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'Revolving door': Traveller women imprisoned for minor offences such as driving without tax

Noteworthy and The Journal examine the impact of the justice system on Travellers, with a focus on children.

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TRAVELLER WOMEN ARE being imprisoned for minor first time offences such as driving without tax, shoplifting and crimes linked to addiction, an Oireachtas committee has heard.  

Almost one quarter – 25% – of the women at the Dóchas Centre women’s prison were Traveller women, according to a report from the Office of the Inspector of Prisons in 2019, despite adult Travellers making up just 0.5% of the total population of the country. 

Advocates yesterday told TDs and Senators that there is an impression that Traveller women are more likely to receive a prison sentence than a settled person who commits a similar crime.

The Oireachtas Committee on Key Issues Affecting the Traveller Community heard calls  for a move away from custodial sentences for minor offences which are creating “a revolving door” of re-offending among Traveller women.

  • Read more here on how you can support a major Noteworthy project to investigate if Travellers experience harsher interactions with the Irish law and prison system.

Anne Costello, coordinator at the Travellers in Prison Initiative (TPI), told the committee that their research found many Traveller women in prison were there for minor crimes.

“It was for driving offences, shoplifting, a number of crimes linked to addiction,” she said.

“Women described their stories of trauma around close family members and suicide, or other bereavements, and then moving on to prescribed drugs, and then that leading into harder drugs. That was the kind of the story that we got generally from the women.”

Fíona Ní Chinnéide - wearing a black jacket and glasses - on the main screen of the Joint Committee, with others visible on the side of the screen. Fíona Ní Chinnéide from the Irish Penal Reform Trust spoke about the need to support children of those in prison Source: Oireachtas Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community

Maria Joyce, coordinator with the National Traveller Women’s Forum, told the committee that she has worked with women in the Dóchas Centre who are there because they were caught driving without tax or insurance.

“Sometimes these are first offences and some felt a non-custodial sentence would have addressed the level of crime,” she said.

She said there was a strong perception that “it’s one option for a Traveller in the criminal justice system and another outcome for a non-Traveller” for similar crimes and that a different approach involving community supports could help to prevent re-offending. 

Fíona Ní Chinnéide, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), told the committee that specific data on recidivism among Travellers is not available.

However general data shows “people sentenced to prison for between three and six months had the highest probability of re-offending within one year of release”.

“The highest rates of early re-offending are among those in prison for short sentences, which by definition are less serious offences,” she said.

Speakers at the committee meeting today also raised concerns about the impact on Traveller children of having a parent in prison.

“People say ‘expose young people to prison and they won’t go there’, but so many Travellers in prison have been to prison to visit their fathers and now they’re in prison,” Costello said.

“That doesn’t work, with that inter-generational [factor] you’re much more likely to end up in prison if your parents have been in prison.

Photo of the Dóchas Centre - a redbrick building with grey roof - with quote by Anne Costello, coordinator of Traveller in Prison Initiative: The huge concern Traveller women have if they’re going to prison is what’s going to happen to their children. Are they going to be taken into care? Will they ever get them back? Source: Radharc Images via Alamy Stock Photo

Maria Joyce said leaving their families and their children is a significant issue for Traveller women in prison and can create problems with access on their release.

“When you have children who may already be in care, there are additional barriers that will be created on their [the women's] release in trying to engage with their children, or if they’ve gone into care as a direct result of them going into prison,” she explained. “It’s not about ensuring the care of children but it is about ensuring contact with parents.”

Ní Chinnéide of the IPRT said the imprisonment of a parent should not be seen as “a predictor” of a child’s outcome as they will all have different responses to these types of situations.

What is common, she said, is their “experience of trauma, of separation, stigma, poverty”. Ní Chinnéide added: “We need to support those children, support them to have better outcomes in the long run.”

