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'The devastating impact of social class is not an abstract concept to hundreds of thousands on this island'

Working class communities are punished for a system they had little real control over, writes Lynn Ruane.

Lynn Ruane Independent Senator

THE IRISH PENAL Reform Trust released figures to us on the Oireachtas Education Committee earlier this year stating that the majority of the current cohort of Irish prisoners had never sat a State Exam and over half had left school before the age of fifteen.

It was also reported that prisoners in Ireland were twenty-five times more likely to come from deprived communities. The relationship between deprivation, disadvantage and criminality was clear in the data we received and from my point of view, there for everybody and anybody to see.

Yet in Irish society we do not adequately acknowledge and recognise the role that social class plays when looking to the number of young men in the prison system or as a broader socio-economic phenomenon which impacts on the health, prospects and well-being of the less well-off in communities across the country.

What seems so clear and so obvious from our national data on criminality, educational attainment and deprivation and the relationship between them is often firstly denied to have any impact at all and secondly, to not even exist in the first place.

A politician colleague said to me recently, “Do you have to bring class in everything?”
I sharply responded, “As long as it exists I do”.

This was not the first adverse reaction to raising the issue I had received but I refuse to be made feel like I shouldn’t. The devastating impact of social class in Ireland is not an abstract concept to me and hundreds of thousands of others all over this island. People who have had their lives determined by a class system that they wore born into; by luck and luck alone.

‘Institutionalised inequality of the class system’

I often sit and read all the letters I have received from friends in prison in a shoe box. The letters are all in small brown envelopes and many of them start with “Alright Lynn, just me here on the end of the pen”. In a margin down the side there are lists of young boys’ names neatly written in columns and beside each name is the length of the sentence they are serving. This long list of boys, some still alive but many of them now dead all have a common thread in their letters, the same aspirations for their release.

“When I get out I am going to go back to school, when I get out I am going to Youthreach, when I get out I am not going to get in trouble again.”

But what happens to their ambition? It is as if with the first steps out of St Patrick’s Institution, Oberstown or Wheatfield; any ability they have to exert any agency, control or direction over their lives evaporates.

It didn’t matter how much they wanted to improve their situation, they had little to no agency against the institutionalised inequality of the class system. The class system is too powerful for many young boys to exert any power over their circumstances. Decision making is coerced by the inequality of our conditions, often leading to young men from working class communities being perpetually punished for a system they had little real control over.

Whether it be on the Micro, the Mezzo or the Marco, young men who experience poverty, deprivation and prison face challenges at every turn, making it feel impossible to manoeuvre through this interconnected web of obstacles. This may include struggles within the family home, schools refusing to lift expulsions, little access to social and financial capital, low educational attainment and all-round feeling of helplessness.

Considering a majority of the men in the IRPT’s statistics were unemployed at the time of arrest and add in the low educational attainment of prisoners you would wonder what the logic is in pumping so much money into the prison system rather than focusing on prevention by addressing inequality of conditions. It is sad to say that it appears to be just another tool in the reinforcement of class.

As I stated earlier, the connection between deprivation, disadvantage and criminality is clear, yet we fail to address the conditions that has contributed to this while expecting offenders to ‘learn their lesson’ and reintegrate into society as law abiding citizens.

Maybe sometimes it is less about learning lessons and more about creating a fairer society that reduces deprivation and disadvantage, which will in turn reduce criminality and reoffending.

Lynn Ruane is an Independent Senator in Seanad Éireann, representing Trinity College Dublin. She is also a member of the civil engagement group in the Seanad and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education & Skills.

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About the author:

Lynn Ruane  / Independent Senator

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