S: My name is Siobhan. I’m a 38 year old mother of five, which I suppose doesn’t mean a lot, but that’s what I am.  I work in a place called Pathways Project.  It’s a project for ex-prisoners. I’m also an ex-prisoner.

Pathways is basically a center for people to come to when they get out of prison, where you come to learn new skills.  There’s a place called Stop in people’s lives.  And Pathways is often the first place you come to after you reach that place called Stop: once you realize that you don’t want to get into trouble anymore.  It’s somewhere to go for support and help.  Just for someone to say, “You’re OK, you can do this.”  And I think because all the support workers there are all ex prisoners, we can help someone overcome the pitfalls that we faced when we came out.  Been there, done that.  We can help.

And it makes it a whole lot easier. What people don't understand is that if you’ve been in prison for any length of time, from 6 months to 6 years, especially in the women’s prison, you are in a cell on your own 18 hours a day.  A week in prison and you throw down the knife that you’re eating your lunch with, and you eat with your fork.  Nobody’s looking at you, you don’t care.  A few weeks after that you may throw down the fork and start eating with your fingers.  You lose all the art of conversation, you lose all the social niceties that you have to relearn coming out.  You forget how to speak to people.  So in Pathways very often it is easier for one of us to get on the phone to talk to somebody about arranging accommodation, about arranging government payments, getting medical cards sorted out and stuff like that, and help filling out forms, because they’ve forgotten how to do it. Phone cards might not have been in use before they went into prison, ATM cards, things that we all take for granted.

I remember standing in front of a door in town one day.  Because I was away in a world of on my own, I was waiting for somebody to open that door for me.  A simple thing like that. When I came out first, I got my dinner and took it upstairs and sat in the bed because I’d been used to doing that inside.  Actually sitting down and having a conversation and eating was very hard.  All these little things that you take for granted.

I also help people plan their personal learning plans, personal development, using my own experience as a background.  And it works very well.  There are five community support workers in Pathways, and we’ve each been ex prisoners, but we each have come from a different areas. One of the support workers is HIV positive and has been living with HIV for the past 13-14 years.  Three are ex-addicts.  One is a recovering alcoholic.  And I come from then a mother’s, a woman’s point of view. And between the five of us we cover most angles. So we’re there.  What we do is we help, we support, we guide people back into training, education and hopefully employment. It’s work that may not be “up there” in regards to education and all that but it’s very helpful.

It’s been going for almost three years and it’s working.  It’s one of the very few projects that is working.   We take people of all ages.  We take drug addicts and non drug addicts, etc. The only criteria is you have to be an ex-prisoner, you have to have gone through the criminal justice system.  It’s not a condition of temporary release.  You come in that door because you want to come in.  You don’t get paid.  The only incentive is you can do exams and get out of the seemingly never-ending cycle of crime.  And you’re amongst like-minded people.  And I think that works.

MT: Do you want to explain why you were in prison, in as much detail as you feel comfortable with?

S: I went to Mountjoy prison on the 8th of February, 1995.  I got sentenced to 6 years in prison for possession of £3000 worth of cannabis.  I panicked.  I thought the world had ended.  It was the day before my daughter’s 3rd birthday.  And basically what they were telling me was that I wasn’t going to get out until she was nine.  And the shock I felt at the time was, god, you know, why that big a sentence? Because I was the first person in front of the courts after the government decided to get tough on cannabis and the sentence reflected that. The judge said, “I will review your sentence in two years time,” which was very very lucky for me because most people that are in there now who are doing a prison sentence for drugs do their full sentence.  You don’t get temporary release if you are in on a drug conviction at this point.   And they don’t differentiate between cannabis and heroin.  Drugs are drugs.  There’s no differentiation between soft drugs and hard drugs. So you’re getting the same sort of sentences.  I think that upset me a lot at the time because I had got 6 years for £3000 worth of cannabis  while the girl in the cell next door got 3 years for £50,000 worth. And a girl across the way got 6 years for almost a million pounds worth of heroin.  So they’re not very consistent in their sentencing. And they don’t differentiate.  You’re just all bundled together.

It was a big big shock going into Mountjoy prison.  I was terrified. You can’t go to the governor and say, “I’m sorry, now can I go home?”  It doesn’t work that way.   Even though you are.   It’s wake up and smell the coffee time.