***

The committee was covered as part of an investigation called TOUGH START Noteworthy and The Journal over the past number of months into supports – and the lack of them – for Traveller children. We can now reveal

  • Young Travellers are significantly over-represented in youth detention, making up 26% of Oberstown detainees last year, but just 1.2% of the under-18 population as a whole
  • Travellers detained in Oberstown jumped by almost 40% in 2020   
  • An Oireachtas committee heard concerns about the impact on children of having a parent in prison, particularly in relation to Traveller mothers who received prison sentences for first-time and minor offences
  • Department of Justice officials noted Travellers were “a particular challenge that requires additional action” in regards to the Youth Justice Strategy at a meeting two months prior to its publication, yet there are no Traveller-specific actions in the strategy
  • Traveller children reported experiencing discrimination from members of the gardaí and being falsely accused of crimes by members of the public
  • Children who spoke to Noteworthy also said they felt fear and anxiety around interactions with gardaí and that they believed people expect them to engage in criminal activity

In part one, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman told Noteworthy that “there’s ingrained institutional racism against the Traveller community” and part two found Traveller health is ‘not being prioritised’ despite ‘shocking’ outcomes for children. Part three revealed that ‘misuse’ of reduced school days is leaving a generation of Traveller children ‘lost’.

Increase of young Travellers in detention

There is already a disproportionate number of young Travellers in detention in Ireland and this jumped by almost 40% in 2020. 

Young people under 18 who have been sentenced or remanded by the Irish courts system are detained in Oberstown Children Detention Campus in north county Dublin. The majority detained there are boys, with only three girls (2.5%) detained last year. 

There were 24 young Travellers in Oberstown in 2019 which made up 19% of the total number of young people detailed there. However, this increased to 32 in 2020 or 26% of the total, according to Oberstown’s annual report

This is also an increase on figures reported by the snapshot reports – published with figures from the first quarter of 20172018 and 2019. These reported young Travellers made up 23%, 22% and 19% of the population during these respective quarters.

This is significantly higher than it should be in proportion to the number of Travellers under 18, making up just 1.2% of the general population in the last Census in 2016. 

This is also an over-representation of Travellers in the adult prison population, where it was estimated in 2017 by the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service that Travellers accounted for 10% of the male and 22% of the female prison population. 

Speaking at the Joint Oireachtas Committee, Mark Wilson, director of the Probation Service, said that Travellers represent 11.3% of people seen by the Probation Service which he said were the latest ethnicity statistics available.

Fergal Black, Director of Care and Rehabilitation in the Irish Prison Service, gave the committee figures from the last ethnicity survey. He reported that Castlerea Prison in Co Roscommon had 95 people who identified as Travellers – 31% of that prison’s population, “which is an indictment of the over-representation [of Travellers] in our criminal justice system”.

Though already high, these prison system figures are most likely an under-representation “due to the lack of consistent and accurate data collection” – including ethnicity – by the Irish Prison Services, according to Pavee Point. 

Representatives from both the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service mentioned work to improve on the existing efforts at the Joint Oireachtas Committee, with Wilson stating that they have worked extensively with the Travellers in Prison Initiative “in the area of ethnic data collection” to its improve accuracy and consistency.

Experts have said a number of factors contribute to the over-representation of the Traveller community in the criminal justice system, besides the possibility of overly-punitive sentencing, including poverty, exclusion, discrimination, a lack of access to housing and educational disadvantages. These issues start for Travellers at a very early age, they said, and early intervention is needed to prevent the ongoing cycle.

A poor relationship and lack of trust between Travellers – including children – and those working in the criminal justice system is also a factor. 

‘They dislike us, I don’t know why’

Traveller children, aged 12-14, who spoke to Noteworthy reported feeling fear around interactions with gardaí and that they believe gardaí assume they will do something criminal. 

When asked what they believe gardaí think about Travellers, three of the children said “bad” at the same time.

“They dislike us, I don’t know why,” one of the girls said.

“I think most people expect us to do bad things, or make us out as bad people,” another girl said.

“The guards think, if someone robbed something, most likely it’s Travellers,” another told us. 

The children also gave several examples of being wrongfully accused of shoplifting by security guards. One boy said:

Supermarket shelves in background with quote by young Traveller boy wrongly approached for shoplifting: Me and my cousin both bought bars of chocolate and we walked out of the shop. The security guard came up and tried to check our pockets. We walked away, but it was uncomfortable. Source: Trong Nguyen via Shutterstock

One of the girls said she was with her mother at a shop when two gardaí stopped them and asked them to empty their pockets.

“It was scary,” she said. “There was nothing in our pockets. I started crying.”

She said they apologised after she became upset.

All of the children said they were afraid of gardaí and that they also notice their parents’ anxiety when they see gardaí.

