Inmates learn psychosocial support in Irish prison

“It feels a bit unreal and as being in a parallel world when entering into the prison. We walk through five security checkpoints before we arrive in the training room. It’s a large, bright yellow and quite cold room with plastic chairs and a flip chart. We must leave all our electronics – phones, laptops, tablets –on the outside. So, no PowerPoint or other types of aid. Back to basics.”

Psychosocial Support Centre Technical Advisor, Louise Vinther-Larsen has been in Ireland testing the psychosocial support training module in the upcoming eCBHFA (Community-based health and first aid) tool. But this training was not business as usual. It took place in Mountjoy Prison and the trainees are inmates. They are all volunteers in an Irish Red Cross run community-based health programme.

“The inmates are a group of 17 young men. They are seemingly tough guys, but in reality they are kind and engaged. They are trying hard to change their lives and to try to get something positive out of their situation. Many of them are serving long sentences, and they have been chosen to be part of the programme because they are committed, behave well and enjoy the respect of the other inmates already.

Drugs and violence are some of the biggest issues in the prison. And of course, living in such an environment brings a lot of anxiety, insecurity and loneliness. Many inmates suffer from loss of hope and low self-confidence. On top of that the inmates don’t have strong social support systems because they are away from family and friends.

This is one of the most inspiring trainings I have ever done. The volunteers are so motivated and engaged in the topics. They really get the importance of psychosocial support, and recognises the huge need for psychosocial support in the prison. There is a good atmosphere in the training with jokes and laughter, and at the same time they take it very seriously. They appreciate to have safe space where they can talk about stress reactions, loss, crisis events, feelings and thoughts without having to be tough and act cool. One of the volunteers said that this training is the bulldozer that breaks down the barriers between them. So besides being able to support fellow inmates in their capacity as red cross volunteers they also get an increased sense of connectedness and peer support among themselves. When I asked them to focus on two subjects for the group work about crisis events, they chose to talk about being imprisoned and suicides in prison. They really enjoy the group work and role playing and relate everything to their own experiences. So, the training gets contextualised along the way. This is very useful – not only for this training and this programme, but because it shows us that this module can work on a global scale.”

The Irish Red Cross Prison Programme

The community-based health and first aid programme in the Irish prisons is run in partnership between the Irish Red Cross, the Irish Prison Service and the Education and Training Board. It started in 2009 in one prison and has since been expanded to 14 prisons across Ireland.
The basis of the programme is the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies’ CBHFA programme, which is currently undergoing extensive revision and will be relaunched as eCBHFA in 2018. One of the new things in the eCBHFA tool kit is a much stronger focus on psychosocial support as part of community-based health. And it is the new training module on community-based psychosocial support which is being tested in Mountjoy Prison.

Please note this film was made four years ago, in 2013. In that time, the number of Irish Red Cross volunteer inmates has increased to over 1,000, the programme has expanded its reach to all prisons across Ireland, and the current Irish Red Cross Secretary General is Liam O’Dwyer.