They say when you go to prison, that’s reality.  But prison is not reality.  Out here is reality.  Out here, where you have to pay bills, where you have to budget, where you have to feed and clothe your children.  This is reality.  In prison it’s not.  Everything is done for you.  You are told when to eat and what to eat.  What time to go to bed, when to get up.  And for somebody like myself who had been so used to being in control, it was very very hard.  It was unbelievable. So you get used to the whole thing and it reinforces that whole feeling of, “This is it.  They’re telling me what to do, and I have to do it.”  And your self confidence is gone, your self esteem is gone.

If you’ve got a headache out here, you can go take two paracetemol.  If you’ve got a headache in prison, especially at nighttime, you’ve got to ring your bell for an officer to come to the door.  And it’s dependent on the mood of the officer whether they come in two minutes or they come in two hours.  And then you have to ask for paracetemol.  Out here, if you want a mars bars, you get your 30-40 pence and you go to the shop.  In prison, if you want a mars bar, if you have the money in your account, you make an order on a  Sunday, you get the order on Wednesday.

So you become very institutionalized very fast.  People say the definition of institutionalization is being in an institution for a long time.  I’ve seen young girls institutionalized after 6 weeks. Because it becomes the home you’re used to.  You go into prison dependent on one thing or another.  You come out of prison a lot more dependent than when you go  in.  That’s it.

When you get released, you are let go with a black plastic bag full of your possessions, or in my case, six or seven, and here’s a train ticket home, good-bye.  And basically what it feels like is that you’ve been abandoned.  Abandoned by the people who have looked after you for the last couple of years.  That idea of prison makes people return, and perpetuates the vicious circle.  Because for some young girls out there, prison is all they know.  They’re safe in prison.  They get minded.  Because you’ll get the nice officers that will look after your best interest. And that’s why they keep reoffending and reoffending and going back.

I didn’t mind jail..  If I had been a person with no children, jail wouldn’t have bothered me. Jail gave me back the person I knew that was in there the whole time.  I’d left school at 15. I went back to school in prison. Because prison is one of the most boring places on earth.  There is really nothing to do.  You either go to school or you walk around the yard or you sit in the laundry, that’s it.  There is a gym.  But if you’re not physically inclined, then that’s not an option.  So I went to school.  I’m now in the Open University, two years left to do a degree.  And I owe that to the prison.  I owe my job to the prison.  I’d been offered the job a week or two before I was released.  And actually people believed in me, and that’s what stopped me from going back to what I was used to, from going back to my ex partner.  This is my place called Stop.  I either change now or I’ll go back to what I was and end up coming back in here again.  I didn’t want that.  I didn’t want that for my children.

I had to reinstill a work ethos back into this family. That there is no easy option.  You have two choices in your life.  You take a route, or you leave it.  What I wanted them to do was to go to school, get their education, and go on and work.  If I had stayed where I was living, the whole work ethos wasn’t there.  You left school and you went on the dole.  I wanted to change all that.  And by physically leaving everything behind was the only was I could do it.  My children have turned around and said, “Mom, I hate you.  You took me away from my all my friends.”  And I did. We left everything they knew and loved behind.  We left their father.

MT: This is when you came out?

S: I served two years -- I served the full two years. Some people say two years is not a long time.  Yes it is. It’s two full years. My daughter was three when I went in. She was five when I came out, a completely different person. A week after I got sentenced she was sexually abused by a 14-year-old neighbor.  I was powerless.  You don't realize the powerlessness that you feel inside.  My son, who was 14 at the time, he took an overdose and tried to kill himself.  My eldest daughter got addicted to ecstasy.  My ex-partner abused them, mentally.  He had a girlfriend living at the house when I wasn’t there.  My children had to go into foster care.  I had to sign my children into foster care, just to get him away from them.  And it is hard. It is hard.  You can’t walk up to the governor and say, “I’m sorry.  Now can I go home please?”  It doesn’t work that way.

My mother died when I was in prison.  And that was my last chance to try and say, “Mam, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry for not being the daughter you wanted me to be.”  It’s gone.  You can’t have it back. So you leave it behind and move on.  And I had to do that.  It was a very very very hard decision to make.  But two and a half years down the line, I’m glad.  I’m very very glad.

I left all my friends behind.  I don’t have a lot of friends because I kind of lost all my trust in people years ago.  Because when I had money, everybody wanted to know me.  And when I was two years in Mountjoy prison, I didn’t get visits; I didn’t get letters. I saw my children once a month.  Because they could only afford to bring my children up once a month.  So most of the people now that are my friends, most of them I met in prison.  And that’s why I would never put anybody down. You have to see past the label.  I’m not a bad person.  What I did was bad.  But I’m not a bad person. And if people could just see beyond that, it would make things so much easier.