“My daddy, if we’re driving past guards, he’ll turn around really quick even though we all have our belts on and he’ll say ‘put on your belts in case the guards pull us over’,” one of the boys told us.

A community worker with the group said two gardaí had come to give a talk to the children at their community centre and this had been a positive experience. However she said one of these gardaí was later called to an incident at the halting site and when the children recognised him and tried to talk to him, he “ignored them”.

The only positive example they could think of came from one of the boys, who said if he sees a garda he sometimes give them a thumbs up and “they would actually do it back 99.9% of the time”.

When asked whether they felt like the gardaí would help them if something bad happened to them or their families all of the children in the group replied “no”. They would be reluctant to even call for help, they said.

“People can be arguing and if anyone gets physical you need to call the guards so they don’t hurt each other very badly,” one girl said. “And sometimes they don’t come at all until the whole thing’s over and everyone’s back in their houses. They take their time coming anyways.”

John Paul Collins, drug and alcohol community development worker at Pavee Point, said the negative relationship between Travellers and gardaí “starts at a very young age”. 

“It has always been a negative relationship with guards back to the very start, in terms of them coming on site and incidents being overpoliced, being heavy-handed,” he said.

“It’s usually the case that they’d come in fives or tens, cars and vans, sometimes dressed in riot gear and that’s the sort of stuff young kids are seeing. That puts a block straight away to develop any relationship.

Kids are around and listening and absorbing what the guards say and what their parents and other Travellers say. What the children are seeing is only negative behaviour, the only time they see a guard on site is when incidents happen, they’re not seeing a community guard on site trying to build relationships with them.

As mentioned by the children who spoke to Noteworthy, Collins said the response can be at the other end of the spectrum with gardaí arriving late or not at all when they are called to an incident at a halting site.

John Paul Collins - wearing a white shirt - standing at a podium at an event John Paul Collins says the negative relationship between Travellers and gardaí starts at a very young age Source: Derek Speirs via Pavee Point

An Garda Síochána has made a number of policy and resourcing changes in recent years to ensure a more sensitive and considered approach to violence against women in the home. However Collins said there is “no notion of this” in responses to domestic violence calls from the Traveller community.

He said there is a genuine fear that the gardaí will “make things worse”.

“Unfortunately that has been the experience, they come in all booted up and don’t handle the situation in a positive way,” he said.

“Some have even said at incidents that it’s just part of our culture – violence and domestic violence. It’s ridiculous for someone in that profession to say something like that.”

‘Housing, poverty, mental health and trauma’

Speaking to the Oireachtas committee yesterday, Anne Costello of TPI said some of the causes of Travellers’ over-representation in prison are historic.

International research on minority ethnic groups, she said, identified causes such as the disruption of culture and traditions and a denial of identity as well as the process of stripping minorities of land, culture, language, laws and customs.

In Ireland these issues date back to the report of the Commission on Itinerancy in 1963 which stated that there was a “problem of the presence of itinerants in considerable numbers”. This report stated that “itinerants as a class would disappear within a generation”.

Since then, there have been many laws and policies introduced, which have had a negative impact on Travellers’ way of life and legitimate ways to make a living. And it wasn’t until 2017 that the government formally recognised travellers as an ethnic minority.

Costello also spoke of other causes such as the effects of poverty and exclusion, noting that the unemployment rate among Travellers is 80%, and 39% of Travellers are homeless or living in very overcrowded conditions

Noteworthy has extensively covered the stark outcomes facing Travellers children in health and education in the other parts of this investigative series – and will be examining housing next week. 

Women, she said, face particular issues:

“Before imprisonment they have issues with housing, poverty, mental health and trauma. We did some research with Traveller women in prison and they all faced those issues.”

Discrimination, both by State services and in the criminal justice system, is also contributing to the issue, Costello told the committee.

An ESRI report in 2017 found that Travellers are over 22 times more likely to experience discrimination in access to private services than white settled people.

An internal garda survey conducted between 2012 and 2014 found not one frontline garda had a favourable view of the Traveller community.

Discrimination was also evident among garda ethnic liaison officers – now known as diversity officers – with just 32% saying they had a good opinion of Travellers after joining the force. Before joining, 45% of these ethnic liaison officers said they had a poor or very poor opinion of the community.

