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O'Mahony, Paul (2014) Psychology and the penal system. Working Notes, Issue 73: The Rights of Workers – Then and Now,

External website: https://www.jcfj.ie/issue/73-the-rights-of-workers...

In this article, I intend to look back and draw contrasts between the current situation of Irish prisons and what prevailed when I joined the prison service, as one of the group of four psychologists, newly employed in 1980.

Although the prison system in 1980 was under considerable strain and was preoccupied with the handling of paramilitary prisoners, who at that time comprised a substantial proportion of the prison population, this was actually a period of relative calm before the storms that were subsequently to shake the system and threaten to overwhelm it. It was also, in stark contrast to today, a period of intense, sustained public interest and concern regarding conditions in prison. From the late 1970s, several highly critical reports were published by the churches, trade unions, and groups of concerned citizens. Then, in 1985 the Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System (the Whitaker Committee), the state’s only major official enquiry into the penal system, published its report.

However, what was to follow would dramatically change Irish prisons and alter the face of psychology in the prisons. I am referring in particular to the seismic changes begun by the disastrous heroin epidemic of the early 1980s and by the official ‘discovery’ of child sex abuse. The concentration of AIDS cases within the prison population and the growth of a violent drugs gang culture – now pervasive throughout Ireland but endemic in Irish prisons since the mid-1980s – were transformative. The criminal drugs culture in particular changed prisons beyond recognition and still poses immense challenges. A challenge of a different kind was the growing awareness of sex crime and the gradual strengthening of the collective will to prosecute and punish sex offenders. This eventually led to the imprisonment of many offenders from the respectable and privileged classes, including priests, religious brothers, and teachers....

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