Women in the Criminal Justice System: Supporting Pathways Away from Offending. An interview with Probation Officer, Caitriona Dennan, by the Probation Service
As a bright teenager growing up in Pearse Street in Dublin’s inner city, Caitriona Dennan was drawn to social work and the idea of working with people with a criminal justice history. A meeting with the former governor of Mountjoy prison, John Lonergan, arranged by her English teacher when she was still in school, left a big impression on her. When she met with him in Mountjoy, Governor Lonergan brought her over to the Dachas’ Centre – the female prison – where she sat and chatted with some of the women in custody. It was the first time she had ever been inside a prison.
Caitriona laughs out loud when she thinks back to that day, “I remember sitting in the canteen having a cup of tea with the Governor and thinking about the fact that I had a good bit of cash in my bag because I was going to pay for a holiday that afternoon, and being terrified of sitting there with all that money in my bag!”
Caitriona went on to study Social Science in Liverpool, worked for several years at Oberstown Children Detention Campus and then landed a job as a Probation Officer with the Probation Service.
Six years ago, Caitriona returned to the Dóchas Centre, this time to join the Probation Service team based there. The Probation Service team in Dóchas work with women serving short, medium and long-term sentences. As well as writing court reports and assessments, there is a strong focus on preparing the women for reintegration back into the community, post release.
Caitriona often thinks back to the day when she drank tea in the canteen and her perception of the women in the Centre compared to what she now knows to be true. In her experience a typical client in Dóchas had been a heavy drug or alcohol user, sometimes homeless and often the victim of domestic abuse. They appear thin, frail and vulnerable, “I have rarely felt intimidated by any woman I have met in the prison. That’s probably very different from the public’s perception of a female person who offends, I think they imagine them to be tough, dangerous, manipulative”.
It is widely acknowledged that women’s pathways into offending differ from those of men. In keeping with worldwide trends, women in Ireland tend to serve prison sentences for lower-level, non-violent offences. According to latest statistics, 45% of those in prison are sentenced for theft and related offences1.
One of the biggest challenges facing any Probation Officer is connecting with their clients and building a strong working relationship with them. Caitriona explains how she goes about doing that; “You just have to work with the women where they’re at. I always say to them when they come into me – don’t feel any shame when you’re in here, I’m not here to judge you, you have been judged. But let’s see what we can change”.
While her focus is supporting the women she works with, she is very aware that they are in custody for causing harm,“I fully understand that there are victims out there who have been traumatised by what has happened to them, and some of the women responsible for that are in Dóchas. A core part of our work with these women is focussing on the offence, discussing the harm that has been caused”.
Caitriona appreciates that the public, particularly those who have been victims of crime, will question whether the women she works with can change, but she says, “I genuinely believe that 95% of women in prison want to change, I do believe that desire is there. The thing is, they really need their tangible supports when they leave prison, they are so vulnerable”.
Supported accommodation, part-funded by the Probation Service, like the Outlook programme and Tús Nua in Dublin provide resettlement support to women leaving prison. Caitriona works hard to place her clients there if she feels they are a good fit,
“Sometimes it’s clear to me that they’re not ready or able to make a change, and you do see them coming back in the door months later. But when it works, its great and those women do get their lives back on track and don’t reoffend”.
Many women in Dóchas have lost their children, often due to neglect and as a consequence of their own drug or alcohol use. Caitriona believes that women, much more so than men, carry the guilt of that with them and are haunted by it. “When they talk about their kids, you can see their heads dropping. They do want them to visit but they don’t want the kids to see them in custody and years can go by without contact. They can forget though that a lot of damage has been done”.
Caitriona explains that women who have received a prison sentence simply don’t have the same support networks in the community as men. From her vantage point in Dóchas Caitriona often watched the footfall on visiting day at the men’s prison. All day she would see a constant stream of visitors, the wives, partners, mothers and families arriving to see their loved ones inside. But visiting day in Dóchas is a much quieter affair, “The women do get visits, but for the most vulnerable, it’s usually only from their solicitors, or social care workers”.
Last month, Caitriona passed through the gates at Dóchas for the last time as a part of the Probation team at the prison; she has just taken up a new position as a probation officer in the community and is enjoying the new job. But she carries the memory of the Dóchas women with her and she knows she will continue to watch out for them, “When I hear of a homeless woman who has died, I want to find out who it is, to know if I know her or if have worked with her. You never forget them”.