parents, especially whilst they were imprisoned. As noted by one female respondent:

"You would always look your best when you went to visit. You would spend all morning getting the children all clean and ready, blow drying your hair and whatever. Then you would go up and sit and smile and inside you would be saying to yourself ĎDonít let him know how bad you feel. If he knew he would crack upí.

That is how you lived. Protecting him and his mates from how hard it all was.

Then when he got out I thought to myself ĎJust leave it. Itís all water under the bridgeí. That is what you call survival and I suppose love".


Strongly Agree/

Neither Agree/

Strongly Disagree

My partner/parent is too proud to seek emotional support




The negative impact of imprisonment still influences our relationship




We rarely discuss my partners imprisonment




The suffering endured by partners/children of ex-prisoners is not understood




I wish my partner/parent would seek educational/training support




My partner/parent has sought emotional help




Coping with the return of my partner/parent was difficult




Imprisonment has strengthened our relationship




% share of family sample

In relation to seeking emotional support 34% stated that their partner/parent had sought assistance. However, 56% feel strongly or very strongly that their partner/parent is too proud to seek assistance. This perception was strongly echoed by one respondent who noted:

"Iíve told him to go to Tar Isteach for counselling. Iíve been and it helped me. He says that his mates would laugh at him. Itís stupid being afraid to get help. It would help if he went. We row about him going. Iím at my wits end".

The problems encountered by partners and children of ex-prisoners also extend to work and education. In overall terms, 21% stated that they have lost jobs because they had a relative who was an ex-prisoner. 74% have not sought jobs in certain areas because they had/have relatives who were prisoners. Nearly all stated that they tell few work colleagues and no employers that they have relatives who are republican ex-prisoners. In addition over a third stated that they had not been able to get interviews for certain jobs because they had a relative whom was a prisoner.

It should also be noted that virtually all of the partners aged fewer than 50 would like to receive careers guidance and job seeking support. It is evident that there is a need to develop support mechanism for families whether they are families which have split-up or relationships which have endured. It seems clear that many partners and children feel excluded from the facilities and support structures offered to ex-prisoners. As such there is a need to create associations or other support structures which bear witness to the type of problems that they have coped with. In relation to children of broken marriages it was stressed by many respondents that there was a need to create places where access visits can be hosted. As noted by one recently divorced ex-prisoner:

"I want to see my kid. But where do I take him to. I havenít much money and I feel ashamed that all I can do is take him round to his grannyís for a bag of chips or something. Maybe if there was a place to go which organised the odd trip or something. I want to keep in touch but itís shame that defeats me".

Employment, skilling and reskilling

A major problem for many ex-prisoners is the inability to find employment. This is due to a host of reasons. Many ex-prisoners lack skills, numeracy or literacy levels needed in order to both search and find work. Significant numbers of ex-prisoners cannot pursue normalised job search patterns due to fears over personal security and an inability to locate work in places, which are safe.

Political vetting and the use of legislation undermine not only the capacity to gain but also the willingness to uptake certain modes of employment. Each of these factors condition negative attitudes towards work and further undermines the reintegration of ex-prisoners into the labour market. Survey evidence indicates that over 80% of respondents consider imprisonment as a barrier, which impedes access to the type of work they wish to locate.

As a result of these problems many former prisoners tend to work for employers within their own areas. In addition, many ex-prisoners can only gain informal jobs, which are low paid, unstable and which do not lead to career development. Survey evidence suggests that of the 33% of respondents in employment over a third are located within informal sectors. In overall terms 66% of those ex-prisoners surveyed are economically inactive. 42% are registered as unemployed compared to a national unemployment rate of 5.2% and a North Belfast average of 9.2%.

The unemployment rate among the 48% of respondents with no qualifications is around 55%. The majority of these are men aged over 35. Within the overall sample 12% hold degree or post-degree qualifications. Roughly 10% held either below NVQL2, NVQL2 or NVQL3 or above. Among the 33% in employment over 2 in 3 hold qualifications. The average time it took an ex-prisoner to find work was 32 months or nearly three years.

Although, many prisoners are multi-skilled, erudite and that 1 in 3 have good vocational backgrounds and over 60% were in employment prior to imprisonment it is evident that certain skills that they possess have either become outdated or less relevant within the modern labour market. In certain instances there is a need to not merely provide skills but also to re-skill.

As indicated in the graph below over 50% of respondents 1st, 2nd or 3rd responses stated that the issues preventing them from undertaking training in job search, data processing and management skills were the lack or poor condition of facilities and the costs involved. It is also evident that many ex-prisoners do not trust institutionalised training operations within which details of their past may be made public.