MT: Do you feel like your experience in prison would be typical of women’s experiences?  And how would women’s experiences differ from men’s?

S:  Yeah... I kinda get given out to when I say this but it’s true... For almost every man in prison that’s got children, he’s got a wife or a mother to look after them.  For almost every woman in Mountjoy prison who’s got children, they’re either in foster care or in a very unstable place.  And I think it’s ten times harder on women. I’m not taking away from the men because I know they love their children dearly.  But for a woman it’s very very hard.  Prison visits aren’t conducive to fostering a good relationship.  There is no physical contact on visits in the women’s prison.  In the new prison that might change because they’re going to have a separate area for mothers with children. But up to now, no physical contact. And if you’ve got 5 children, as I did, sitting on one side of the counter, saying, “Please mom, can I have a kiss?  Can I have a hug?”  And you’re there saying, “I can’t.  I can’t kiss you, I can’t hug you.”  Kisses and hugs that are theirs by right. “If I give you a kiss or a hug on this visit then I’ll be stopped from coming out on another one.”  It’s as simple as that.

We know and we understand the reason behind it.  Yes there’s drugs coming in on visits.  But why penalize mothers with children?  Why penalize women anyway?  It’s for them a lot easier to contain and manage 70-75 women rather than 800 men. If you stop physical contact on visits in the male prison, they would riot.  And rightly so.  But the women’s prison, it’s so easy to contain.

MT: So men are actually allowed contact and women aren’t?

S: Men are allowed physical contact, yes.

MT: What’s the rationale that they use to justify that?

S: I don’t know.  I really don’t know.  And I think women need to foster, keep the relationship with their children.  You’re not only sending the woman to prison; you’re sending the whole family.  A governor in and English prison once said that, “When you send a man to prison you send him in to play with his mates; when you send a woman into prison you send a whole family.”  And it’s true.  My children did my sentence with me.  My children probably did my sentence a lot  harder than I did.  For something that they didn’t do.  They did nothing and they suffered.  I was very very lucky that my baby-sitter that I had was allowed to foster my children.  She was only in her 20s.  She came up to baby-sit for me one day and I came up to court in Dublin.  She was  expecting me home that night.  I didn’t come home for two years.

I take my hat off to her, I will always sing her praises. My youngest daughter was living with a neighbor, because they’d been so used to her in the house. But the other four children stayed with somebody not that much older than themselves.  And she looked after them very very well.  Other women inside didn’t have that luxury.  There are people in prison who’ve got a drug habit, like in that book The Junkyard, and are signing their children away for adoption.  And trying to do with what little support the prison provides.  Yes the prison provides counselors and psychiatrists and psychologists. But your problems have to become apparent between 9 and 4.  If something should happen after that, forget it, you’re on your own.  The prison officers are great. But they’re not trained to do that job.

I remember... I had been left out for Christmas, Christmas ‘95, I was given 5 days home leave.  And I’d been raped by my ex-partner on home leave.  And it was a prison officer who sat and held my hand before they took me to the hospital because I had to be stitched inside.  And he held my hand.  And he could do nothing but cry with me.  And that’s the type of people you meet.

Otherwise it all comes in here.  Women internalize everything.  Men can go out and beat someone up and they’ll externalize it that way.  Women don’t. Women keep it in.  So I think you have to differentiate between women prisoners and men prisoners because we are different.  Also, a lot of women inside there have been abused, physically, sexually and mentally abused. And the resources there just aren’t enough.

MT: What about in terms of the offenses -- would the offenses themselves be different for men and women?

S: There were big differences up to a few years ago.  Most women that were in were in for shoplifting.  And men were in for more violent crimes and bigger robberies.  The emphasis now is on drug importation.  There’s an awful lot of non-nationals in Mountjoy at the moment for importing drugs.  There’s a lot of refugees starting to come in.  The Irish refugee population has exploded.  And that’s being represented in prison as well.  There’s an awful lot of drug offenses.  There’s a few women in now for murder.  That wasn’t so prevalent a few years ago.  There’s still the odd shoplifting, prostitution, but the emphasis is now on drugs offenses.  Possession.  Importation.  Supply. That’s where it has changed.

MT: Is there an increasing number of women being incarcerated?