An Garda Síochána did not respond to a number of questions from Noteworthy on specific measures in the Garda Youth Diversion Programme targeted at young Travellers, allegations of over-policing, and cultural awareness training provided to gardaí.

‘More work to do to prevent discrimination’

For advocates, one solution to these high detention rates in young Travellers was the State’s Youth Justice Strategy. In their submission as part of consultation last year, Pavee Point wrote that the strategy “should seek to support the families of Travellers and Roma to divert young people away from crime”. It continued:  

“Research shows strong links between youth offending and child and family welfare issues and therefore offending behaviour should not be considered in isolation.” 

Their submission called on “specific measures and initiatives for Travellers and Roma” to be included. It also quoted a European Commission Assessment of Ireland in 2016 that stated:

EU flags in the background with quote from the European Commission Assessment of Ireland 2016: When evidence shows a clear gap between the situation of Roma and Travellers versus the rest of society, policies should be adjusted and specific measures should also be developed. Source: Ugis Riba via Shutterstock

Antiracism and cultural competency training was one action Pavee Point called for in their submission, according to Corrine Doyle, Drug and Alcohol Programme Coordinator at Pavee Point. This is important “for people working with Travellers in diversion programmes or detention centres so they have an understanding of Traveller culture and barriers faced and the additional work needed”.  

In his opening statement yesterday, Fergal Black of the Irish Prison Service told the Joint Committee of “the introduction of awareness training for new prison staff on the issues arising for Travellers and areas of discrimination” over the past six years through the prison service’s partnership with the Travellers in Prison Initiative.

In the youth justice system, Pavee Point has completed some information sessions at Oberstown but Doyle said the organisation was given no additional resources for this. Given the high turnover of both staff and residents at the centre, she said this type of information programme would have to operate on a more regular basis to be effective.

“Challenging some of the bias and even unconscious bias and trying to work through that, that can’t just be done in information sessions.” 

John Paul Collins, the community development worker, said that their organisation has also delivered “anti racism and cultural competency training to garda recruits” over the years.

He said that Pavee Point has had ongoing discussions with the garda training college at Templemore and with senior gardaí, including the current Commissioner, and has stressed the need for this training to be a credited module for recruits, rather than a once-off discussion.

They should be marked on it and it should be delivered either by Traveller organisations or we’d do a training course for senior gardai to deliver it. A once-off [class] for 250 recruits doesn’t do it.

He said this type of training should be part of continuous professional development for gardaí, particularly when it comes to promotions.

Seamus Beirne, Equality, Inclusion and Diversity Lead at the Irish Prison Service, told the committee that measuring the impact of this training “can be difficult”. He added they intend to conduct a survey and monitor attitudes to help measure the impact, though this was delayed due to Covid. He added:

“There is a certain culture in Ireland, and a prison is a microcosm of the country. So, changing a culture takes a while.”

On this, Fergal Black said: “We have more work to do to prevent discrimination – that’s the honest answer.”

On training, the Travellers in Prison Initiative’s Costello concluded at the committee that it “works with some people” and they had success with probation staff. She continued:

“With other staff and other organisations, where you’ve got deeply embedded racist attitudes, the only response is zero tolerance. The prison is a very hierarchical organisation – I think it needs to come from the very top – that there will be consequences for racist behaviour. And I think that’s where you’ll see real change.”

Department aware of ‘additional action’ required

Noteworthy sought correspondence and memos within the Department of Justice that mentioned Travellers in relation to the Youth Justice Strategy in the months leading up to its publication in April.

Just five records were found through the freedom of information (FOI) request, but from these it is clear that DOJ officials knew of the extra challenges facing young Travellers.  

In February 2021, at a meeting and presentation between DOJ officials and a person from the School of Law in UL, it was noted that “the Youth Justice Strategy will ensure a greater focus on such groups (Traveller, Roma and migrant groups), with Travellers being a particular challenge that requires additional action”.  

Yet, when the Youth Justice Strategy was published two months later, Travellers only received two mentions – both alongside a number of other groups  – and there were no Traveller-specific actions listed. 

In the ‘Disadvantage and Diversity’ section, Travellers were included in a wide-ranging group that the strategy emphasised “the need for State and State-funded services to engage effectively with”. This is the list as it is written:  

Poverty, Children and Young People in State Care, Travellers and other Ethnic Communities, Mental Health, Neuro-Diversity, Homelessness, Children of Prisoners, Childhood Trauma, Coercive Control, Addiction, Gender Differences, Disability, Differences in Maturity and Individual Learning abilities.