For what reason have you not received training in transferable skills.

33% of ex-prisoners were not interested in training courses as they have secured work. Among the 67% of ex-prisoners of working age who would be keen to undertake additional training over 55% stated as their 1st, 2nd or 3rd option that they had not undertaken training because of lack of preparation whilst imprisoned. Other above average preferences included the belief that training does not lead to employment, that courses are expensive, that the respondent has little knowledge of training and that the provision of training and educational courses within their respective areas is poor and that they would need assistance in order to find suitable courses.

    1 = I have no desire to undertake training/educational courses;
    2 = I want to undertake training in a few years time;
    3 = I have found employment since leaving prison;
    4 = Childcare issues
    5 = Training does not lead to employment;
    6 = Training and education courses are too expensive;
    7 = I do not know much about training/educational courses;
    8 = Whilst in prison I did not receive adequate training advice on training and education;
    9 = The provision of training and educational courses in my area are very poor and I would require assistance to locate suitable courses.

Evidence suggests that long-term imprisonment erodes skills memory. Furthermore, evidence from the survey indicates that around 55% of respondents are seeking to engage or renew training or educational programs. Training and re-skilling are crucial issues in the rehabilitation of ex-prisoners. However, it is important for many ex-prisoners that they can access training and educational courses, which are discrete and confidential. Moreover, many ex-prisoners are not comfortable with conventional and institutionalised forms of training. Therefore, the presentation of training and educational courses by ex-prisoners removes suspicion and mistrust and also encourages higher levels of uptake. In addition imprisonment leads to gaps in CVs and an inability to secure funding from banks.

Survey evidence indicates that nearly two thirds of ex-prisoners of working age would require support in relation to information about specific training for jobs. 32% are keen to know more about educational courses and a quarter wish to pursue options in either self-employment or small business development. Of these respondents the nearly 70% would prefer if such training was provided by community based and controlled organisations. This strong desire to use locally controlled facilities was explained by one respondent when he noted:

"You need to find training in a safe place. We canít be going into Protestant areas. As well as that I am not going into a place where the person training me and the others getting training are wee lads. I would feel stupid. I also donít want strangers knowing about my past.

In relation to those seeking employment 71% of respondents stated, in their 1st, 2nd or 3rd response, that a negative attitude toward ex-prisoners by employers was the main barrier in relation to finding work. 30% stated fear as a prominent barrier while around 15% believed that low pay levels, lack of jobs, inability to get an interview and trust were significant impediments. The need to challenge such negative perceptions of the labour market is crucial in determining new work futures for ex-prisoners. As such the capacity building schemes presently undertaken by republican ex-prisoners groups in North Belfast are crucial in challenging not only the lack of skills among unemployed ex-prisoners but also in creating meaningful links with employers and removing biases against ex-prisoners.

Reason for unemployment among job seeking ex-prisoners


Many ex-prisoners emerge from imprisonment and encounter housing and welfare needs. In particular, finding accommodation is of concern, especially when family relationships have broken down. In addition many ex-prisoners find that they need accommodation several months after release. This can occur for several reasons such as family breakdowns, a realisation that staying with relatives puts strain on their relationships and also a desire to negotiate and cope with imprisonment and release via privacy, quiet and solitude.

In many circumstances it is clear that ex-prisoners require assistance in completing applications for housing, unemployment, incapacity and other benefits. In addition many ex-prisoners, their partners and closest relatives may not be aware of the welfare assistance and support that they are entitled to. Some family members and ex-prisoners are wary of completing forms and other such documentation as doing so may mean passing on key information to strangers and those who it may be perceived of as being biased against ex-prisoners.

Moreover, preliminary evidence from a survey being conducted among Republican ex-prisoners and their families indicates that over 75% of those surveyed will continue or wish to avail of services provided by the groups evaluated herein. In particular, those who wish to avail of services wish to do so through a series of issues. 82% are keen to locate welfare assistance. 63% wish to avail of counselling services and 58% are keen for ex-prisoners groups to provide or help in the provision of educational and training programmes.

It should also be emphasised that the bulk of ex-prisoners and their families have no or insufficient financial safety nets on which to rely upon after release.

In addition, alterations in the welfare system, in recent years, can mean that ex-prisoners are not familiar with new and varying entitlement and welfare instruments. Evidently, the ability to claim welfare support is crucial in the resettlement of the ex-prisoner community.