S: Up to two years ago Mountjoy women’s prison held 40 women; we were on one wing of St. Patrick’s Institution, which is the young male offenders’ prison.  We had one half of one wing.  That had to be extended.  It now takes over one full wing. There is now space for 70 women. And women are always in single cells.  Men double up.  Another difference. I think women need to talk, a lot more than men do. Especially Traveler women, who may not be literate.  I mean, the literacy problems for them are very bad.  If you’re stuck in a cell for 18 hours a day, fine, you or I could  sit down and read a book or do some school work, or write a letter. What about refugee women that can’t speak English?  They’re on their own, it’s as simple as that.  It’s very hard.  It’s very wrong.  If you can’t read or write, or if you haven’t got the money for a radio, or batteries for a radio, then what do you do?  All you have time to do is time to think.   And time to reflect on what you’ve done.  You hear about the suicides in Mountjoy prison; you never hear about the attempted suicides. And you’re guaranteed at least one a night in the women’s prison, one attempted suicide.

I was in the cell next to somebody who committed suicide one night.  And I can still hear her insides coming away, you know?  It’s very traumatic for everyone, and it’s very traumatic for the officers who have to go in and cut that person down.  I was in a cell above a girl who would used to set fire to herself on a very very regular basis.  She would barricade the door with mattresses and set fire to them.  So she would be in the back and they would have to go through burning material to get her.   The self mutilations... I mean,  I would consider myself a strong person. I actually got so down when I did that I did try to kill myself.  Women aren’t allowed razors, but at the time, you could ask the boys upstairs and they would send them down on a string so you could shave your legs.  And I remember I took the blade out and started cutting into my arm and could actually see the vein. But I think it was looking at the photographs on the wall that stopped me.  Where would they be if I took the easy option?   It’s bad enough having a mother in prison without having no mother.

I know how hard it is to get through life without a family.  I came from a very quiet background.  They were a very good family, a decent family. If a guard had called to the house, it meant that somebody had died in England.  That sort of a family.  Nobody’d ever been in trouble.  I was a wild teenager.  I left school at 15, pregnant at 17, married at 20, separated at 21.  And then went out with this fellow in 1985.  He was exciting and dangerous and all this.  And I spent 12  years with him, 7 of which he spent in prison.  He came from a family who were big into the cannabis scene, hash scene.  And my family just didn’t want to know of it.  Rightly so, looking back on it now.  But that’s it, it wasn’t just them not speaking to me.  My mother had three grandchildren she never even seen, you know? My aunts and stuff, they didn’t want to know.  It was as if I had embarrassed them that much that they just didn’t want to know anymore.

So you get by with that.  That’s why I mean my children, we’re all we have.  That’s what stopped me from cutting that just little bit deeper.  Left a fine scar too.  You do get that low.  I think that was the lowest point inside there.  I had thought either jail was going to kill me or make me a better person.  It made me a better person. That is the one thing I will say about prison.  It made me the person I am.  I will never knock it.  Because if it wasn’t for prison I would’ve went back to him.  And probably would’ve ended up in prison. My children probably would’ve followed that route.

MT: It seems like your experience of prison was really different from other women -- because it made you change your life, where as before you were saying a lot of women just keep going back in...

S: Yeah... Because they don’t have a family structure.  They have come from offending parents.  It’s a self fulfilling prophecy: “I’m going to get in trouble.” It’s normal.

The governor of Mountjoy prison said that 90% of the prison population come from five postal districts in Dublin.  And he’s right.  It’s whole areas of people who’ve been in and out of prison.  That it’s not a stigma, where they come from.  And that’s sad.

MT: What are some of the stigmas you’ve experienced since you’ve come out?

S: Well we also in Pathways initiated a “wise up” program.  It reaches out to youth. We go to the schools.  It’s about four us do it.  But myself and another fellow called Dermott, we go together.  We basically tell young people what I’ve been telling you: that prison is not a nice place to be.  That being addicted to drugs, that being a dealer of hash is not a nice thing to do.  We explain what exactly goes into heroin and what goes into hash, and we tell our life stories basically. And we’ve been called scum bags, we’ve been called... One kid stood up and said, “You’re nothing but a scum bag drug dealer.” And it shocked me because he was right. He was right.  And everybody can say that the dealer is worse than the pusher.  And it stopped me in my tracks.  And I had to turn around and say, two or three years ago, you would’ve been right.  I’m not now.