The only action Travellers are mentioned in, is in relation to the continued development of Garda Youth Diversion Projects, with an action to ensure these projects “reach all relevant young people in the community, including those from minority and hard-to-reach groups (such as young people of migrant background, Traveller and Roma communities)”. 

Strategy ‘quite weak in the context of Travellers’

Pavee Point’s Doyle said it was “frustrating” that the Youth Justice Strategy was “quite weak in the context of Travellers” as it did not include any initiatives targeted specifically at Travellers.  

She said that the organisation spent time on a detailed submission that called for targeted initiatives and said there is “nothing specific” in the strategy “for young Travellers, to address reoffending”. 

Corrine Doyle, Drug and Alcohol Programme Coordinator at Pavee Point  - wearing a black polo neck speaking at a podium - with quote: The current rehabilitation programmes that target youth offenders are not proving effective in addressing the reoffending of Travellers and Roma. Source: Photo - Derek Speirs via Pavee Point

In prisons, she said there are Traveller liaison officers and other Traveller-targeted initiatives but this is not happening in youth detention. 

“It’s seen as a one-size-fits-all,” she said, and added that Travellers often do not engage with mainstream services and programmes due to a lack of trust.  

“There are community programmes and youth services and garda youth diversion projects but within those there needs to be Traveller specific initiatives.”

Collins said Pavee Point does not want to see a segregation of services, but he said Traveller-specific initiatives should be put in place to act as “a bridge into mainstream services”. He said this would help to address poor engagement with general youth services and programmes. 

When asked why the DOJ did not include Traveller-specific actions, a spokesperson told Noteworthy that there is a specific action within the strategy “to ensure that the existing network of  Youth Diversion Projects reach all relevant young people in the community”. They added: 

There is a specific focus on minority and hard-to-reach groups including those from the Traveller Community.

The spokesperson said that “as part of a public consultation process, a number of submissions from individuals and groups, including from representatives of the Traveller Community, were received” which shaped its content. 

The team also asked if the DOJ has plans for any Traveller-specific youth justice programmes. The spokesperson said that “the immediate priority within the Strategy is the enhancement of engagement with children and young people who are most at risk of involvement in criminal activity, principally through strengthening the services available through the existing network of 105 Youth Diversion Projects.”

Youth Diversion Projects received an extra €6.7m in Budget 2022. The DOJ stated that these services will be enhanced to provide early intervention and engagement with more challenging children and young people as well as other supports. 

Pavee Point is one of the organisations to be invited to attend the Youth Justice Advisory Group, which according to one of the DOJ emails Noteworthy received through FOI “makes up part of the oversight structures” for the new strategy. The email stated:  

“The Advisory Group will include a range of state, community and expert stakeholders similar to the steering Group which has informed the development of the Strategy.” 

Other groups that the DOJ included in their list in this email were the Children’s Rights Alliance, Irish Penal Reform Trust, National Disability Authority and a representative from the Drugs Task Force.  

Doyle welcomed the fact that Pavee Point had been invited onto this group, as she is hopeful that they can lobby for some of the initiatives they suggested in their submission. However the lack of commitments in the strategy to Traveller-targeted programmes mean they will be “competing with other groups” within the wider ‘migrant and hard to reach’ group cited in the strategy. 

“It doesn’t mean these things won’t be brought in under other actions but it does dilute Traveller actions.” 

***   

Noteworthy would like to take an in-depth look at the experience of Travellers in the wider justice system as part of our BLIND JUSTICE project – currently over 70% funded. Find out how you can help get it over the line >>

Design for Tough Start project - An old football that has too little air in it sitting on the side of the road.

This article is part of our TOUGH START investigation which is being led by Maria Delaney of Noteworthy and Michelle Hennessy of The Journal. 

This Noteworthy investigation was done in collaboration with The Journal. It was funded by you, our readers, with support from The Journal as well as the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs. 

You can support our work by submitting an idea, funding for a particular proposal or setting up a monthly contribution to our general investigative fund HERE>>

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About the author:

Maria Delaney and Michelle Hennessy

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