Sarah Horgan went to Cork Prison on Sunday to speak with
inmates about how a Samaritans listening service is changing their
lives by reducing bullying and mental health issues
AN INCARCERATED Cork man said that an in-house listening service run by the Samaritans is putting an end to Cork Prison’s macho culture, resulting in less bullying and mental health issues among inmates.
John was speaking at an event for graduates of the Samaritans’ Prison Listener Service training programme held at Cork Prison on Sunday.
The initiative gives prisoners the chance to offer peer support to fellow inmates.
It means listeners are available 24/7 to allow inmates vent their problems and anxieties.
John spoke of how the programme has made prisoners more understanding of a new inmate’s behaviour.
“In the old jail, prisoners who preferred their own company got a name for being stuck up,” he said.
“We realise now that people’s problems run deeper than that. Bullying doesn’t gain you status in here any more. Prisoners are more open-minded. There’s a lot more respect than before. You can admit to being homosexual now and nobody will judge you.”
He spoke of the issues facing prisoners.
“You don’t have a lot of privacy. That can be hard,” said John.
“You’re spending 16 or 17 hours in a cell with someone.
“Prison is viewed as this macho place where you can’t express your feelings but that’s all changing now. Before the cell door closed at 7pm and you had nobody to talk to.
Now if you are experiencing negative thoughts and you need a listener at 3.30am, that can be facilitated.”
John hopes that his listening skills will help him on the outside.
“When we see news about people doing well on the outside it gives us hope,” he said. “A lot of prisoners will think: ‘If he can do it so can I.’ ”
The prisoner said that many inmates enjoy chatting outside of the listening service too.
“We’re mad into the gossip here. The only difference is we’re on the inside.
“We’ll watch the soaps, including Coronation Street. There’s a storyline in Eastenders at the moment and everyone’s dying to know how it will play out. Everyone has been talking about it.”
Another prisoner told of how opening up about his own experiences led him to become a listener.
“I was carrying my own problems and didn’t finally open up until I got to prison,” he said. “Now, even though I’m in prison, I’ve never felt so free in all my life. Going forward to train and listen to people was the best thing I ever did.”
He recalled the day he opened up about his own problems.
“It happened after I had an experience in my cell one night,” he said.
“I thought I was having a heart attack. It was so overwhelming I promised myself that if I ever got out of this pain I would tell someone what had happened to me.
“I spoke to a member of the clergy who taught me the true value of being listened to.
“Looking back, if I had been more open about my problems and experiences I wouldn’t be where I am today. Instead, I opted to live with the shame and embarrassment.
“You’re afraid of what people will think and that you’ll be judged. For over 50 years what happened to me destroyed my life.
“I went into prison emotionally, physically, and spiritually scarred. You have to remember that people are the same as you. If you’re carrying something around being open is the only way you’ll ever be free of it.”
He described how the listening service has the potential to change lives.
“When they face up to their problems it’s half the battle. It might be a small thing to other people but to the person with the problem, it’s life-changing.
He reiterated how important the service is for new prisoners. Referring to his first night in prison, he said: “I was crying and terrified. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Listening to people was the best thing I ever did.”
Another prisoner said the service is putting an end to the “old school mentality” of prisoners.
“That transition of adjustment is very difficult,” he said.
“The old school mentality of prisoners was all about acting macho and not expressing your feelings. That mentality is fading.
“This is a different generation with morals and ethics. I found the listening programme really beneficial.
“It helped me connect with people more empathetically. Listening to someone makes you realise you’re not the only one with problems.”
Mike Regan from the Cork Samaritans reiterated the importance of the service.
“Prison is a different world so the programme is tailor-made especially for prisoners,” said Mike.
“Listening to how it has helped people overcome their own problems is a huge achievement for us. We see the difference it makes to the listeners, but it has also given us an awareness of what happens in people’s lives.”
Prison governor Pat Dawson was also present.
“This will be our seventh graduation,” he said. “Since 2002 our approach to risk management has become a lot more sophisticated.
“The peer support model has allowed everyone to work together as a community. It’s made it a better place for everybody.”