But we’ve had a lot more positive feedback.  I mean, because I’ve got a drug conviction, Dublin corporation, the housing authority, said they would never house me.  It took two full years of trying to persuade them to see past the label, and that I needed housing with my children.  And they did -- thank you Dublin corporation!  They gave me the chance.  And I think if people can get a chance, if you look past the tattoos, if you look past the prison record,  just to see what’s there, what people can give you, I know people turn around and say, “You don’t look like an ex-prisoner.”  What does an ex-prisoner look like?

But because I can speak nice and I know how to approach bank managers or factory managers, they think I’m different.  I’m not.  I’m not.  I’m still that wild kid, that wild teenager that tried everything.  I had a drink problem at 16.  I had a two hands and one mouth job.  And I have to get over all that.

But the stigma’s still there.  I mean, I would not like my neighbors around here to find out.  I will speak at any school but not my children’s.  I don't want them to suffer from what I did. I would love to get on a soapbox and tell everybody what I think is wrong with the system.  But I won’t because I won’t do that to my children.  They’ve suffered enough.  And then I would be passing the stigma on to them.  My daughter went for a job application not long after we arrived up here.  And on the application form was: “Have you or any member of your family ever been in prison?”  And she looked at me and said, “What do I say?  If I lie and get caught out, I’ll get fired.  And if I tell the truth I’m not going to get the job.”  And that’s it.  There are certain jobs that my children probably can never apply for because of what I did.  It’s the ripple effect.  I went to prison.  I’m a stone.  I go to the bottom of the pool.  But the ripples are the effect that it has on my family.

MT; Do you have any sense from working at Pathways... I’ve always been under the impression that women tend to get longer sentences than men, maybe because women always get the worst deal!  Is there any validity in that?  It’s almost like, women, if we’re bad, we have to be punished more because were not good mothers, or... Do you know what I mean?

S: Yeah I do, I do.  When I got sentenced there was a big article in the newspapers --”Mother of Five Gets Six Years.”  I have never once seen, “Father of five...”  I think we’re treated differently because we’ve got this nurturing image -- we’re supposed to be nurturers and carers and minders. Men can be the providers.  I think that’s very prevalent, especially in Ireland, that we’re seen as nurturers and carers.  And that when we do step over the line we are punished more severely.  I think also that, taking aside that the visits are completely different up in the women’s prison, the sleeping arrangements are different, some of the officers are willing to take under the wing that we need to be minded more while in there.  We do get treated better inside.  But I do think we do get longer sentences.  And they can speak all they want about the temporary release system, the revolving door that they’re so very fond of quoting. But actually temporary release is a very nerve wracking, upsetting thing.  Because you’ve got this gate fever, the minute you go in the door.  If you go in the door and there’s a date on your door,  if that’s the date you’re going to go out then that’s fine.  But if you’ve got this idea that, “Oh, well, if I do OK, they’re going to give me temporary release...” Then you’ll be constantly waiting and on edge. And it causes fights. And it causes arguments. And tension in the prison.

MT: When I saw you speak at the WERRC conference, you read some wonderful writing.  When did you start writing?

S: I started in prison because of not having somebody to talk to.  A, you’re on your own in the cell.  And B, it’s very hard to try and trust somebody unless you take a while to get to know people.  It was a release, it was just a way of putting words down, of getting it out there.  I think writing limericks, where every line had to rhyme, it was a way of getting the feelings out.  There are some brilliant poets inside.  Very good poetry because it’s all real.  You can’t buy experience like that.  You can’t buy the hurt, you can’t buy the pain, and you can’t buy the loneliness.  It’s all those.  You’re putting down what you’re feeling at the time.  It’s a way of getting what you feel out there, out of you.  Instead of putting it into a box you put it on paper.  And it helped. It eased... It took... If I could own my loneliness and my pain and my hurt then it made it a little bit easier to bear.  I have kept up the writing a little bit, but not as much as I’d like because work and trying to get back into a regular family has superseded all that. But I’ll pick it up again.

I think you’re less in tune with yourself on the outside.  Because so many things take up your time.  You’re less able to formulate the words.  Because you just say, “Oh, I’m grand.  I haven’t got time now but I’ll do it some other time.”  I don’t want to lose that. I really don’t . That’s why I like going back into the prison. Because it helps me to remember what I felt like in there, the good and bad. And there was a lot more bad than good but it helps me to remember and it keeps my feet on the ground.  And people come up and say, “Good on you, Siobhan, you’ve done really well.”  It’s so easy to sit back on your laurels.  But no, you don’t do that.  You try to do better.  And you try to do something for the girls that’s still in there.  By going back in there I keep my feet on the ground.