Only 14% of those surveyed stated that they had no desire to use the resources offered by republican ex-prisoner groups. Of these only a third stated that they had reservations concerning such groups. In general this sub-group felt that these groups are linked with Sinn Fein and as such they no longer wish to be involved in the republican movement. This perception may be somewhat erroneous. The remaining two thirds stated that they have no particular issue with which they need help. In general it is clear that around a half of those surveyed are full aware of the facilities and services on offer. As such there is a need to develop a wider communicative dimension in order to enlarge the support services presently on offer. However, it is evident that the vast majority of those who have used the services offered by republican ex-prisoners groups in North Belfast have found this to be a highly supportive venture. As not by one interviewee:

"Everyone says the same thing. If only these groups had been around years ago. Without them we would be completely lost".


It is clear that there are undeniable needs experienced by ex-prisoners, which range from emotional support to re-skilling and training. In particular, there is a need to tackle the following issues;

  • The fact that 58% of ex-prisoners stated that they are in either poor or very poor health;
  • The reality that 78% of female prisoners stated that they are emotionally distressed;
  • The reality of families coping with family breakdown and the loss of a parent, child or partner through imprisonment;
  • The finding that three quarters of ex-prisoner have suffered from post traumatic stress disorders;
  • The fact that 1 in 5 ex-prisoners of post traumatic stress disorder have suffered symptoms 4 weeks prior to being surveyed;
  • The need to challenge the stigma attached by others toward ex-prisoners;
  • The need to challenge the above average levels of unemployment among ex-prisoners;
  • The need to challenge the reality that 68% of ex-prisoners relative believe that the negative impact of imprisonment still affects their relationship with ex-prisoners;
  • The need to build services for the 86% of ex-prisoners and their families who wish to use the services offered by republican ex-prisoner groups in North Belfast.

Without doubt the partnerships that Republican ex-prisoner groups created have been successful in that they have provided positive support, leadership and other identifiable outcomes-be they improved emotional well-being, education, welfare advice, research, infrastructure, conflict resolution and the promotion of ex-prisoners and their families needs. More importantly the findings within this report testify to the relevance of the services offered. Further evidence, which supports the supposition that republican ex-prisoners groups are involved in valid and worthwhile schemes, is provided by the extensive support base created and use of services.

The fact that the groups have within a year created such vast client bases, which have involved over 200 people, indicates the validity of the projects and services offered. Such realities indicate that projects, which are tailor made in relation to real issues, are both necessary and successful.

As evidenced via the interviews and survey material it is patently obvious that psychological and other difficulties experienced by ex-prisoners and their families cannot be addressed by conventional support structures. Given the nature of the problems encountered and their unique attachment with the prisoner issue it is obvious that services must be offered by groups and agencies which are trusted by the ex-prisoner community. If anything the rehabilitation of the ex-prisoner community needs to be explore through specific policies and programmes within which trust and reciprocity can be located.

More crucially, the mobilisation and success of ex-prisoner based organisations, is crucial in the building of social capacity and more stable communities and family structures.

Therefore, ex-prisoner groups are critical in the process of peace building and the representation of a diverse and extensive group of people. However, it is also clear that given the nature and structure of the ex-prisoner community that the support and educational structures required need to confidential, private and controlled by those who ex-prisoners trust.

In relation to this it is clear that many ex-prisoners are suspicious of institutions supported or influenced by state agencies. The present republican ex-prisoner groups located in North Belfast are well placed to provide networks within which trust can be both invested and respected. Moreover, given the skills and knowledge base within these groups it is patently obvious that both holistic approaches and an eclectic range of services have and could be developed.

Without doubt the groups have already established an essential step via creating a dialogue that includes broad participation. This dialogue, as established via surveys and debate has underpinned what the shared goals and vision for the ex-prisoner community are.

Strong collaborative models among the groups have permitted a coherent and robust analysis of issues of relevance, as evidenced within this report. In particular, focusing upon a range of issues and service provides the capacity to shift the groups towards establishing an overall program, which aims to engage models of reintegration among ex-prisoners.

In sum it is evident that negative consequence of imprisonment must be challenged in order that individuals can place faith in peace building and feel included in the structuration of a new society. Without inclusion and an open recognition of the problems ex-prisoners and their families face it will be impossible to integrate significant parts of Belfast communities into a more just and inclusive society. Without doubt solving the problems faced by ex-prisoners and their families is decisive in capacity building and the creation of normalised patterns of living.

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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