I go back for work, just to put myself out there and say, “I’ve done it. And if I’ve done it, anyone can do it.”  Just be there as an example.  I know very often, I have been kind of held up, like, “Here’s one who made it out of here.”  You know.  “Prisoners can change,  Take a look at this one.”  And I don’t mind that.  It can be very patronizing sometimes, it can be very demeaning sometimes.  But if, by putting myself out there for people, if I can help one person, it’s worth it.  It’s the same as going around to schools and being called names and stuff like that. If one person takes note it’s worth it.  And I’m strong enough to handle that now.

I go to the prison every week and you will have the odd woman coming up and saying, “God Siobhan, you done it.  How did you do it?  What was the hardest thing, and what was the easiest thing, and how did you go about it?”  Even if they never take it up, even if they never do something for themselves, not the next time, maybe the time after that they might.  They might have reached that place where they turn around and say, “I don’t want to do it anymore.”  And then maybe what I’ve said will come back.

I go back for personal reasons as well.  I still have friends in there.  And also it was a major coup to actually get that -- we were the first ex prisoners ever to be allowed back into Mountjoy prison on that basis.  We’ve got our own i.d. cards, department of justice cards, that we flash going in the gate.  You still get the officers who will say, “Wait there and I’ll get an officer,” that don't like the idea of us going back in.  But it doesn’t matter.  We got back in. We were the first to do so.  And hopefully have paved the way for other people to do the same.

Now the prison officials are actually looking to us to help other people, and I think that’s good.  Because as I said while ago you can’t buy the experience we’ve got. And it’s the same going to conferences and things like that.  It’s because we have the experience, we know what we’re talking about.  And going to schools -- children can spot lies a mile away.  And it’s very easy to go in and stand there and tell children what to do. And if you haven’t got the experience to back you up, forget it.  Theory is fine but you do need the experience behind it. I do think that’s why we’ve been successful in what we’re doing.  It gives you a sense of yes I’m doing it... Because it’s a long journey.  It’s not a place you get to; it’s a journey.  Clichéd lines, I know, but it’s a journey.  And it’s not over by a long shot.  I’ve a lot of living left to do -- and I’ll probably upset a lot more people by the time I finish.   As long as it’s for the right reasons, then I’m happy with that. My children are happy with that.

MT: Do you want to get into some of the reading?

S: I’ve been trying to put titles on some things: “Revenge for Jessie,”  “Divorce”... OK, we’ll start with this...

Behind Prison Walls
Behind prison walls my head is screaming.
Behind prison gates my love lies bleeding.
Behind prison keys my hands are shaking.
Behind prison doors my heart is breaking.
Behind prison cells my eyes are crying.
Behind prison bars my soul is dying.

I never want to see beige again.
That’s the color of my cell.
It’s really such a non-color.
When I look at it I don’t feel well.
There’s nothing I can do for a change.
I can’t paint it pink or blue.
Anything would be better than beige --
Black, yellow, or any other hue.

Memories are like Moonlight
Memories are like moonlight.
They depend upon the night.
Hiding behind clouds or brilliant by starlight.
So poignant in their darkness, only to flitter away by day,
Put to sleep with the morning sun,
Our memories laid away.

I think this was when I found out my ex had someone else:

The noose of this welfare state is tightened around my neck.
I dwell on pandemonium while they dwell on the wreck
Of what was once mine
In brighter days gone by.
I am Hathor, I am Myatt.
I will survive and I will return
To claim all from those who thought they’d won.
I will take them to Elysian Fields where we will live for ever more.
Oh yes, I will have my day in the sun.

When will I be me?
First I was a baby,
Then my mother’s child,
Then I was a teenager, running wild.
Next I was a wife
To a man who took charge of my life.
Now I’m a mother
In charge of five others.
When will I be me?

MT: I love that one.

SB: You’re’ so many things to so many people.  Before I left prison, I hadn’t had a chance to be me.  Prison actually gave me the chance to be me. Because I was the only person I could depend on inside there.  And the only person I could rely on.  And it actually gave me the chance to be me for once in my life.  And I’ve kept that.  I used to be so... I wanted to please everybody.  And I’d please myself at the end, the very last.  I still like pleasing people, but it’s not the top of my list.  If I’ve got to do things that some people don’t like, then so be it.  Me and mine, me and my children, my family, my loved ones come first.  Nobody else. I learned that there.

Christmas ‘95
The carol singing season is upon us again.
Yuletide greetings, Christmas cards, three wise men.
Not for me this year, I’m afraid.
No presents to buy, no plans to be made.
No fun, no parties, and no Santa Claus to see,
Inside Mountjoy prison this Christmas I will be.
No midnight mass, no Christmas Eve,
No going to the pub,
Because the only bars I’ll see this year
Are the ones in the cell with me.

All the parties, the nights out that you take for granted... There’s’ nothing worse than a beautiful summer evening, and you’re in your cell. The sun is streaming through the little window, onto the wall, reflecting everything.  All the children are on the main street outside the prison. The teenagers are on the street drinking cider. And they shout up, “This one’s for you!”

This is “Revenge for Jessie.”

Revenge for Jessie
I want to kill the boy who hurt my child.
I want his neck on a block.
I want to put my hands around his neck
And squeeze until it’s cold as a rock.
I wish his heart stopped beating,
I wish that with all my might.
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,
That’s my right.

I was a very angry person at the time.  I think there was a lot of anger just trying to get out.  The thing is with being inside, you’re afraid to scream.  You want to scream.  But you’re afraid to scream.  I was afraid to scream in case I never stopped.  It’s as simple as that.

I’m drowning in my own salty tears
My arms feel like two lumps of lead
I scream all the curses in my head,
Of how I wish him to be dead.
If malediction is an art,
Than I’m it’s apprentice.
I practice for hours in my cell.
This is a long sentence.

SB: Last one -- this one’s a little bit lighter I think.

I am a warrior at the battle of unnumbered tears
Fought deep in the valley of dreadful death.
And as I fought, I hid my tears
As I search for the road to middle earth.
I search in the city of present sorrows
And in the town of dreams I stayed a spell.
But in the town of dead days, so full of horrors,
Two years’ lamentation I had to dwell.
But when the judges lift the spell of bottomless dread
And show me the road to home
I’ll pass the shuddering water
By the pool of twilight
And then I’ll sit and wait for you to come.

Sinn, sinn.

There’s just one story I’d like to read.  To me, this is very poignant. It was written by Rose Sherlock, who died in December ‘94.  It’s called “A Day in the Park”

A Day in the Park - by Rose Sherlock
I was sitting looking out of the window.  The sun was shining.  I left the house and took a walk through the market place.  It was packed.  I think the sun brought everyone out.  I went from stall to stall looking at everything from jewelry to clothes.  I was going to buy some jewelry that caught my eye, but I decided not to.  I went to the park.  The scent of flowers filled the air.  Flowers seem so beautiful in the sunshine.

I had a lot to think about.  I wished that I was a butterfly.  There were some children playing about, ignorant of the ways of the world.  They were so young and so innocent.  I said, “Please God let them stay that way.”  I kept looking at them and I shed a tear.

It was almost 3:30 pm so John should arrive soon.  I wish I knew what was so important, that I had to meet him straight away.  I looked all around the flowers, roses, daffodils, tulips, violets, all dancing gaily in the light breeze and reflecting glorious colours from the sun.  It was as magic to see.  I could have sat there all day soaking in the beauty.  But John arrived.  That look on his face I’ll never forget.  “Hi,” he said.  He mumbled it.  I could barely hear him.  “Hi John,” I said.  “What’s up?”  “I’m HIV positive love,” he said looking away.  I just sat there in shock, all these crazy things going through my head.  It can’t be, it’s not true.  Oh God, no!  John broke the silence between us.  “Look love, it’s best that you go for a test,” was his advice to me.  I didn’t answer him.  I sat there gazing at the wondrous colours, hardly hearing the laughter of the kids playing about.

Three weeks later my test results came back negative.  I was relieved I had a chance to escape this.  John asked would I still go out with him but I said “NO.”  John thought I was all the flowers in the park but John had been sleeping about.  I was lucky this time but maybe not so the next.  Don’t tempt fate.

I leave the park now, the flowers are changed or is it me?  I strongly advise you, NO drugs, NO sex - unless it’s safe sex.  So please remember, you know what may happen.  Don’t play Russian roulette with your life!

Unfortunately she caught the virus.  And died.  That to me, that’s writing.  You can write your rhyming lines but getting that out, that’s hard.

MT: I think the only thing I didn’t get around to on the prison stuff is the question of whether or not prisons are really rehabilitative?

S: I have a problem with the word rehabilitation.  It implies that we’re going to fix something -- and they don’t.  You can’t get rehabilitated in prison if you’re coming back out to the same thing.  Simple as that.  You’ve got to change what’s out there for people.  Prison is not a deterrent, not anymore. I think they spent £5 million building a wall in Castlereigh prison. If they had spent £5 million in one inner city area in any city in Ireland it would’ve done a lot more. When I was living in Cork there was a group of lads who were put on probation, who were given a  community service order that they had to put in flower beds in the park.  They did and did a very good job -- and looked after it because it was their work.  Any kids that went near it got a slap on the behind -- “Don’t touch that, we put that there!”  And I think that works!  Instead of sending a mother of 5 children to prison, let her go paint every graffiti sprayed wall in the area. And she would be repaying the debt to society and the children would be looked after. You’re spending god knows how many thousands upon thousands of pounds a year keeping a prisoner in prison. What you would pay at foster parent to look after the child -- the money would be better spent on people’s areas, on giving them options.  Giving something for children to do.  Because it’s no use starting with somebody my age or starting with somebody even a bit younger,  it’s too late.  Start with 7, 8, 9 year olds.  Start by teaching them that there is something else out there. Prison is not rehabilitative, no it’s not. Because you’re too late, you’re already in the system.  Bypass the system.  Avoid it.  Then it might work.  I think prison works for some, very very very few.  But not everybody.

MT: OK, last couple of questions so I can tie this together with the other interviews... I’ve been asking women I’ve interviewed if she sees herself as an activist.

S: Hmmm... Activist.... I think they’re too many connotations around the word activist.  It’s too radical.  Even though there’s nothing wrong with being radical.  I’ve been radical all my life. But people tend to se it in a bad light.  Do I want to change things?  Yeah I do. If that’s an activist, well then maybe then.... But I don’t go out and demand.  I’d rather be an activist through educating people, rather than being this banner thumping person. God I’d be shot for that!  No, I’d rather educate people that there is something else.  So if that’s being a quiet activist, then I’m a quiet activist.

MT: I’d say you’re a fierce activist!  Another question is, because the project is partly about women’s names, I’m asking each woman about their name.  What does Siobhan means?

S: Siobhan is Irish for Joan. The name on my birth certificate is not Siobhan.  It’s not even Joan. I was christened Josephine.  My mother decided at a very young age that it was too common.  That I’d be called Josie and she didn’t like it, so she called me Siobhan.  I don’t’ know where it came from.  But that’s the story behind my name.

MT: Do you identify with your name?  Do you like it?

S: I always hated it.  Hated it.  When you were young, it was “Siobhan your knickers,” as in, “Shove on your knickers!”  It was horrible.  By good friends over the years I was always called “Shivers.”  My significant other calls me Joey, I suppose a take off of my real name Josephine.

MT: And what about your daughters’ names?

S: When I named my daughters I didn’t want them to be called after their aunts or their grandmother or whatever.  Because I wanted them to be their own.  I wanted them to live up to their own names.  I didn’t them to have to be “Small Valerie” or “Small Siobhan” or “Small Margaret.”  I didn’t want anything like that.  I wanted them to be their own people, their own personalities to come through, rather than being somebody else’s namesake.
They had to their own person.

My eldest daughter is called Gillian. She was going to be called Karen up to about 3 weeks before I had her. And I dreamt of the name Gillian. Same happened with Gemma.  Jessica, I just liked Jessica at the time.  I didn’t want to give them something very fancy that sounded beautiful on a baby girl, all pink and fluffy, but sounded rotten on a fifteen year-old teenager.  Gillian, Gemma, Jessica, were plain enough names, a little on the fancier side, but not enough to get them slagged off

MT: And my last question is: do you have any particular heroines?

S: Do I have any particular heroines?  Any woman in this world that can have the nerve to get up and walk out of a bad situation is my heroine.  OK?  It’s as simple as that.  There’s some very very very great women -- and it’s like anything else -- for a woman to be good she has to be ten times better than a man -- and that’s the way it’s always been and probably will be for a long time.  But any women that has nothing, that is leaving behind something comfortable and is going out on her own, tat is my heroine.  That is the person.  She doesn’t have to be great, she doesn’t have to be beautiful or rich or loaded or whatever.  She has to be an ordinary Joe soap on the street, or Mary soap on the street, and have the guts to change.  That’s my heroine.

I think I’m my own heroine and I’ve finally come to the stage where I’m not afraid to say it.  I’m quite happy with myself. Mind the ceiling, the head is going to get in the way!  Anybody that can change is my heroine.

There you go.

MT: That’s the best answer I’ve ever got for that question!

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